This is a story about bird shit.
Or rather, to be more precise, guano, the fetid, often petrified feces of the avian world.
A humble substance, but one that once had the power to move men's souls. In ancient times, spices, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, were the coveted commodity that drove Western explorers. Gold, the eternal prize, led the Spanish to conquer the Incas and Aztecs and sent thousands of novice prospectors scrambling into the Californian mountains. Today, oil builds fortunes, causes wars, and elects presidents.
And then there's guano. Prized as a fertilizer, it was what sent men down to the sea in ships in the 19th century. And Baltimore, with its booming port and proximity to nutrient-starved farmlands, was in the thick of this "guano rush." One hundred and forty years ago, the mayor-proclaimed "Greatest City in America" might have claimed a less peppy (but more easily provable) motto: Guano Capital of the Nation.
So yes, in a way, this is a story about bird shit. But it's principally the tale of a teardrop-shaped hunk of forbidding limestone and coral lying in the Windward Passage some 40 miles west of Haiti. This two-square-mile chunk of land has no inhabitants and no fresh water. What it does have is tons of petrified guano. Baltimoreans killed and died on it. African-Americans were virtually enslaved on it, decades after the Civil War. It caused the world's most powerful nation to battle one of the world's poorest. And this obscure rock led an erstwhile California gospel singer to sue President Clinton and the U.S. government. Such is the saga of Navassa Island.
"Guano, though no saint, works many miracles." Peruvian proverb
It's said that Christopher Columbus was the first Westerner to set eyes on Navassa Island, stumbling upon it in 1493. But the desolate, cliff-encircled rock held little allure for the intrepid mariner, and he sailed on.
More than three centuries would pass before Navassa captured the world's attention. That occurred in 1857, when Baltimore ship captain Peter Duncan landed on the island, discovered an estimated 1 million tons of petrified guano, and set about claiming it under a newly minted piece of U.S. legislation called the Guano Islands Act. Passed by Congress the year before, the Guano Islands Act was designed to spur American entrepreneurs to seek out and exploit sources of guano. American agriculture was clamoring for this new and powerful fertilizer, particularly Maryland and Virginia farmers, whose soil had been decimated by decades of rapacious tobacco and cotton production. The act authorized the awarding of mining rights to any explorer who discovered guano on an uninhabited and otherwise unclaimed island. Once some procedural paperwork was completed, the island would be considered to be "appertaining" i.e., belonging to" the United States." In other words, one could essentially hoist the Stars and Stripes over any desolate island, atoll, key, or reef covered in bird droppings. The act was geared to break guano-rich Peru's perceived stranglehold on the market. A series of arid islands off the South American nation's coast serve as a virtual guano factory: Their fish-filled waters attract vast flocks of seabirds, which roost, and shit, on the islands. After tens of thousands of years, the islands were hundreds of feet deep in bird droppings. The ancestors of the Incas had spread guano on their fields at least as far back as 500 a.d. and prized this "white gold" nearly as dearly as their gold gold, but bird poop's value was lost on the conquistadors, who blindly pursued the latter. Guano's value as a fertilizer didn't dawn on the West until the early 19th century (Baltimore's first boatload of bird dung arrived in 1824), but when it did conflict quickly ensued. The Peruvian government tightly controlled delivery of its smelly commodity to the world; U.S. farmers thought they were getting too little and paying too much.
Perhaps Captain Duncan believed he was doing a patriotic duty when he landed on Navassa. In any event, he quickly made money on the deal, selling access to the island to a father-and-son pair of Baltimoreans named Cooper. It was under their watch in 1859 that the U.S. government formally recognized Navassa as federal property. And not a moment too soon: A year before, a pair of Haitian vessels arrived, its occupants proclaiming that Navassa's soil and guano belonged to the nearby island nation. U.S. naval vessels were called out to chase them away. (Haiti continues to claim Navassa, but more on that later.)
It shouldn't come as a surprise that guano-mining is one of the most filthy, foul, dangerous, and degrading jobs conceived by humankind. Fresh guano is putrid and noxious. Petrified guano (such as Navassa's) must be mined with picks and even dynamite. Guano islands invariably lie within sweltering tropical climes, making for sweaty, backbreaking work. (Life and labor were so wretched on the Peruvian guano islands that some miners committed suicide to escape it, in some cases plunging headlong off coastal cliffs.) People willing to do the work were hard to come by.
The Peruvians solved their labor problems by a variety of heinous methods, including kidnapping and slavery. Chinese peasants known as "coolies" were one source of workers. Lured on to Western ships with the promise of new lives in the New World, they sometimes found themselves shackled below deck, not unlike slavery-bound Africans. Freelance slavers, known as "blackbirders," roamed the Pacific islands searching for victims to cart off to the guano mines. In 1862, Easter Island, more than 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, was raided, and all able-bodied men were forced into the guano trade. Only a handful would survive. Easter Island's array of looming stone heads are a great mystery today, largely because those who could read the statues' hieroglyphics died digging guano.
U.S. guano operations never quite reached this level of depravity, but mining on our islands was wretched, dangerous duty, as hundreds of black Baltimoreans would discover firsthand.
"Go to work, you black [bastards], or I'll blow your brains out."Navassa Island Superintendent Dr. Charles Smith, Sept. 14, 1889 (as quoted in the Nov. 22, 1889 Sun)
Ships laden with Navassa guano started arriving in Baltimore in 1857. By special arrangement with the state of Maryland, the Coopers employed prisoners from the state penitentiary, a neat and practical way around the problem of finding miners.
In 1864, they and some additional investors formed the Navassa Phosphate Co. (phosphate being a principal plant nutrient and the main component of the isle's aged guano). The expanded operation soon tapped a new source of miners:
African-Americans. Unskilled, newly freed blacks faced slim job prospects after the Civil War, and the company had little problem finding workers throughout the mid-Atlantic willing to be shipped to the West Indies to dig guano. The workers were paid $8 a month for tours of duty lasting up to 15 months. The black miners were shuttled southward out of Baltimore on the company ship, named, with tragic irony, Romance. Room and board were included in the miner's package, but the former was minimal and the latter nutritionally lacking. (Workers disparagingly referred to some of their provisions as "salt horse.") From dawn to dusk, six days a week, the miners were expected to hack away at the guano deposits, load it into human-powered rail cars, and deliver it to shoreline staging areas for eventual conveyance aboard ship.
Accidents and disease were rampant among the overworked, underfed laborers, but the company was unsympathetic. Workers laid up by injury or illness were charged 50 cents for each day they were idle. The laborer's slim income was also whittled away via a gambit that would be the bane of miners and industrial workers well into the 20th century: the company store. All manner of goods, clothing, food, tobacco, were sold on the island, but at prices marked up as much as threefold. Indeed, the company was painstaking in finding ways to squeeze its black work force. Laborers who didn't want to sleep on the dirt floor of their rudimentary barracks could secure a mat, provided they paid the company a $4 rental fee. Many miners wound up owing more money to the company than they could recoup from their initial tour of duty and were forced to work extra time to cover their debts. As if these hardships weren't enough, workers were also subject to harsh physical punishment whenever a company officer (many of whom wore sidearms) perceived a behavioral infraction. Errant workers were confined to the island "jail," a ventless shed, or strung up by their arms and left to dangle in the tropical sun for hours on end.
If the miners had grievances about their conditions, they had no place to air them. They were isolated and more than 1,000 miles from home. Even their letters were censored. The laborers were totally at the mercy of the company and its better-housed and -fed white overseers.
This situation persisted unabated for more than two decades, until the late summer of 1889. At the time, Navassa was home to 139 black miners and a dozen white bosses. Evidence suggests that some workers had been conspiring to overthrow the company officers for some time, but what occurred on Sept. 14 was no organized uprising. It was a riot. It began when Charles Roby, a particularly cruel company man who oversaw mining operations, badgered and kicked a laborer.
Within seconds, Roby was bashed unconscious with a metal pole and his gun was stolen. Before long, a group of rowdy laborers surrounded the island superintendent's house, demanding better food and treatment. Shots were exchanged between the miners and the several company officials holed up within. The miners pelted the building with stones and, later, sticks of dynamite. When they threatened to assault the structure with a blasting cap, the whites fled in panic.
The riot never ballooned into a bloody free-for-all (indeed, the bulk of the laborers fled into the island's hinterlands rather than participate); the rioters sought out specific targets for their vengeful anger. The most sadistic whites were attacked; others were left unharmed. The overseer of the dread company store was one such target, he was bashed to death with rocks. One hated officer was shot in the face, another was dismembered with a hatchet.
By evening, four despised officers were dead (a fifth was injured and later died of his wounds) and the riot subsided. A British warship was flagged down by superintendent Smith to deliver news of the riot to Baltimore (via a Jamaican telegraph station). U.S. vessels were summoned to deliver the island's population back to Baltimore.
After landing in the city, the miners were marched through the streets to prison. (The "hard featured colored men were gazed at by curious crowds," The Sun reported.) Fifty-four workers where charged with crimes ranging from rioting to first-degree murder; most of the rest were detained as witnesses. The black community rallied behind the workers, raising money through churches and fraternal groups to hire a biracial defense team of six lawyers. The series of trials, four in all, lasted months and were front-page news across the country. The defendants detailed the bad food, slavelike treatment, and corporal punishment. Not surprisingly, company officers painted a much rosier picture of life and labor on
Navassa. Fourteen workers were sentenced to prison and three condemned to the gallows. Even as the trials blazed forward, the Navassa Phosphate Co. resumed mining guano with a new crew of black laborers, without much change in its despicable practices. One black laborer detailed Navassa's brutal work environment in a letter to President Benjamin Harrison, which somehow made its way through company censors and reached the president's desk. Harrison sent a Navy vessel to Navassa to investigate the claims. When reports from the island confirmed much of what the miner had written (and much of what the trials had brought to light), Harrison commuted the death sentences for the three condemned rioters. By now, public sympathies, initially fanned by sensational headlines like "Hunted Down by Negroes!" had shifted in support of the black workers. (Some historians credit the Navassa riot with engendering a labor movement that helped end other heinous workplace practices.)
But it wasn't bad press that brought about the end of the Navassa Phosphate Co. Ready phosphate deposits were discovered in South Carolina and Florida, and the chemical industry began developing inorganic fertilizers. By century's end, guano's glory days were coming to an end. Navassa had to be evacuated in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, and the company fell into receivership. It would never mine Navassa again. In 1916, the island had a new purpose. The United States built a 162-foot-tall lighthouse there to guide that thronged into the Caribbean with the completion of the Panama Canal. Initially manned, the lighthouse was automated in 1929. Its beacon whipped the West Indian skies for decades. In 1996, with most ships navigated by satellites and computers, the U.S. Coast Guard shut off and abandoned the lighthouse. Navassa fell dark.
"I just want to be President, and one of the quickest ways to do that is through guano mining."Bill Warren, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman, Feb. 29, 2000
Growing up in Pasadena, Calif., a continent away from the West Indies, Bill Warren never heard of Navassa Island. But five years ago, he discovered the tiny blip of coral and bird poop in the pages of a world atlas, and his life has never been the same.
"It was exactly what I was looking for," Warren says over the phone from his San Diego home.
The fiftysomething Warren possesses the sort of colorful, eclectic résumé that could perhaps only come out of the Golden State. For years he was a professional gospel singer, and he says he has sung with Kathie Lee Gifford and Della Reese. He's also been a cruise-ship entertainer and TV producer, and names the late Frank Sinatra as "a friend." But perhaps his greatest love is finding and salvaging shipwrecks, a hobby since the early '70s that became his full-time avocation 15 years ago.
Warren has hunted underwater treasure from the coasts of Africa to the waters off Alaska. But finding the wrecks has proved to be only half the battle. Red tape and international squabbles over salvage rights proved to be his main impediment to making a living at it.
"Governments are always bad-mouthing people trying to make a profit off shipwrecks," he says. "We always seek permission to [remove items], but what happens is that pirates and thieves get there first."
It was this frustration that caused him to crack that atlas, seeking an out-of-the way place under the U.S. flag (and thus under U.S. marine-salvage laws) where his business could flourish unmolested. What he found was Navassa, and his excitement over the island's possibilities as a treasure-hunting base grew when he learned that its waters teemed with unexplored wrecks.
"I called the Coast Guard in Miami, and they said they were abandoning the island in a few weeks," Warren says. "They said I could have it."
But it wouldn't be that easy. Warren contacted the General Services Administration, which is charged with releasing or selling surplus government property. And here arose a sticky problem:
The agency had no proof that the United States even owned Navassa. It told Warren he needed to find a deed. This sent him diving into the island's murky legal history. In a California law library he discovered the Guano Islands Act, still on the books, though unused for nearly 100 years. "Bells went off," Warren says, and his focus soon shifted away from Navassa's underwater riches. The real treasure, he figured, was on dry land, the tons of aged bird dung still littering the island. The burgeoning interest in organic gardening, which eschews chemical fertilizers, had made guano a valuable commodity once again. Warren envisioned selling it over the Internet for as much as $5 a pound. His fertile mind even imagined building a resort and casino on the island (and later, a drug rehab center for teens). Even the island's tragic history had value, he thought, and Warren sought a screenwriter to help develop a movie based on the Navassa riots.
But first he needed to acquire the island.
"Nothing in the Guano Act said you couldn't use it on an island that had been already mined," he says. "I flexed my muscles and claimed the island under the Guano Act."
Warren has never set foot on his quarry; he did get the government's permission to visit in 1996 but was late for his flight on a Navassa-bound Coast Guard helicopter. Nevertheless, following the guidelines of the 140-year-old law, he filed an "affidavit of discovery, occupation, and possession" with the State Department.
The government responded with thundering silence. Desperate for news, Warren pestered State officials for months. "They threatened me with arrest if I ever called or sent another fax," he says. "They thought I was a fruitcake. They didn't bother to read the law."
Warren sought the help of perhaps the country's foremost private authority on Navassa, David Billington, a Santa Monica, Calif., historian who once laid his own joking claim to the island and today runs a Web site devoted to it. See David Billington's web site for his view of it and photos and lots of links.
"The island does attract some colorful and some slightly kooky people," says Billington, 47, "and I'm probably one of them." He discovered Navassa in the course of pursuing a boyhood fascination with very small islands and nations, and once even dreamed of starting his own country there. He has never visited the island, but when his interest in micronations led him to embark on a project to distribute surplus books to West Indian schoolchildren in 1976 he declared himself "King of Navassa" to draw attention to the effort. ("I never made a real claim to rule the island," he says. "It was just a fun way to promote my book project.")
But Billington declined to aid Warren's claim (and declines to speak on the record about it). In the meantime, Warren found himself fighting the government on a new front. In January 1997, authority over the island was transferred to the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs. The feds began stressing the importance of protecting Navassa's ecosystem, and renewing guano-mining was not part of the program. (One Interior official, Warren says, equated him with "someone who wanted to go into Yellowstone and mow down all the trees.")
"I told them I'm not interested in hurting the environment," Warren says. "But the Guano Act was alive and well." In a bid to prove it, he sued the United States in the spring of '97, claiming $12 million in lost revenue due to the government's inaction on his claim. (He would amend and expand his suit numerous times in the ensuing years, until the damages reached $50 million and the defendants included Clinton, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.) By the following year, Warren's quest to leverage an obscure bird-dung law into a personal fortune was attracting media attention. A July 1998 Sun article on the subject caught the eye of a 57-year-old Monkton college professor named Gerry Patnode.
"Navassa has been part of our family lore and history for a long time," says Patnode, who teaches economics and marketing at York College in Pennsylvania. "It became a sort of Thanksgiving and holiday tradition to talk about how granddad got screwed out of his island."
"Granddad" is Patnode's great-grandfather, James Woodward, who lived on Navassa off and on for nine years in the 1890s, initially as a mining supervisor with Navassa Phosphate. (Patnode stresses that Woodward was not present during the riots: "He replaced a guy that got hacked up.")
After the company fell into receivership, Woodward formed a partnership with two other Baltimoreans who bought the island at auction in 1901 for $25,000. Like so much surrounding the island, the legal status of the sale is murky; Navassa Phosphate stockholders challenged the transaction. "Nobody knows what the final outcome was," Patnode says, "but it's been family lore that he owned Navassa."
Woodward, who died in in the mid-1950s, would regale the family with tales of his Navassa derring-do, defending the island against Haitian invaders, serving as an American spy during the Spanish-American War. In 1901, he was stranded on the island and President McKinley (at the request of Woodward's frantic wife) sent a naval vessel to rescue him, and he never returned to Navassa. In the early '60s, Patnode himself had his brush with the island, serving on a U.S. Navy destroyer out of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that often used the Navassa lighthouse for navigation.
"I always felt all warm [and] fuzzy, thinking how it was granddad's lighthouse," says Patnode. (But not warm and fuzzy enough to visit: "Oh, it's a horrible, desolate place.")
Intrigued by Warren's legal wranglings, Patnode flew to California to meet with him. "He told me things about my granddad even I didn't know," he recalls. Warren asked Patnode to draft a deed for Navassa, based on the familial claim. And then Patnode sold Warren the island for $2.5 million. (No money changed hands; under the deal, payment would come from future guano profits.) Patnode flew back to Maryland, and Warren, armed with another arrow in his legal quiver, went back to war.
Meanwhile, in August 1998 the Center for Marine Conservation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit environmental advocacy group, launched a major scientific expedition to Navassa, the first such undertaking in decades. It found the isle rife with unique plants and animals.
"When you look at Caribbean environmental issues, Navassa is a jewel in the crown with respects to its number of unique species in a small area," says biologist Michael Smith, who led the expedition to conduct an inventory for Interior's Office of Insular Affairs. "The number of endemic species is phenomenal."
The scientists combed Navassa's approximately 1,200 acres, cataloging numerous lizards, insects, and plants that likely exist nowhere else on Earth. The submerged coral shelf off Navassa's coast is one of the most intact and thriving in the region. Smith stops short of calling the environment pristine, as much as a quarter of the island is still severely scarred from mining operations, and introduced animals (including rats, goats, and feral dogs) have altered the ecosystem as well, but he says it has great ecological significance.
"It's not the quality of the habitat that's important, but the number of unique species," Smith says. "That's what makes Navassa the most significant site in the Caribbean to be set aside for a wildlife preserve." Navassa's appeal for scientists notwithstanding, Smith, who has made two return trips, isn't sanguine about the success of any commercial endeavors. The beachless, scrub-covered island "offers nothing to tempt normal tourists," he says, noting in particular its plethora of venomous scorpions. ("When you zip up your tent at night you can hear them scurrying over it all night long.")
The expedition didn't go unnoticed in nearby Haiti, where claims over the island known there as La Navase go back as far as the early 19th century. Rumors circulated in the impoverished island nation that the U.S. scientists didn't just find rare flora and fauna, but gold, uranium, and even (as some of the more extreme tales suggested) the "gateway to Atlantis." A Haitian oceanographer, convinced that the multitude of unique species have biotechnical and pharmaceutical value, formed the La Navase Island Defense Group and prompted his government to claim the island. This was nothing new; Haiti has made sundry attempts both official and unofficial to claim Navassa over the years, from the 1858 defeat at the hands of the U.S. Navy to a brief 1989 occupation by Haitian radio operators who established "Radio Free Navassa." At a 1998 news conference about the scientific expedition, Interior Secretary Babbitt, discussing the need to keep visitors off the island, joked that the Coast Guard would shoot at any approaching boats, a comment interpreted in Haiti as yet another defiant show of U.S. sovereignty.
"I don't think he was fully briefed on the history of the island," Billington says. "He made statements that made the Haitians feel that America was reasserting its claim to Navassa, making a big issue out of a territorial dispute that had been in the background."
In December 1999, the Interior Department, while maintaining political authority over the island, transferred administrative control of Navassa to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration, a move that solidified the island's status as an environmentally protected area. In the meantime, Warren's lawsuit had been bounced from a California court to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. Reckoning day came last February, when the court ruled against him. The Guano Act, it asserted, provided a one-time, revocable license to occupy and mine an island. On Navassa, the court said, this right was nullified in 1916, when the island was occupied by the government for construction of a lighthouse, a move that was not legally challenged at the time. Warren appealed, but on Dec. 26 the U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington upheld the lower-court ruling. He was simply 85 years too late.
"The statute of limitations had run out," Patnode says. "Essentially they said, 'Maybe [Woodward] did own it, but it's too late now.'" After so many years, Warren is not giving up. He is less interested now in what happened in Washington on Dec. 26 than on what happened Jan. 20. He has taken note of the new president's support for oil drilling in Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge and now pins his hopes on finding a more sympathetic ear for his entrepreneurial efforts in another wilderness preserve.
"My next step is to fly to Washington and get a meeting with [Bush] or one of his aides," Warren says, "and encourage him to get me private ownership [of Navassa] and let me create jobs."
"The Director of the Office of Insular Affairs advises all persons interested in visiting Navassa Island that, having made a preliminary review of the island's ecology, he has decided indefinitely not to allow visits to the island and its surrounding waters." — U.S. Department of the Interior fact sheet
As you read this, turquoise waves pound Navassa Island's formidable cliffs. Lizards sun themselves on ragged coral outcrops and scorpions scuttle among fallen leaves. Remains of a 19th-century mining camp, witness to brutality and bloodshed, crumble into dust.
Forty miles away, Haiti has essentially stopped clamoring for control of Navassa, and its government is unlikely to press the issue in the near future, says Miami lawyer Ira Kurzban, Haiti's legal consul in the United States. As a gesture of goodwill, a Haitian scientist was invited along on the most recent biological expedition to Navassa last spring.
Seven hundred miles away in Puerto Rico, Val Urban, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Caribbean Refuges, contemplates the beautiful headache Navassa has become. "The island is closed to public, but we just have a incredible logistical problems dealing with any kind of enforcement," he says. He hopes to gain funding to post no trespassing signs along its shores, begin a rat-eradication program, and perhaps hire someone to make routine patrols of the island from the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay.
Thirteen hundred miles away in Baltimore, Gerry Patnode passes his great grandfather's adventures on to his own three kids, and recently completed a book about the battle over the island titled Liberating Navassa. He's bemusedly nonchalant about the outcome.
Three thousand miles away in California, the erstwhile King of Navassa continues to amass information about the island and ponder its future. "To my knowledge, this is the only piece of Interior Department territory so far away from the U.S. and so close to areas of concern to American foreign policy, defense, and law enforcement," David Billington says. Navassa is 100 miles from Castro's Cuba, he notes, and lies in a maritime corridor used by drug traffickerspotential sources of new troubles for the island. Soon, the island's would-be owner will be farthest away of all, some 5,000 miles from Navassa, hunting for underwater treasure in the waters of Scotland. "We're going to try and find King Henry the VIII's dinner set in a river," Bill Warren says.
He says he will soldier on in the battle for what he still calls "his island," but Navassa is likely to take less of his energies. He has new quarry: the islands of Serranilla Keys and Baja Nueva, some 400 miles southwest of Navassa, which he is also maneuvering to claim under the 145-year-old mining law. Sovereignty over these desolate rocks is claimed by both the United States and the islands' nearest neighbor, Colombia. But it will take more than rough diplomatic waters to keep Bill Warren from his guano.
"I've been told that
if I proceed to claim these
islands I'll involve America in an international dispute," he says.
"And my reaction is, 'Why should I care?'"