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Navassa Island Incident 1889-1891

Navassa island is a 3.5 km^2 limestone atoll located in the Caribbean region at 18 24'N, 75 01'W, about 70 miles east of Jamaica. It lies about one hundred (100) miles south of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, between Haiti to the west and Kingston, Jamaica, to the east. Navassa Island was an uninhabited island claimed by the US in 1857 for its guano, and mining took place between 1865 and 1898. Navassa Island was recognized and considered by the United States as containing a deposit of guano, within the meaning and terms of the laws of the United States relating to such islands, and which was recognized and considered by the United States as appertaining to the United States, and which was also in the possession of the United States, under the laws of the United States then and there in force relating to such islands.

In 1889 the island's actual operation passed to the Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore, Maryland. The Navassa Phosphate Company mined Navassa with African-American laborers. On September 14, 1889, the Island of Navassa was in the possession of the Navassa Phosphate Company, incorporated by the State of New York, and which held the island as assignee of Duncan and Cooper. The persons then "on the island consisted of 137 colored laborers of said company, and 11 white officers or superintendents, all residents of the United States, appointed by the company, the laborers, including the defendant, being employed in digging the phosphate or guano and transporting by railroad propelled by man power and handling the phosphate or guano found on the island and putting it on shipboard, which digging and mining is carried on by digging and blasting with dynamite and working with picks and other iron tools, and which phosphate or guano so mined is the article called Navassa phosphate in the market, and is the only substance on the island which is dug, mined, worked, transported or sold, the said laborers being shipped at Baltimore under shipping articles".

Abusive conditions soon provoked a race riot. On September 14, 1889, Henry Jones murdered one Thomas N. Foster, one of the officers, by giving him three mortal blows with an axe, of which he there died on the same day; and that other persons named aided and abetted in the murder.

The workers hacked off the arms, legs and heads of some of the whites. Others had their heads bashed in with crowbars and axes. It was a bloody scene and it lasted over one hour. At the end of the battle, five white supervisors were dead and others injured. US warships, including the brig Romance, gathered up the people and bodies and took them back to Baltimore.

At the island of Navassa 06 October 1889, USS Galena took on board nine ring-leaders of the riot, then proceeded to Baltimore, MD, where they were turned over to the custody of the United States marshal 25 October 1889. A total of eighteen of the workers were returned 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. Three of the miners were scheduled for execution in the spring of 1891, but a grass-roots petition drive by black churches, also signed by white jurors from the three trials, moved President Benjamin Harrison to commute the sentences to imprisonment. USS Kearsarge landed a party of Marines on the island 02 May 1891 through 20 June 1891.

All operations were abandoned in 1898, when the island became effectively uninhabited. Guano went the way of the buggy, and the island became uninhabited once more.

In September 1996, the Coast Guard ceased operations and maintenance of Navassa Island Light, a 46-meter-tall lighthouse built in 1917 on the southern side of the island. Administration of Navassa Island transferred from the Coast Guard to the Department of the Interior. The U.S. Coast Guard had determined that the lighthouse on Navassa was no longer of any value to the U.S. Government and was ceasing its exercise of any interest in the island. However, the U.S. Coast Guard's ceasing to administer Navassa's use did not have any bearing at all on United States sovereignty over the island, which remained constant regardless of the administering Federal agency or office. Consequently, under the provisions of Title 43, U.S. Code, section 1458, the Department of the Interior assumed responsibility for the civil administration of the U.S. insular area.

The island is an unincorporated territory of the US, but it is still claimed by Haiti. Every constitution except the one written by the Marines [which occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934] mention that Navassa is part of Haitian territory. There has also been a private claim advanced against the island. It is administered from Washington, DC, by the Fish and Wildlife Service, US Department of the Interior. Fishermen and others (especially ham radio operators) occasionally camp on the island for very brief periods. Guano is the island's only natural resource. Navassa is one of only two jurisdictions under United States sovereignty not within the ordinary ambit of a U.S. District Court. The other is American Samoa.

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Page last modified: 27-06-2017 18:53:30 ZULU