La Navase Island, the lust of a nation
La Navase is a Caribbean island located south of the big island of Cuba, in the Caribbean Sea, northeast of Jamaica, sixty miles from Cap Irlandais and 46 nautical miles of the town of Jeremie, Haiti. The island is mainly an ecologic reserve which has been part of Haiti since it gained its independence from France but became an element of a territorial dispute. Haiti did have to assume a national debt prior to obtain an official recognition for their conquest, in the year 1825, from their ancient French colons. In the mid nineteen Century, a powerful neighbor from the north, the United States of America, claimed the right to own the island under the pretext that American sailors especially a certain Peter Duncan, were collecting Guano (birds’ excrements) on the island for fertilization of their lands. On these facts, a “Guano Island Act” was created to legitimate the usurpation of part of the territory of Haiti. Secretary of State Lewis Casa, decided to take over the island in planting an American flag. This Guano Act was signed in 1856.
They also discovered a mixture of Nitrate and Phosphate which was used for the fabrication of military bullets. In 1917, the United States built a lighthouse while the US Navy assumed an observation spot especially during World War II, by fear of a German submarine attack. One has to remember that La Navase is located at less 160 kilometers (103 miles) of the American naval base of Guantanamo in Cuba. La Navase is inhabited with difficult access and became more of a strategic importance with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. This island is part of the territory of Haiti since 1804 and Haitian fishermen have used it to harvest shellfish. Most of the constitutions of the country describe the island as part of the territory and even the 1801 constitution of Toussaint Louverture makes mention of it. This island became the property of France after a peace treaty was signed in the Dutch city of Ryswick between France on one side and the Empire (England, Spain, Holland) on the other side, under the mediation of Leopold I, King of Sweden. This pact was signed to put an end to the war of the great Alliance which begun in 1689 because the new Kind of England, William III wanted to put a check on the ambitious designs of Louis XIV. The dispute lasted nine years and was resolved by the terms of the agreements signed on the 30th of October 1697. France received La Navase, in heritage from the Spaniards by the treaty of Ryswick, which divided the island of Hispaniola in two. France has also benefited from the American Louisiana Territories.
This island is part of a legacy and France recognized the Haitian right for sovereignty in 1825 after due payment of a heavy indemnity. This island has always been the envy of the British, later Cuba and finally the United States of America. La Navase was discovered by Christopher Columbus men when they decided to sail near Jamaica in 1504 on two boats: Diego Mendez and Fieschi Barthelomeo. Fernando Colombus, son of Christopher fell in love with this paradise and wrote extensively about it, in his “Historia del Amirante”. He described how it was difficult to approach the shores, the abrupt mountains and a unique coral barrier falling directly in the sea. Long considered like an ecologic reserve with its plants and exotic animals, many scientific expeditions were able to appreciate more than 250 species of fishes and other animals. especially two endemic lizards (Leicocephlus erimitus and Cychura nigerrima) in 2012. Others may have seen a jewel and a paradise for fishermen without knowing that Haitian fishermen have landed on it for the last two centuries.
La Navase measures around 5,6 km/square (2 square miles) and can reach an elevation of 250 feet in place but most of the land is exposed coral and limestone. The island is covered by a forest with multiple species of trees like poisonwood or mastic etc. The United States claimed that they did not recognize the Republic of Haiti, so when they took over the island of “La Navase” in 1859, they were still in denial of our existence. This was their way to avoid the spreading of the revolution to the American shores. They claimed the take-over to be of little consequence but in facts, our fathers saw in that act, a menace to their first successful slave insurrection. The Americans have never appreciated our emancipation in the world after the French lost their colony. The desire of many American politicians and journalists was voiced and it becomes obvious that many advocated the annexation of all the Caribbean Islands, especially Hispaniola.
The taking over of La Navase was an act of imperialism never seen before when a such powerful United States of America captured a guano island in the Caribbean and annex it to their territories. They ignored the fact that Haitian fishermen have harvested shellfish forever on it. The island was a property of France and became part of the republic of Haiti when Jean-Jacques Dessalines proclaimed the independence. It was the same for other larger islands like La Gonave, Ile de la Tortue, les Cayemites, La Grande Cayes and Ile-a-vache.
Slave holders in the States were afraid of losing their plantations. In fact, an editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett advocated, in 1850, a plan to annex Haiti first and then Cuba, He also wrote that a war would be ‘fun and amusement” while Hispaniola will become another state with the possibility in having more slaves”. The government of Haiti, through the Emperor Faustin Soulouque maneuvered around with diplomacy in spreading the news of an American menace to all the other Caribbean islands colonized by Europeans powers. In April 1858, the Haitian Navy attempted to take control of La Navase by sending two war vessels with specific instructions to expulse the invaders. They met with a Mr. Cooper who owed a Phosphate and Nitrate mine. Upon our menace, to leave the island, he turned to his government for help. The United States gave in return ultimatum to the Soulouque government asking them to back out because they have the intention of defending their citizens. The American President James Buchanan ordered immediately the frigate Saratoga to sail in direction of the island to protect their interests in the Guano operation, in 1858. Haiti sent official protests to the State Department but they were ignored. Emperor Faustin Soulouque wrote back that “Even through the law is on our side, Justice and the Legitimacy of our cause will triumph”.
Haiti wanted the United States of America to lose their economic interest in La Navase. Unfortunately, many American companies, based in New York and Baltimore showed a will to continue the importation of the guano. They decided to use black American workers from 1857 to 1898 to assure the production. They hired white managers as supervisors and on September, 14, 1889, the workers became unhappy with the way they were treated, so they revolted. Five supervisors were killed and 43 insurgents were charged with rioting and murder. A legal team was hired by two African American organizations (The Brotherhood of Liberty and The Order of Galilean Fishermen) to defend the accusers. Three defendants were tried and were convicted to die by hanging, others were accused of manslaughter, or rioting, or prison terms. Three were finally acquitted while the executions were stayed pending an appeal to the Supreme Court (Jones v U.S.).
In their proceedings, Jones Lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the Guano Act and the authority upon which the United States of America claimed the right to the island of La Navase. A higher court rejected these arguments but re-affirm the conviction on the 24th of November 1890, in stating that the court was not ready to determine if the government of the USA was right on their claim to occupy La Navase. A petition was signed to urge President Benjamin Harrison to grant clemency, citing inhumane conditions imposed on the American workers. The death sentence was commuted into a lifetime imprisonment. For almost another decade, the collection of guano continued and I invite one to read this book written in 1994 by Jimmy M Skaggs: “The great Guano Rush”. By the end of the 19th century, Americans had abandoned “La Navase” to Haitian fishermen.
The importance of the island resurged as we already pinpointed it, with the opening of the Panama Canal to navigation in 1914 and because of the fear of dangerous hazard in stormy weather. Shipping through the windward passage between Haiti and Cuba was difficult. The American Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse on the island. President Woodrow Wilson reaffirmed then the possession of the island “under the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States of America and out of jurisdiction of any other government”, on January 17, 1916. The imperialism prevailed. At the end of World War, I, the American Navy established a Radio Station at “La Navase” while during World War II, the coast guard stationed a reconnaissance unit and a recue launch by fear of possible German submarine attacks.
After the second World War, the coast guard continued to use the island as a Light house reserve while Haitians fishermen were visiting as well. President Harry Truman proclaimed La Navase as part of the contiguous shore of the United States. A representative of the United States, William L Dawson, introduced a bill to disclaim any right of the USA on the island which was referred to the Committee of Foreign Affairs in the House of the Representatives. In Haiti, hope was not lost and intellectuals took the opportunity to voice their rights on the island. A journal “Optique”, reviewed the history of the dispute and summarized Haiti legal position in bringing the pro and con. African Americans also sympathized with Haiti claims but the Eisenhower administration and the State Department ignored the vindications.
In 1977, the Newsday of Long Island found out that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was backing up a group of anti-Castro terrorists and allowed them to find an African swine fever virus, destined to infest the pigs in Cuba during the year of 1971. The virus came from a secret laboratory in the Eastern Long Island NY (Plum Island Lab 257). The CIA tried to deny the evidence unsuccessfully. The virus was delivered to an US army base and CIA training ground in Panama to reach the rebels on the island of La Navase so they can prepare the infestation of the pigs in Cuba. The virus was transported from la Navase to the south portion of the Guantanamo Bay. Six weeks later, an outbreak of the disease (Swine Fever) required the slaughter of 500,000 pigs in order to prevent a nationwide animal epidemic over the entire island of Cuba.
The Newsday did not stop their critics of the CIA involvement and in 1986 again, the journal reported a story from the historian Neil Hurley talking about the island of La Navase, as “a place where chickens only miraculously survive the attacks of Lizards”. It was said also that the US Navy Research team visited the island to look for animal diseases and found a bird which carry malaria.” It is widely believed that they investigated the island for biological toxins while helping the rebels to carry their attack against Castro forces.
Haiti has never relinquished its right to claim La Navase while fishermen and expeditions have continued to flout US authority. Occasional confrontation with the coast guards have been reported especially when a group of visitors who planted their Haitian flag, was asked if they have a permit to visit the island. They cleverly answered to the officer that it was not necessary for them to have such permit especially when they were visiting their own country. The officer relented and welcomed the group to camp for a week until their return to the main island. The island is still considered as a national wildlife refuge and often it will be described as a “unique reserve of Caribbean biodiversity”. Due to hazardous costal conditions, it is closed to the public and visitors need permission from the Fish and Wildlife Office in Puerto Rico to enter the territorial waters or to step on the land.
The United States of America has occupied the island of La Navase, illegally since 1857 under the false pretext that they did not recognized the sovereignty of Haiti as a nation after the 1804 independence from the French. They violated the rights of the Haitian people in their collection of Guano on the island for fertilization of their land. They also collected high concentration of Nitrates and Phosphates, for the fabrication of bullet material. This island belongs to Haiti by the treaty of Ryswick between France and the Empire (England, Spain, Holland). Recognition of our independence by France in 1825, gave to Haiti the constitutional right to own this land. Haiti has tried to impose its rights again in 1872 with more denial from the Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. No matter, this island is part of the Legacy of Haiti. The problem is dormant but we will expect a serious effort from a responsible government in Haiti to bring back this claim to a world tribunal.
Haiti has not stopped raising the issue. In 1989 the government of Prosper Avril sent a military team via helicopter and planted a Haitian Flag on the island with the notation: “Haitian Sovereignty”. They used a Radio to diffuse a message to Free La Navase, without any consequences. In 1998, a group of Haitian senators took an expeditious trip to the island with no positive outcome. The Island of La Navase has been under the control of the Ministry of the Interior of the United States of America. Recent Haitian governments bought back the problem through their External Affairs Ministry with, Fritz Longchamp in 2008 and with the Prime Minister Jean Max Bellerive, in 2010.
As a proud little nation, we may always have keep in mind the famous words of Jean de La Fontaine in his poem: “The Wolf and the Lamb” in which he states “The reason of those best able to have their way is always the best “. We are being bullied by a more powerful country and we may never be able to defend ourselves if we do not look for the participation of the world community. Perhaps, presenting our complaints to the United Nations may give us more satisfaction. but I would like to conclude just by mentioning these words of Elie Wiesel: “Let us swore never be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take side. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor; never the tormented”. May La Navase return to the country it belongs to!
Maxime Coles MD
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US Fish & Wildlife Service: Navassa National Wildlife Refuge (November 11, 2012)