It’s Independence Day here in the States, which means Americans are celebrating in all the star-spangled lands that stretch from sea to shining sea… except, perhaps, for a select few corners of America’s Caribbean.
No, this isn’t about some militant group in the USVI or Puerto Rico. In fact, I’m guessing most people have never even heard of Navassa Island, the Serranilla Bank or the Bajo Nuevo Bank (pictured above).
Where are they?
Well, little Navassa (roughly two square miles in size) sits in the Jamaica Channel, about a quarter of the way between Haiti and Jamaica. Serranilla, really more a series of reefs with a few sandy islets than a real island per se, is located in the Western Caribbean about 170 miles southwest of Jamaica. Bajo Nuevo, also known as the Petrel Islands, lies just 68 miles west of Serranilla. It’s also more reef than island chain.
All three areas are claimed by the United States, though each claim is very much disputed.
Haiti says Navassa’s been hers since 1801. Colombia administers Serranilla as part of its San Andrés and Providencia department, though Nicaragua and Honduras both say they have dibs in addition to the U.S. Bajo Nuevo is also controlled by Colombia, with Jamaica and Nicaragua joining the U.S. in disputing ownership.
None of the three areas are inhabited, or offer very much that you might think anyone would want.
So, why does the U.S. claim ’em?
The answer, in one word: poop.
Well, Guano, actually.
Indeed, all three disputed areas were claimed by the U.S. under something called The Guano Islands Act.
No, I’m not making this up.
Originally enacted in August 1856, the Guano Islands Act is a federal regulation passed by the U.S. Congress that empowered U.S. citizens to seize islands containing guano deposits in the name of the old Red, White and Blue. The islands could be located anywhere, with the only caveat being that they could not be controlled by any other sovereign nation at the time of seizure.
Why the infatuation with bird poop? Well, back in them there days, folks had just discovered that guano was an excellent source of sodium nitrate, a key component in the manufacture of gunpowder. It was also just beginning to emerge as an excellent fertilizer.
In order for the U.S. to grow into the big and powerful country it is today, gunpowder and fertilizer were going to be essential. So, Congress gave every American carte blanche to start looking for poop all over the place. More than 100 islands worldwide were claimed under the Act, though only about a dozen remain in the fold.
The Guano Act doesn’t include provisions for what’s to become of the islands once all the guano’s gone, or America loses interest in their claims, so who knows what the future holds for Navassa, Serranilla, and Bajo Nuevo.
For now, though, one thing’s for sure: there’s no more uncommon place in America’s Caribbean where our country’s independence is being observed today… even though there’s no one there and U.S. claims to ownership are fairly full of shit…