Today da t’ree a we, Habiba, Jacob and I, took a ride out to Coral Bay, which as spoiled as we are, living on a small island with no traffic problems to speak of, somehow seems like driving to the other side of the world.
The purpose of out big journey was to try our hand at video production and shoot some video of Delroy “I-Tal” Anthony.
I Tal is one of the last St. John Culture Bearers, keeping alive the arts, crafts, stories, traditions and music of St. John. So without further ado I invite you to watch our humble attempt at movie making.
It’s another beautiful morning here on St. John in the beautiful Virgin Islands, even more appreciated than usual after what some St. Johnians have called “the lost week,” the rains, preparations and return to normal after Hurricane Omar.
The seas on the north have been rough the last few days, with large swells breaking over Johnson’s Reef and on the beaches of the north shore, a fairly rare condition for this time of the year. These waves, which St. John residents call ground seas, are generally a condition that occurs in the winter.
Wednesday at Trunk Bay, visitors were warned about the dangerous surf conditions and were encouraged to leave upsetting taxi drivers, who spend long hours on line at Trunk waiting for fares and who are generally just squeaking by during this particularly slow, slow season.
Skim Boarding Cinnamon Bay
By yesterday afternoon, the waves were diminishing and at Cinnamon Bay skimboarders were taking advantage of the shore breaks to get some nice rides. The Cinnamon Bay Campground was nearly deserted and besides the skim boarders and us, there were only two other people on the beach.
Great Cruz Bay Sunset
On the way home, Habiba, Jacob and I, took a short walk up to Peace Hill and later we were treated to a spectacular sunset, which we watched from the Great Cruz Bay Road.
Dan Silber Blog My friend, Dan Silber, has started a new blog and his latest entry, which deals with his experiences on St. John in the 1970s may be of interest to some readers.
Danny writes,” I first came to St. John in 1972 for a 2 week visit and stayed for 5 years! A good friend of mine from college, Gerry Singer was living there with his family. He had a successful commercial fishing business and offered me and another friend Dave Isenberg a job as working partners.
We thought about it for about five seconds and said, “sure, why not?” … read more
In the News
On another note, today is the 25th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of the Caribbean nation of Greneda. Peter Espeut, a Roman Catholic deacon and yesterday, sociologist wrote an interesting article for the Jamaica Gleaner concerning that historical event. Click here to read the article
A relatively little known fact is that besides the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico there is one more US Territory in the Caribbean. It’s a two square mile, dry, rugged cliff encircled island lying between Haiti and Jamaica. When I say it’s a little known fact I mean just that. Consider that the once U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbit, who’s position puts him in charge of all U.S. territories, trusts, commonwealths, possessions and outlying areas once had to admit: “I had never heard of Navassa. I didn’t have the faintest idea whether it was in the Arctic, the Atlantic or the Pacific.”
Access to the Island
Although we can assume that indigenous Native Americans knew of its existence, they apparently never settled there. And no wonder, the topography is rugged sharp limestone dotted with holes like swiss cheese. There’s no fresh water and in order to get on the island you need to have a calm enough day so that you can approach the cliff-lined shore and scale up using a ladder. Moreover the island is literally crawling with three species of venomous scorpions as noted by a visiting biologist there on a research expedition in 1999, who noted that, “When you zip up your tent at night you can hear them scurrying over it all night long.”
The first westerners to come across Navassa were a handful of soldiers, crew on one of Christopher Columbus’ expeditions. Columbus, having been shipwrecked and stranded on Jamaica sent the soldiers to accompany a party of Taino Indians in two canoes to get help in Hispaniola. On the way they encountered Navassa, which offered neither water or a convenient resting place and having duly noted the existence of the island, they continued paddling toward their destination.
Navassa remained forgotten until it was claimed as a US territory by means of the Guano Act in 1857.
What is Guano?
Guano is bird excrement. The word comes from the Quechua, wanu, meaning the feces of seabirds, bats and seals. (Quecha is an important indigenous language of South America used by the Incas and still in use today) Guano is used to make chemical fertilizers and gunpowder.
The Guano Act
The importance of guano in 19th century America led to passage of the Guano Act in 1856 enabling U.S. citizens to take possession of islands containing guano.
“When any citizen or citizens of the United States may have discovered . . . a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any government and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same said island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered appertaining to the United States.”
The passage of this act led to what has been called the Great Guano Rush whereby American adventurers and entrepreneurs rushed out to sea laying claim to just about every island, rock or cay where a bird had been known to take a shit, providing that it met the above mentioned qualifications.
It was through this act that the United States took possession of 79 tiny territories around the world, and still controls eight of them, one of which is in the Caribbean, Navassa Island. (The others, Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, Kingman Reef, Johnston Atoll, Palmura Atoll and Midway Atoll are located in the Pacific Ocean.
Article by Brennen Jensen
From Baltimore City Paper, Feb. 21, 2001
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.
Overseer With Rifle
“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 vessels 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?'”
I come for the stories. And, of course, for the companionship. Cartoon large blue eyes roll in acceptance, as Art fingers a slice of a mango I just picked from his jungle yard and sliced up with my Swiss Army knife. We are out in the bush. A steep dirt road winds downhill to a locked gate. Unlocked, the gate reveals a footpath through a jungle crowded with trash-picked treasures. The path leads to a living museum for the last remaining hippie.
Art’s museum is a home built partly in cooperation with Mother Nature, Robinson-Crusoe style, employing two large turpentine trees. It is constructed from thick beams salvaged from the wreckage of 30 years of hurricanes and boatloads of memories. The walls are strewn with block and tackle from long-sunk schooners and smuggling ships. Bad art and hurricane lamps are everywhere; giant candles, Mardi Gras beads, a collection of colorful shirts and the assorted claptrap of 30 years on St. John decorate this un-electrified museum.
The mango sliced, I set my sights on a bucket of congealed floor wax, which I cut loose and feed to a homemade tiki torch. In the gloaming, the first Cuban tree frogs start to croak and Art eggs them on.
“Rrrbiit, rrribbbit.” St. John’s first hippie is clearly amused with the idea of talking to the frogs and his eyes grow even wider, reflecting their seasoned madness in the candlelight. The frogs, mistakenly imported from Castro’s Cuba by some researchers in the 1970s, take up Art’s gauntlet. We are met with a thunderous cacophony of croaks in the Caribbean night.
I go for the transistor radio to tune out the frogs. I pop another warmish Heineken and get Art a non-alcoholic Budweiser. No electricity means no fridge and ice melts too quickly for it to be economical. There could be thousands of dollars buried on the property from various Caribbean adventures but Art makes do on beans and rice and maybe an O’Douls if I bring some up to his museum.
I like to get out of Cruz Bay, where the noisy beach bars have a way of filling up with sunburned tourists in the winter. Tonight I’ll camp out at the museum. Art and I will watch the still, moonless sky for satellites and rehash the business of the day.
The battery-powered rock ‘n’ roll radio brings us a nugget from the sixties and I coax Art into one of his favorite stories of how he met Janis Joplin in St. Thomas well over thirty years ago. It is a story I love. I am continually astounded by the attention to detail in my friend’s storytelling. In Art’s stories, the details never change, and I have learned first-hand that nothing varies from the original event.
“I missed the last bus,” Art explains, talking about a night over thirty years ago like it was last week. “I was drinking in the waterfront bars and my boat was on the other side of the island in Red Hook.
“In those days, there were no cars going in that direction in the middle of the night and bars stayed open all night. It was about three in the morning, so I had a few hours to kill before I could hitch a ride home.”
Art’s hands begin to move and his eyes widen as he launches into this memoir. I easily picture him thirty years ago sitting on a barstool in an empty Charlotte Amalie watering hole, sipping on a draft beer and waiting for the sun.
“She walked in and went right for the jukebox. It was only the bartender and I and maybe some other rummy in the whole place. She didn’t play her song, she played something else.
“She sat down next to me and ordered a shot of Southern Comfort. I was speechless. This was 1968 and Janis Joplin was a very big deal. I was trying hard to be cool and not to spook her.
“‘You look familiar,’ I told her.
“‘Oh yeah, well just who do you think I look like?’ Janis asked.
“‘Frank Zappa’ I told her.
“Janis loved it. She slapped me on the back and bought me a whiskey. Before I knew it she was gone, pushing her way out through the swinging doors just as fast as she came in. All of a sudden her music was playing on the jukebox.
“Word spread like wildfire that Janis was on St. Thomas. Two days later this guy I knew was telling me all about it. I didn’t let on that I had already seen her. He said Janis wanted to go for a sailboat ride, but she didn’t want to go with just anyone. She wanted to go with someone who was cool. I told the guy I would take Janis out the next day.
“At the time I had a nice wooden double-ender, about 30 feet long, with beautiful lines. The boat didn’t have an engine but I didn’t really need one. It was a nice sailing boat.
“There was a guy named Todd living on the boat with me. He was a real freak with hair down to his waist. He was a real ladies’ man, too. I remember telling him we were going to take Janis out sailing and I know he didn’t believe me.
“The day came and it was a little overcast and kind of blustery. It wasn’t the best day, but it was a good day for sailing. The morning went by and Janis never showed up. I kept telling Todd to watch the dock with the binoculars so he could row in and get Janis. He still thought I was kidding.
“She showed up around 3 p.m., with a whole entourage of record company hangers-on. I was yelling to Todd that she was at the dock. When he finally saw her through the glasses, his jaw dropped. It took Todd three trips to get Janis and all her groupies out to the boat. When Janis got on board, she recognized me immediately.
“‘I should have known it would be you,’ she told me.
“They brought all sorts of food, chips, dips, olives, booze, all sorts of stuff you couldn’t get in the Virgin Islands at the time. We put up the sails and it was obvious that most of them had never been on a boat before.
“Janis was scared at first, but after I explained to her the physics of the boat, the fact that the keel was so heavy it wouldn’t allow us to capsize, she felt better. She just didn’t want to tip over.
“Everybody else though, except Todd and myself, were terrified. We were slogging through some good chop, really sailing. Janis started to get into it and I let her hold the wheel. She took off her shirt and showed everybody her giant nipples.
“The guys in the record company crew were still griping. Some of them were throwing up. I think they had eaten some Quaaludes.
“After sailing for about twenty minutes, I came about and explained that everybody who wanted to go ashore had one chance, one chance only. I was sailing for the beach and when I said, ‘Jump,’ they could get off or spend the rest of the afternoon on the boat.
When I got to the beach, most everybody jumped off. A few guys wanted to stay but Todd and I just started tossing them into the ocean. After we pried the grip of the last guy off the starboard stay, we chucked him in the water and turned out to sea. Me, Todd and Janis.
“We slipped into a real nice reach and really started having fun. Janis loved sailing. Todd got naked and told Janis that he had always wanted to have sex with her, and how about now?
‘“No thanks,’ Janis said. ‘But if you want to have me after one of my shows, you can. After I’ve made love to the whole audience for two hours, then you can have me.’
Art’s wild eyes radiate when he gets to that part, his smile betraying just how vividly he remembers the day’s events.
Art goes on to explain how he got to be friends with Janis over the next few weeks. He retells the story of listening to the first recording of her new album on the hotel room bed at Bluebeard’s Castle Hotel. He retells the story of having dinner with Janis and a friend at Escargot, which was, at the time, the best restaurant in the Caribbean.
Art finishes this rock star story by retelling Janis’s very tempting invitation, which resulted from his missed bus ride.
‘“Janis said, you’re from New York, come to Woodstock with me this summer, you can be my guest, I’ll fly you up there.’
“I told her I had read in the paper that Woodstock wasn’t going to happen, that they couldn’t find a place for the concert.
“Janis said, ‘Baby, I’m going to Woodstock this summer and so are a lot other people, you can bet that it’s going to happen.’
“I didn’t want to go back to New York. I had just bought the boat, so I stayed in the Virgin Islands,” Art says ruefully.
So like time itself, Woodstock just sort of passed Art by in the Caribbean. In his museum, the cover from the very album that they listened to over three decades earlier is still tacked to a wall. In the photograph, you can see through Janis’s oversized spectacles and look into her equally wide eyes. When you stare at the picture closely you can’t help but think that Janis could have been Art’s sister.
The album cover is faded and wilting, but her wide eyes are still clear behind the Hollywood glasses.
It is interesting to note that a United States citizen living in any part of the world, be it on the remote banks of the Amazon, in the mountains of Tibet, the North Pole or, I would imagine, in a submarine hundreds of fathoms below the surface of the ocean or circling the Earth in a space station, all can cast their ballot to decide who will be the next president of the United States.
Except, that is, if that citizen happens to reside in the United States Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or in another United States territory or possession. United States citizens living in these territories, commonwealths or possessions do, however, retain the right to be drafted into the US military.
You had to hand it to WAPA. During the night when Cat 3 Omar slipped through the Anegada Passage instead of whacking us on St. John, where we live in Chocolate Hole, we lost a little more than one minute of electricity as evidenced by our electric range-top clock that had to be bumped ahead by one short minute the next morning.
Notwithstanding WAPA’s exemplary performance Wednesday night, Virgin Islanders have been subject to an increasing amount of power outages in the last several years. Perhaps this is due to the increased demand presented by the building boom, which has not only given us many more houses, but also larger ones with more systems requiring more electricity than ever before.
The problem of not being able to supply enough electricity to meet demand is a common one throughout the Caribbean. In Santo Domingo, where outages an almost everyday affair, anyone who can afford it has a backup system, a generator or an inverter which stores electricity in car batteries and dispenses it when the power goes out. In Santo Domingo they say that the power no se va, se viene (doesn’t go out, it comes on every once and a while).
Power or Current
What do we say when the electricity stops. Interestingly, the word we use differs culturally.
Continentals will usually use the word, power, as in: “we lost power” or “the power went out.
West Indians, on the other hand will usually use the word, current, as in: “we lost current” or “did the current come back?”
Webster’s Dictionary defines power as relating to electricity as “a source or means of supplying energy,” and current as “a flow of electrical charge.”
Although I am accustomed to the word power, thinking about it, I believe I prefer the term current better.
So on Wednesday night, we had current just about all night
Electricity Rates in the Virgin Islands
Our September WAPA bill showed a rate of about 40 cents per kilowatt hour, which consisted of a Consumer Charge of seven cents/KWH and a LEAC charge of 32 cents/KWH plus other charges such as a Customer Charge, a PILOT SUR, and a WHB SURCHG, whatever these are. (The LEAC is the charge WAPA’s customers face each month to pay for the cost of fuel.)
Comparing our Virgin Islands territorial electricity costs to electricity rates in the United States we find that our .40/KWH is quite high, especially considering our proximity to the Hess refinery on St. Croix.
Within the contiguous 48 states, June 2008 prices ranged from about a little less than eight cents/KWH in Idaho to a high of 19 cents/KWH in Connecticut. Alaskans paid 16 cents/KWH and in Hawaii the rate was 32 cents/KWH.
In short, we on St. John and in the rest of the USVI pay a lot more than other Americans for electricity and for just about everything else, for that matter.
Yesterday morning a 6.1 magnitude earthquake shook St. John as well as the other Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. No damage or injuries were reported, but we all got a nice jolt.
Earthquakes are common here as we lie on the edge of the Caribbean and Atlantic plates with the Atlantic Plate slowly sliding beneath the Caribbean one, a situation that builds up energy resulting from time to time in earthquakes and volcanoes.
Just about every day we have about a half a dozen or more small tremors, which no one feels, but are reported by the US Geological Survey. Historically, however, we have one or two major earthquakes every century. Ninety years ago there was a 7.3 magnitude quake that killed 118 people, but the last real big one was in 1867. These big quakes often are followed by Tsunamis as was the case in 1867.
The 1867 quake caused massive damage, injuries and loss of life as did the tsunami that followed in its wake. It was reported that the water in Charlotte Amalie Harbor was sucked out to sea leaving boats at anchor in the harbor lying helplessly in the mud while fish flopped around in the broad daylight. The resulting wave sent vessels and fish far ashore and devastated the St. Thomas waterfront.
St. Thomas had experienced some hard times that year. Prior to the quake there was a major hurricane, a cholera epidemic and a massive fire that swept rapidly through the town fueled by the predominantly wooden structures that existed in those times. To prevent a future occurrence, officials mandated that the reconstructed houses be built in stone instead of wood, which turned out to be the worst material in the event of an earthquake as many people were killed or injured by falling stones. Furthermore with the many aftershocks following the quake for weeks after the event, made it unwise for people to return to their house even if the damage was insignificant.
It’s been almost a century and a half since this powerful seismic event and people here really don’t think too much about earthquakes.
What they think about is hurricanes, and by and large Virgin Islanders are fairly well prepared for the next big blow. But it wasn’t always this way.
Before Hurricane Hugo in 1989, there hadn’t been a major hurricane since the early part of the 20th century. When I first arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1969, I remember reading in a tourist information booklet that the Virgin Islands lie so far north of the hurricane belt that they are rarely threatened.” People didn’t build their houses with hurricane clips or didn’t screw in their galvanized rooftops. Yachts stayed at anchor the year round. Tourist seson was twelve months a year.
For example, For some twenty years, Foxy held his famous Wooden Boat Race on Labor Day, the height of hurricane season. Nobody said, “hey, you’re crazy to have a sailing event in the Virgin Islands in September.
But after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 the hurricane psychology changed radically. You can’t even get windstorm insurance on a wooden house no matter how well it’s built, tourists pretty much avoid the Virgin Islands from August until November. Yachtsmen put their boats on land or sail to safe harbors in the late summer and Foxy’s Wooden Boat Race is now held in May.
I was first introduced to green coconuts when I arrived in the Virgin Islands in 1969. At that time there were always several vendors on the Charlotte Amalie waterfront who would set up alongside the seawall with their piles of coconuts, chopping block and sharp machete offering the general public this refreshing treat for the modest price of between 25 cents and a dollar each.
These were not the dark brown, fuzzy, three-eyed, hard-shelled coconuts that I was accustomed to seeing in stateside markets. These were the green slightly immature coconuts that were picked early, before they hardened, turned brown and fell to the ground.
There is a big difference between eating a hard-shelled coconut and a green one. When you crack open a fully mature coconut, you’ll find some concentrated coconut water and a hard white pulp adhering to the shell.
The green nut is quite different. The husk is softer and less fibrous. The water inside is less concentrated and and there is more of it and the meat is soft and sweet like jelly accounting for the popular name, “jelly nut.”
So for a small amount of money, you got a nice drink of coconut water and if you so desired a bit of coconut jelly to boot. Jelly nuts are a very popular item and vendors on St. Thomas had no problem selling out just about as fast as they could open them up and collect the money. Also, the commonly accepted notion that coconut water, especially when mixed with gin, has aphrodisiac qualities, certainly didn’t hurt sales.
Personally, I not only loved coconut water and coconut jelly, but I also loved the cultural experience; the coconut man wielding his sharp machete seemingly without effort, confidently and precisely while holding the coconut in his hand. (At first I was afraid to watch, for fear of the man cutting up more than the coconut if you know what I mean.)
The first cut would be to slice a thin piece of the outer green husk about two or three inches wide and four or five inches long, to make a spoon used later to eat the coconut jelly. Then the husk on the top of the nut would be cut away exposing the thin shell beneath. The next cut would expertly take off just the tip of the shell leaving only the coconut meat itself to close off the hole in the nut. At this point the coconut could be carried away and the drunk later by simply cutting off the top piece of pulp or this could be done on site and you could drink the coconut water right then and there.
After finishing the water, you could ask the coconut man to cut open the nut so you could eat the jelly. In which case he would either lay the nut on a chopping block or hold it in the palm of his hand, and in one swift motion pass the machete through the nut, chopping it in two. The spoon would be removed from the nut and used to scoop the jelly off of the shell.
Going into Business with John Gibney
I found the whole process to be quite impressive and one day, while eating jelly nuts with my friend John Gibney, I mentioned my fascination with coconuts as a business enterprise. John knew all about it, and said that we could easily do it ourselves and so was launched our one-day foray into the jelly nut business.
We started bright and early one morning getting our coconuts from the coco palms growing along the beach on John’s property. They were full-size trees, not the dwarf variety that are so prevalent nowadays. This meant that the coconuts were high up above the ground and not so easy to get at.
I had heard that on the island of Dominica, they used trained monkeys to climb the tall coconut palms and throw them down to gatherers waiting safely below. Safe, that, is if one avoided getting hit by falling coconuts. We didn’t have access to trained monkeys, but this wasn’t a problem, because John could probably out-climb the ablest Dominican simian.
John tossed the coconuts down to me, and I chased them and gathered them up. We then brought my 16-foot fiberglass outboard-powered runabout close to the beach and started to load the coconuts aboard. We filled the boat as much as we could, and John and I had to climbed over the coconuts to take our positions aboard. We motored out of Hawksnest Bay headed east to Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.
I guess we may have let greed overcome common sense because we had put way too many coconuts inside this small craft. The boat was overloaded, we were left with only about twelve inches of free board. That is, the weight of the coconuts made the boat so heavy that we were riding way too low in the water. The run from St. John to St. Thomas can be a bit rough and between the big seas and the small free board we began to take on water. Luckily we were going downwind, so the effects of the waves were moderated, and we were able to control the situation by John baling out water with a calabash while I manned the wheel. We reached the St. Thomas waterfront safe and sound, with no more than a few good scares and a crash course in having respect for the sea.
We set up shop on the waterfront. John was the coconut man. I collected the money.
Now John, notwithstanding the lightness of his skin color, was every bit as good with a machete as any other West Indian. With his long blond hair and tall stature, many native St. Johnians referred to him as Tarzan. But, he was virtually unknown on St. Thomas and the sight of a white boy cutting open coconuts on the Charlotte Amalie harborfront was a little more than some local people were ready for. You could see the nervousness in their eyes as John, albeit skillfully, cut open the jelly nuts with his machete. Sometimes customers even refused to let him do his job, and instead insisted on opening their own coconuts. Nonetheless, we sold out our supply of jelly nuts in good time and motored back home to St. John with some good money in our pockets. But for me, much more than the money, the overall experience was something that to this day brings a big smile to my face when I think about that Virgin Islands morning some forty years ago.