June 30, 2007
By TED WIDMER
IF you sail due south from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, you will eventually come to a tiny tear-shaped island with no beaches, no water and no human beings. Navassa, its enormous limestone cliffs rising straight out of the sea, is the oldest continuous overseas possession of the United States, older than Guantánamo, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska. Older than all of them, Navassa contains American history in microcosm.
Although it came into American possession only 150 years ago, Navassa was first sighted, according to legend, during the second voyage of Columbus in 1493. Thirty miles west of Hispaniola, it was close enough to be noticed but far enough away that its existence was always a bit in doubt. From the beginning it appeared indistinct on maps, a tiny smudge not much bigger than a ladybug on a windshield, in the windward passage between Haiti and Jamaica.
But still, it was there on the first maps when so much of what we now know was not. Around 1507, the year “America” became a word applied to the New World, maps began to show a small island in that spot. And so the cartographers — the first of a long chain of courtiers and empire-builders who, by naming places, pretended to own them — claimed Navassa.
After bursting onto the page of history, Navassa sat quietly for a very long time. During all the wars fought along the Spanish Main, it remained uninhabited except for the occasional pirate crew. After coming into sight, Navassa seems to have become invisible all over again. No one knew or cared where it was until 1857, 364 years after its fabled discovery.
On July 1 that year, an American sea captain happened upon the island and claimed it on the ground that it contained a valuable mineral, known as “white gold.” For millennia, boobies and other seabirds had landed on Navassa, knowing that its sheer cliffs and lack of fresh water made it inhospitable to humans, and therefore pleasant. Navassa became one of the world’s most ample sources of guano — bird excrement — a substance prized for phosphate and its regenerative effects on tired crops.
The island is more or less made of guano. Navassa is a spectacular monument to avian achievement.
The United States Congress quickly placed the island under American jurisdiction based on the Guano Islands Act of 1856. The act, one of history’s more accurately named pieces of legislation, gave permission to the United States, from the United States, to claim any island in the world rich in bird droppings. Consequently, Navassa became an American “appurtenance” — not quite a territory but still indisputably American.
Except the declaration was disputed by the island’s nearest neighbor, Haiti, which has claimed Navassa since its independence in 1804. Haiti bases its rights on Columbus and on early treaties between France and Spain. But few paid attention, in part because Haiti itself was not recognized by the United States at the time since it was governed by people of African descent.
After the Civil War, American business began to cultivate Navassa’s rich bounty. Like most treasure, guano demanded a high price for its extraction. African-American laborers were sent there to dig, under oppressive conditions. Punishments verged on torture, like the policy of “tricing” — hanging laborers by their arms, their feet just touching the ground. In 1889, the workers rebelled, killing five whites.
In 1898, as the United States busily acquired new possessions elsewhere, it lost interest in Navassa. The last Americans were removed from the island in 1901, and it was claimed by the same residents that live there today: rats, birds, scorpions, wild goats and feral dogs.
Humans come back to Navassa now and then. In 1917, a 162-foot lighthouse was built there, in part to light the approach to Panama and the new canal. A lighthouse keeper lived there until 1929, when an automatic beacon was installed. During World War II, an observation post was erected by the Navy. No Nazis were ever sighted.
Responsibility for Navassa has shifted from one government agency to another, each uncertain of who should be in charge of our giant guano lump. For a while Navassa was considered part of the Guantánamo naval base. Then it was part of the Coast Guard. Since 1976, it has been lodged in the Department of the Interior, an unlikely destination for an island that could not be less internal.
There the story would appear to end, the forlorn tale of the little island that couldn’t. But just as Navassa survived war, piracy and the rise and fall of empires, so it appears perfectly able to survive bureaucracy. Now new explorers are visiting. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has undertaken a “remote sensing experiment” to create a detailed topographical map of Navassa that will help monitor the island’s reaction to climate change, hurricanes and the rise of water levels around the world. This seems a fitting result for a place that was never all that comfortably on the map in the first place.
This island, so inhospitable to humans, is in its own way a natural paradise. Navassa may offer the most pristine Caribbean environment left, and in 1999 it was declared a National Wildlife Refuge. A huge number of plant and animal species can be found within its three square miles. Recent investigations have shown the number of known species, once thought to be 150, is closer to 650. Many of these species — lizards, insects and trees — exist nowhere else. One solitary palm, thought to have disappeared in 1928, appears to be the last of its kind. A lonely predicament; but like Navassa, it survives.
These efforts to learn more about Navassa’s environment are not universally appreciated. Many Haitians, resentful of the American interest in Navassa, believe that the science is simply a cover for the same old greed. A lively topic of conversation in Haiti is that the United States has discovered gold on Navassa, or perhaps uranium, or even the gateway to Atlantis, the legendary lost civilization. In 1989, some Haitians occupied Navassa, albeit very briefly. After a couple of hours, they left it to the lizards.
What lies ahead for this remote outpost of American sovereignty? On the 150th anniversary of the year Navassa came into American possession, it feels a bit unseemly to see the world’s richest nation entangled in a dispute with the poorest nation in our hemisphere over a remote rock that no one can live on.
All that Navassa holds for us is the right — or more specifically, the power — of its possession. Perhaps we should celebrate the sesquicentennial by just giving it back — to Haiti, or an international trust or the state of nature itself. It would be a sublime gesture on behalf of freedom in its simplest state.
Would it not confound our critics to witness an American act of pure altruism? Would it not confound them even more if our oldest possession, the birthplace of American imperialism, became the birthplace of a better way of thinking about the way nations interact?
To admit that Navassa does not belong to us, or to anyone, would recognize an earlier condition, more pristine, before the rise of nations and the conflicts that define them. In so doing, we would take a small step toward an ancient and very American aspiration: to make the world new again.
Ted Widmer, the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, is the author of the forthcoming “Ark of the Liberties: America and the World.”