Guano, as we towers of literary force are supposed to refer to bird excrement, has the surprising tendency to accumulate on islands frequented by numerous birds. What in the continental United States would be referred to as ‘parts of rural Georgia,’ far out to sea, may once have been worth planting the flag and bringing a shovel.
In 1856, the United States decided that it was entitled to claim any island that was:
- a) uninhabited (perhaps because it was too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there);
- b) too coated with bird dook for anyone to want to live there; and
- c) unclaimed by anyone else (perhaps because it was too covered in bird dook to be of interest).
This resulted in us claiming about eighty islands worldwide. Considering the nitrate-rich nature of bird poop, this was somewhat less stupid and arrogant than it might seem–though that bar wasn’t set terribly high.
Weirder: we still claim some of them. Some have even been strategic in wars. Others, strategic or not, got the shit kicked out of them in those wars. The United States: Not Only Will We Control Your Islands Of Bird Ca-Ca, You May Wish You Had Thought Of That Before We Did, Suckers.
Here are the ones we’re still hanging onto, even if our yearning for bird turds has declined or, more plausibly, if we already confiscated all the bird turds we deemed essential to our national interest:
Bajo Nuevo Bank, a.k.a. the Petrel Islands. A couple of very narrow atoll-like reefs with minimal land area (as in, if you have a decent arm you could throw a baseball from the east beach to the west beach at most points): draw a line north from the Panamá Canal, stop where you reach the latitude of the north Nicaraguan border well to the west, and you’re in the right neighborhood. Colombia claims them, and the International Court of Justice agrees, but for some reason we still dispute the sovereignty. Thus, it is a pair of guano islands that still fit into the conversation. I doubt that we will ever go down and start shooting at the Colombian Navy over this, although given trends in our national leadership, I no longer put any stupidity or lunacy past them.
Baker Island, originally New Nantucket. Just over three-quarters of a square mile, it’s halfway between Hawaii and Australia and very close to the Equator. We built an airfield and used it as a base during World War II, partly in response to some Japanese air attacks. We left a lot of airfield-and-army-related junk there, where it all still rusts or otherwise deteriorates. Now the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service operates it as a wildlife refuge, which means in essence leaving it alone since it has no human population or strategic value. They visit it every couple of years, just to see how everything’s coming. You know, make sure no one has set up a meth lab, look for Gilligan, that sort of stuff.
Howland Island. This isn’t far from Baker Island, about thirty miles nearly due north, and is in roughly the same ignored condition. Its land area is a little over a square mile and a half. Before she disappeared, that great Kansan Amelia Earhart was searching for her preplanned stopover point on Howland Island. We had big plans for this place in the 1930s, intending it as a refueling stopover for intercontinental air travel, and to that end we set up a colonist program where four Hawaiians at a time would come to live there. This was not easy in peacetime, but got worse when the Japanese bombed it the day after Pearl Harbor, killing two of the colonists. We evacuated the other two, landed a battalion of Marines, and prepared to hold fast. After the war, we abandoned Howland Island; now it’s another Fish & Wildlife-administered/ignored refuge.
Jarvis Island, formerly Bunker Island. Well southeast of Baker Island–far enough to be almost due south of the Hawaiian island chain–is another square mile and three-quarters of former guano mine. We tried a small settlement there, which led to some drama when the colonists saw a submarine surfacing not long after Pearl Harbor. They figured the US Navy was there to rescue them. When the sub opened up on them with its deck gun, the colonists reconsidered their hypothesis. Later, the Coast Guard picked up the Jarvis Island colonists, then shelled their former settlement. Not to be outdone in the destruction of uninhabited places, another Japanese sub swung by and also shelled the ex-settlement. This too is now a wildlife refuge.
Johnston Atoll. This small group of islands, the largest of which amounts to a square mile, sits about 850 miles southwest of Hawaii. There’s a long reef, the primary island, and a couple of minor islands. In aerial photos, they mostly look sculpted by Seabees. You will not believe the things we have done to Johnston Atoll.
For a variation on the usual theme, we did the wildlife refuge thing first. Given that tensions with Japan were on the rise in those days, that didn’t last long. Over the next seventy years, we would:
- Base warplanes out of it
- Base the Coast Guard out of it
- Plaster it with nuclear weapons, including some failed launches
- Set up an anti-satellite missile base (we did not shoot down any actual satellites from here, at least not that we admit to)
- Track satellites and recover film cans dropped from satellites
- Test biological weapons
- Store chemical weapons
- Store Agent Orange
- Destroy the chemical weapons
- Knock down all but one building, then abandon it
- Come back to clean up all the chemical and nuclear mess we’d made over the years
- Kill some invasive ‘crazy ants’
And there may have been other activities that have never become public. In fact, I think you could just about bank on that.
Kingman Reef, formerly Danger Reef. Its total land area is .012 square kilometers, and it sits there and gets wet about a thousand miles south of Hawaii. After about ten minutes of mathematical ineptitude, I collapsed with apathy before figuring out whether its area was the size of a basketball court, or a football field, or a baseball card. Then I found out it’s three acres, so much of it awash that there is not much need to take any action except refraining from hitting it with a boat (odds of which, by accident, are rather remote). Another wildlife refuge run by those hardworking and dedicated public servants at Fish & Wildlife, and another guano island that found its way into the United States due to bird feces.
Midway Atoll. Now we’re talking! Imagine you are on Hawaii’s big island and you get this craving to boat along the line of the islands, headed for Japan. As you pass between Kauai and Ni’ihau, you say screw it, I’m just going to keep going. About a third of the way to Japan, you’d hit Midway. It has three islands (one is dinky), surrounded by a reef, so unless you looked alive on the approach you would probably run your boat aground and suffer an ignominious and very expensive rescue. You aren’t supposed to go to Midway without advance permission, so there is no reason for the permanent workforce of forty to make nice with you, even if you hum the Marines’ Hymn and say you only came out to visit the war memorials. Total land area is about two and a half square miles, so there are a finite number of places to sneak in, and you would somewhat stand out. Do not do it.
While history has proven Midway an ideal location for carrier-based naval warfare battles (look this up if you doubt me, then come back and apologize), its location was incredibly strategic in World War II. Had the Japanese won the 1942 carrier/air battle and occupied Midway, they would have been positioned to threaten the Hawaiian Islands. Having fought so hard to keep it, the armed forces just couldn’t break up with Midway for another fifty years. The Navy finally shut down its last operations in 1993. The people who live/work there are with Fish & Wildlife, and it’s another refuge. It has proven a good place to study the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which stands as an enormous monument to corporate and government social responsibility when no one is around to punish them for doing the wrong thing.
Navassa Island. About a third of the way from Haiti to Jamaica, you’ll find this two-square-mile uninhabited island. Columbus’s men visited it and reported back that it had no water, giving people (even those Native Americans Columbus and his successors failed to eradicate) reason to avoid it for another three hundred and fifty years. Only when its bird crap value became evident (and it met the other conditions) did the young United States pounce on this place. Haiti protested. Even then, we knew we could win a war against Haiti, so we stood our guano. It was the scene of some ugliness when a phosphate (bird crap) mining company hired 140 black contract workers from Maryland to extract the fabled feces. Conditions were awful, the workers revolted in 1889, and in a move much envied by so many in the modern world, they killed five of their supervisors. Take a guess at how that went over in our justice system, knowing how it functions even today.. At least we didn’t execute them, but only because President Harrison intervened.
For some years we kept up a lighthouse on Navassa, but the Coast Guard took it down in 1996. I gather that what happens there now is: Fish & Wildlife officially has charge of it, Haitian fishermen camp out there when they feel the need, the U.S. prohibits this but does nothing to prevent it, and the end result is a wildlife refuge that mostly works in spite of a disputed claim no one seems to press.
Palmyra Atoll. Had you gone looking for Kingman Reef, but missed about twenty miles south, you would come to one of the few guano islands (this one, in fact, did not contain significant guano, so the original basis for a claim was flawed) with a permanent staff. One wonders what sins one must commit in order to be assigned there. Anyway, Palmyra amounts to a little more than two and a half square miles, girdled by reefs on three sides, and divided into a whole bunch of little islands. In a clever attempt to disguise its true purpose, the one with the airstrip is called “Aviation Island.” Back when there was a Kingdom of Hawaii, said kingdom claimed Palmyra. The United States incorporated it into the Territory of Hawaii, but it is not now part of the state; the government took it away upon statehood. It did service as an airbase during World War II, and now the Nature Conservancy owns part of it, with an ongoing population of a half to two dozen.
As for the other seventy-odd, other countries claimed them, or got them in treaties, or for whatever other reason we decided not to be difficult about it.
And that’s the story of our guano islands, the territory we annexed in the name of bird deuces.