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Howland Island

Howland, Baker, and Jarvis islands are coral islands once celebrated for their guano deposits, which are worked by the American Guano Company of New York, and numerous vessels were annually chartered to load there. They had been frequently reported by whalers and other passing ships prior to their occupation for commercial purposes, but the best account of them is that given by Mr. J.D.Hague, who was specially commissioned in 1859-1861 to visit the Pacific in search of guano islands.

The climate of the three islands is similar and very equable. The trade winds are almost constant, and blow in the summer from E. by S. to S.E., and in the winter, from E. by N. to N.E. From October to February, inclusive, on Baker island, I did not observe a point of southing in the wind, while during the summer months there are long periods during which the wind is invariably from south of east. Calms are rare, especially those of long duration. Westerly winds have seldom been observed, except occasionally as light puffs on quiet, calm days. On one or two occasions only, in the winter, at Baker island, have any westerly winds of much force been recorded. The sky is clear and cloudless. The temperature is exceedingly even, ranging from 76° at sunrise to 88° Fahrenheit at the hottest part of the day in the shade. In the sun at noon it stands between 95° and 100°.

Several isolated islands in Oceania, some uninhabited, were under United States jurisdiction, including Howland, Baker, and Jarvis islands, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra and Johnston atolls. Devastation caused by World War II was obviously most extensive in areas within the combat zones. In a treaty of friendship signed in September 1979, the United States relinquished its claim to the eight Phoenix Islands and five central and southern Line Islands. The two northernmost Line Islands — Kingman Reef and Palmyra Atoll — as well as Jarvis, Baker, and Howland islands, which lay between the Gilbert and Line islands, remained United States territory, however. The potential coral reef area within the 10-fathom curve of Howland is estimated 3.0 square kilometers.

Howland Island was first reported by Capt. G.E.Netcher, of New Bedford. According to J.D.Hague it is about 1½ miles long by ½ a mile wide, containing, above the crown of the beach, an area of some 400 acres. The highest point is 17 feet above the reef and 10 or 12 feet above the level of the high tide. It trends N.N.W. and S.S.E.

The birds are probably much scarcer now that the islands are more frequented. Kotzebue during his Voyage of Discovery into the South Sea, &c., 1815–1818, must have passed very close to Baker and Howland islands, and he inferred the existence of land in the vicinity, from the numerous birds seen in every direction. He says, “May 8th, 1816, lat. 3° 14' 34" S., long 168° 25' 33”W.; yesterday, and still more to-day, we observed a number of sea fowls, of different kinds, which, after sunset, directed their flight to the S.W. I did not doubt, from great numbers of sea fowls, but we were in the neighbourhood of many uninhabited islands and rocks; and if time had permitted, I should have followed the flight of those fowls, and steered S.W.; but the current, which we found setting N.W., carried us in that direction, daily, from 33 to 45 miles, and continued so until we had crossed the Equator on the 11th, in long. 175° 27' 55" W. On the 12th of May we were in lat. 1° 17' 46” N., long. 177° 5' W, when besides numerous sea fowls of various descriptions, we observed one land bird; but as land could not even be descried from the mast-head, it is to be presumed that it must lie very low.”

The general features of the island resemble those of Baker. Its surface, at least on the western side, is somewhat depressed, and much of it is covered by a growth of purslain, grass and other vegetation like that on Baker island, but considerably more abundant. Near the center of the island there are one or two thickets of leafless trees or brushwood, standing eight or ten feet high and occupying an area of several acres. The tops of these trees, in which the birds roost, are apparently quite dead; but the lower parts, near the roots, show signs of life after every rain.

The windward side of the island is formed by a succession of ridges composed of coral debris with some sand and shells, running parallel to the eastern beach, each one of which may, at earlier stages of the island's growth, have successively formed the weather shore. Occasionally among these ridges a sandy bed is met with in which some little guano is mixed. On the lee side there is also a sandy margin of considerable width. Bits of pumice and pieces of driftwood are scattered all over the island's surface.

The main deposit of guano occupies the middle part of the island, and stretches, with some interruptions of intervening sand, nearly from the north to the south end. Its surface is even, and in many places covered by a thick growth of purslain, whose thread-like roots abound in the guano where it grows. The deposit rests on a hard coral bottom and varies in depth from six inches to four feet. The fact, as observed at Baker island, that vegetation flourishes most where the guano is shallow, is also quite apparent here, and the consequent characteristic difference between the guano of the deep and shallow parts is distinctly marked. The first variety, from the deeper part, is a fine pulverulent substance of reddish brown color, usually a little damp in its native bed, and almost quite free from roots of fibers. The latter is of rather coarser texture, quite black, and containing many delicate roots and fibres, and much vegetable matter.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2017 18:29:21 ZULU