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Did the U.S. steal an island covered in bird poop from Haiti? A fortune is in dispute

For more than 160 years, the United States and Haiti have disputed the ownership of tiny Navassa Island.
For more than 160 years, the United States and Haiti have disputed the ownership of tiny Navassa Island at the southwest entrance of the Windward Passage covered with what was once worth a king’s ransom. More than a century later, the question remains: Who owns the poop?
For more than 160 years, the United States and Haiti have disputed the ownership of tiny Navassa Island at the southwest entrance of the Windward Passage covered with what was once worth a king’s ransom. More than a century later, the question remains: Who owns the poop?
Published Nov. 26, 2020

MIAMI — When the eccentric rapper Kanye West made headlines last month claiming the president of Haiti had gifted him an island to which a Texan had already laid development claims, it was not the only island off Haiti’s coast in dispute.

For more than 160 years, the United States and Haiti have disputed the ownership of tiny Navassa Island at the southwest entrance of the Windward Passage covered with what was once worth a king’s ransom. More than a century later, the question remains: Who owns the poop?

Known as La Navase in French, the pear-shaped island is located about 35 miles west of Haiti’s southern peninsula, 85 miles northeast of Jamaica and 95 miles south of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Covered in bird poop and managed as a national wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is claimed by Haiti and included in the very constitution that President Jovenel Moise is currently trying to rewrite.

“The United States has no valid claim over Navassa Island,” said Fritz Longchamp, a former Haiti foreign minister who in 1998 had to deal with the U.S.’s revived claims to the deserted outpost while serving in then-Haitian president Rene Preval first cabinet.

“All they have,” Longchamp said about the U.S. government, which has claimed the rocky coral island since 1857 and in 1999 established a wildlife refuge there, “is a congressional act, called the Guano Act and it only has jurisdiction over the United States; nobody else.”

The Guano Islands Act of 1856 allowed adventure-seeking Americans to claim any abandoned or unclaimed islands with guano — the highly valuable 19th-century compost that comes from the excrement of seabirds and bats — on behalf of themselves and the United States.

An early example of American overseas expansion, the act was passed by Congress to break Peru’s international hold on guano and give American farmers access to the bird droppings.

Though the U.S. has since turned over jurisdiction of some of these bird islands, it continues to lay claim to Navassa. And so does a California treasurer hunter, Bill Warren, who says he purchased the three-mile-square island from a descendant of one of its last inhabitants.

Gerald Patnode, a university professor, said his great-grandfather James A. Woodward arrived on Navassa in 1899, a year after race riots there left five white supervisors dead and more than a dozen black laborers facing murder and manslaughter charges in the United States. Woodward was the general manager for the Baltimore phosphate company mining the bird droppings on Navassa and was on and off Navassa until around 1903.

“There were a lot of big stories about how he and his men were abandoned on the island because the company had gone bankrupt and they couldn’t get them back,” said Patnode, who is currently working on a historical fiction novel set on Navassa. “My grandmother pleaded with, I believe it was President (William) McKinley at the time, to send a navy ship to bring him and his men home.”

Patnode said according to family history, Woodward and a few of his partners eventually bought the island at an auction in New York after the phosphate company went bankrupt, hoping to restart the mining. Patnode, who once told his story on Haiti radio, said he met Warren after reading a story about his interest in Navassa.

“I contacted him and told him my history,” said Patnode, who provided documents and historical records of his connection to the island. He later gave Warren a quick-claim deed to the island, he said, to help him in his pursuit.

“I’m not sure how valuable (the guano) is at this point in time,” said Patnode who teaches leadership and entrepreneur at York College in Pennsylvania. “I’m thinking mining it would be very difficult. I’ve actually been there and it’s not a very hospitable place. I know people have talked about turning it into a resort and now it’s a wildlife refuge because of the reefs. But it doesn’t have any water, has all kinds of issues with it. All of the accounts we’ve managed to get from people who were mining it is it was a pretty dismal and nasty place to be.”

Warren, 66, says “America stole the island from Haiti,” and “legally speaking Haiti owns the island.” Still, he’s looking to exercise his claim to Navassa in order to mine the guano, which has been making a come back in popularity with the increased demand for organic foods.

Warren was originally interested in Navassa because of its diving possibilities, and Warren believes its waters, popular among Haitian fisherman, abounds with shipwrecks. Then, he said, he “learned the value of guano, bird s---.”

“Solid bird s---,” he said, laughing. “It is the world’s best fertilizer and it’s in constant demand.”

In a meeting with Haitian officials, Warren said, he once offered to give 50% of the profits from the bird droppings to help Haitians plant crops.

“I was doing my best as an American citizen to give jobs to people; to think of a place where my divers and I could find sunken treasures ... or do something with Haiti,” said Warren, noting that he’s received hate mail from Haitians about his effort to claim Navassa. “I tell them, ‘I am not your enemy. It’s my government who’s your enemy.’”

In 1997, Warren unsuccessfully sued U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in the U.S. District Court after the federal government refused to set a bond price for the purchase of Navassa. The case, he said, was dismissed without prejudice, which means that he can resubmit his claim.

The court, Warren said, told him that he could not legally own Navassa because he could not prove “that it was owned by the people who I bought it from.”

Stuck in western Ukraine for the past seven months because of COVID-19, he has put his time to good use, Warren said, researching State Department documents about the island’s ownership history.

He believes he has found evidence of three deeds showing the transfer of ownership of the island from Peter Duncan, the American boat captain who first claimed the island under the Guano Act, to a business partner in the Navassa Phosphate Company, which spent decades having black laborers scrape the bird droppings off the limestone. Warren believes the deeds are housed in the National Archives in Washington.

“Because of the coronavirus the emails I received from those people who work there say, “I can’t do much work for you because of the virus,’” he said. “The government said the island wasn’t owned and it was owned.

“I am told by my lawyers and friends and historians that if I can walk back into court ... and show that deed, I own the island,” Warren said.

In addition to his Navassa guano claims, Warren said, he has guano claims at the State Department on two other islands, Serranilla Bank and Baho Nuevo Bank. More like reefs, the territories are located near Jamaica in the Western Caribbean. But none has a history as intriguing as Navassa.

“The island has a fascinating history with the torture of the black slaves, how they rioted and killed some of the white masters,” Warren said. “They had torture racks on the island. They didn’t pay them most of the times so the men couldn’t go back to their families who were from Baltimore and from Navassa, North Carolina. There is a town there today named Navassa.”

The North Carolina town of Navassa, which has a population of about 1,800, is in Brunswick County, It was named after the Navassa Guano Factory, a fertilizer company that harnessed guano from the island of Navassa and later shipped the fertilizer throughout the state for North Carolina for sale.

Baruch Herzfeld, a New York entrepreneur who has always been fascinated with history of Navassa Island, said the United States’ claim, its exploitation of guano and lingering refusal to correct a historical wrong, exemplifies how the “whole world” viewed Haiti because it had become the world’s first black republic by defeating the French and breaking the shackles of slavery.

“The whole thing is a legacy of racism from 100 years ago,” Herzfeld said. “I think now with (President-elect Joe) Biden coming into power, he really should make this part of his foreign policy. He has the ability with one stroke of a pen to now say that this island belongs to the Haitian people when it doesn’t cost Americans anything. They aren’t doing anything with it. They don’t need it strategically anymore. It’s stupidity. Give the island back.”

Herzfeld, who is the founder of Zeno Media, an audio aggregator that promotes Haitian radio stations, recalled the attitude of a lot of Haitians during a visit where he raised the issue of Navassa. In a country where people don’t often see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues, Herzfeld said there was widespread agreement about the territory’s ownership.

“I spoke to all of the rabble rousers, all of the radio hosts and all felt strongly this island should be given back to Haiti,” Herzfeld said. “There is no question, in my opinion, that morally that island belongs to the people of Haiti. And I don’t understand how anybody can think otherwise; a guy who finds a piece of paper that belonged to somebody. I am sure all of these papers don’t benefit the true owners of the island, the people of Haiti.”

The United States’ claim on Navassa dates back to Peter Duncan. After coming across the guano-covered island, he took possession of it on Sept. 19, 1857, according to an 1891 Supreme Court case his widow later filed against the Navassa Phosphate Company.

Duncan described the outpost as being formed of volcanic limestone, and looking like a petrified sponge while “shaped like an oyster shell.” Two months after discovering the island’s existence, he filed a claim in the Department of State under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, his widow said.

Duncan would later grant his interest and title in the island to Baltimoreans Edward O. Cooper and his son, Edward K. Cooper. They mined the guano along with the Navassa Phosphate Company by having ex-convicts and freed black laborers from Maryland dig out the dung from between the rocky limestone.

When Haiti Emperor Faustin-Elie Soulouque learned in 1858 about the mining, he dispatched Haitian warships to Navassa to proclaim Haiti’s sovereignty and to force the workers to stop. The Coopers called for U.S. military protection under the Guano Act, and U.S. Secretary of State Lewis Cass soon dispatched an American military ship.

Haiti soon retreated. But it would later fight in court for its rights to the islands, and the question would eventually be put before the U.S. Supreme Court after the workers’ revolt, according to the book “The Great Guano Rush: Entrepreneurs and American Overseas Expansion” by Jimmy M. Skaggs.

In challenging the U.S.’s ownership, Haiti in 1872, argued that Christopher Columbus’ 1493 discovery of the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republican, included Navassa. When Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola in the 1697 Treaty of Rijswijk to France, which renamed it Saint-Domingue, Navassa was included. It was again included in France’s King Charles X’s 1825 recognition of Haiti in return for the payment of 150 million francs.

Though the United States had claimed scores of islands under the Guano Islands Act, Skaggs said Navassa was mined “longer and more extensively than any other island or key.” In 1889, brutal working conditions triggered a violent race riot on the island by the black laborers. Five white supervisors were killed, and more than a dozen black workers faced murder and manslaughter charges.

Returned back to the United States, three of the workers were eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and others were found guilty of manslaughter. When their lawyers appealed the case on the grounds that Navassa wasn’t a U.S. territory, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that it was as part of a review of the constitutionality of the Guano Islands Act.

By the end of the 19th century, the Spanish American War in nearby Cuba was under way and mining of guano on Navassa ended. But the island remained valuable to the United States. With the construction of the Panama Canal completed, the U.S. Coast Guard took over the island and built a lighthouse, viewing it as a strategic location not just because of its proximity to Jamaica but also to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In the mid-’90s, the island once again found itself in the spotlight, this time with a revival of its dormant ownership dispute with Warren’s claim.

Warren said he stumbled on Navassa after picking up a copy of an almanac. He has owned a diving company since 1986, and at the time he was looking “for a place on the planet where my team, company and I could work without government intervention.”

“So many governments have archaeologists and they hate people like me who make money from shipwrecks,” he said.

After contacting the U.S. Coast Guard in 1996, he learned that it was in the process of abandoning the lighthouse there and transferring the island to the U.S. Interior Department. Warren said he was invited by the captain of the Coast Guard to go with him to visit the island and more than one U.S. government official told him that he could “have the island” because no one owned it.

“An interesting thing about the island is there is a hole in the middle of it,” Warren said. “It’s about 60 feet across in diameter and drops down to the level of the sea and you can hear the sea if you put your ears to the edge of this hole and I have often wondered what kind of pirate treasures, and bodies and whatever has been thrown down into that hole.”

After the U.S. government rejected his claim to Navassa under the Guano Islands Act of 1856, Warren sued. In 1998, a team of American scientists from the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation visited Navassa and reported there were over 800 species of wildlife including large seabird colonies and four lizard species previously thought to be extinct. In 1999, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Navassa Island Wildlife Refuge and began administering the island.

A spokesperson with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the wildlife refuge includes the island and the 12 nautical miles area around it.

The agency estimated that over 1 million tons of bird guano was removed from the island between 1865 and 1901. The mining of guano is no longer allowed, the agency said, because it would have an adverse impact on the island’s resources.

“Because of its remoteness, difficult access and important biological resources, the refuge is currently closed to the public,” the spokesperson said. “Numerous scientific expeditions have been made to the island and the Service visits every couple years, due to the logistical difficulties of accessing the island.”

The spokesperson acknowledged the ownership dispute, saying, “Throughout the island’s history, ownership disputes have occurred.”