Navassa Island is a small, uninhabited island in the Caribbean Sea. It is an unincorporated territory of the United States administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, Bill Warren has advanced a claim against the island (using the Guano Islands Act), and it is also claimed by Haiti.
Navassa Island is about two square miles (5.2 kmē). It is located in a strategic location 160 km south of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, about one-fourth of the way from Haiti to Jamaica in the Jamaica Channel. The island's latitude and longitude is 18°25'N, 75°2'W.
The terrain of Navassa Island consists mostly of exposed rock, but with enough grassland to support goat herds. There are also dense stands of fig-like trees and scattered cactus on the island.
In 1504, Christopher Columbus, stranded on Jamaica, sent some crew members by canoe to Hispaniola for help. They ran into the island on the way, but it had no water. They called it Navaza, and it was avoided by mariners for the next 350 years.
It was claimed by Peter Duncan, an American sea captain, in 1857 under the Guano Islands Act of 1856 because of its guano deposits, the third island to be claimed under this act. These deposits were actively mined from 1865 to 1898. Haiti protested the annexation and claimed the island, but the U.S. rejected the claim.
Guano phosphate was a superior organic fertilizer that became a mainstay of American agriculture in the mid-19th century. Duncan transferred his discoverer's rights to his employer, an American guano trader in Jamaica, who sold them to the just-formed Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore. After an interruption for the U.S. Civil War, the Company built larger mining facilities on Navassa with barrack housing for 140 African-American contract laborers from Maryland, houses for white supervisors, a blacksmith shop, warehouses, and a church. Mining began in 1865. The workers dug out the guano by dynamite and pick-axe and hauled it in rail cars to the landing point at Lulu Bay, where it was sacked and lowered onto boats for transfer to the Company barque, the S.S. Romance. Railway tracks eventually extended inland.
Hauling guano by muscle-power in the fierce tropical heat with harsh rules enforced by abusive white supervisors eventually provoked a rebellion on the island in 1889. Five supervisors died in the fighting. A U.S. warship returned eighteen of the workers to Baltimore for three separate trials on murder charges. An African-American fraternal society, the Order of Galilean Fisherman, raised money to defend the miners in federal court, and the defense rested its case on the contention that the men acted in self-defense or in the heat of passion and that in any case the United States did not have proper jurisdiction over the island. The cases went as one to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 1890, which ruled the Guano Act constitutional, and three of the miners were scheduled for execution in the spring of 1891. A grass-roots petition drive by black churches around the country, also signed by white jurors from the three trials, reached President Benjamin Harrison, however, who commuted the sentences to imprisonment.
Guano mining resumed on Navassa but at a much reduced level. The Spanish-American War of 1898 forced the Phosphate Company to evacuate the island and file for bankruptcy, and the new owners abandoned the place to the boobey birds after 1901.
A 1999 photo of the Navassa Island Light. The lightkeepers quarters appear in the backgound.
Navassa became significant again with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Shipping between the American eastern seaboard and the Canal goes through the passage between Cuba and Haiti. Navassa, which had always been a hazard to navigation, needed a lighthouse. The U.S. Lighthouse Service built Navassa Island Light, a 162 foot (46 m) tower on the island in 1917, 395 feet (120 m) above sea level. A keeper and two assistants were assigned to live there until the U.S. Lighthouse Service installed an automatic beacon in 1929. After absorbing the Lighthouse Service in 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard serviced the light twice each year. The U.S. Navy set up an observation post for the duration of World War II. The island has not been inhabited since then.
In September 1996, the United States Coast Guard ceased operations and maintenance of Navassa Island Light.
A scientific expedition from Harvard University studied the land and marine life of the island in 1930. Since World War II, amateur radio operators have landed frequently to broadcast from the territory, which is accorded "country" status by the International Radio Relay Union. Fishermen, mainly from Haiti, fish the waters around Navassa.
On August 29, 1996, the U.S. Coast Guard dismantled the light on Navassa. An inter-agency task force headed by the U.S. Department of State transferred the island to the U.S. Department of the Interior. By Secretary's Order No. 3205 of January 16, 1997, the Interior Department assumed control of the island and placed the island under its Office of Insular Affairs. A 1998 scientific expedition led by the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington D.C. described Navassa as "a unique preserve of Caribbean biodiversity." The island's land and offshore ecosystems have survived the twentieth century virtually untouched. The island will be studied by annual scientific expeditions for the next decade at least.
By Secretary's Order No. 3210 of December 3, 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assumed administrative responsibility for Navassa, which became a National Wildlife Refuge Overlay. The Office of Insular Affairs retains authority for the island's political affairs and judicial authority is exercised directly by the nearest U.S. Circuit Court. Access to Navassa is hazardous and visitors need permission from the Fish and Wildlife Office in Puerto Rico in order to enter its territorial waters or land.
The island is ringed by vertical white cliffs nine to 15 meters high and is composed of raised coral and limestone plateau, mostly exposed rock, but with dense stands of fig-like trees and scattered cactus, and enough grassland to support goat herds. Transient Haitian fishermen and others camp on the island but the island is otherwise uninhabited. It has no ports or harbors, only offshore anchorages, and its only natural resource is guano; there is no economic activity.