While the Pentagon and US State Department continue to issue forth missives and warnings to China about its activities in staking territorial claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, Washington has its own sordid history of retaining control of islands claimed by other nations.
Navassa Island is a small 5.2 square kilometer outcropping in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti and Cuba. In 1857, US President James Buchanan unilaterally annexed the island to the United States. Before the American Civil War, the island had previously been the virtual private domain of the Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore, which sent African-American contract workers (the American Union’s quaint term for slaves) to Navassa where they worked to mine phosphate-rich guano. In 1889, the workers rebelled against their horrible working conditions and killed five of their white bosses.
The US Navy quelled the rebellion and returned eighteen of the workers to stand trial for murder. In 1890, the US Supreme Court ruled the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which provided the legal framework for the annexation of Navassa by the United States, constitutional. The high court also upheld death sentences for three of the eighteen arrested black miners from Navassa. The United States also ignored nearby Haiti, which had laid claim to Navassa before the American unilateral annexation.
The United States has been vocal about China’s claim to various islands in the South China Sea but it remains hypocritically silent when it comes to islands like Navassa. It is also noteworthy that the United States continues to occupy Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, the 99-year US lease for which expired in 1999. The United States, rather than accede to Cuba’s demand to vacate the military base at the end of 1999, chose to shock the world after September 11, 2001, by turning it into a tropical gulag for accused terrorists, many of whom were innocent.
The United States not only insists on maintaining control over Navassa and Guantanamo but also larger Caribbean real estate like the bankrupt Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, both of which should have been granted independence long ago.
Recently declassified Central Intelligence Agency files show that Washington has refused to even consider requests from Haiti, itself transformed into a virtual vassal of US neocolonialism, to hand back Navassa to the impoverished country. A US Foreign Service dispatch from the US embassy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, dated February 23, 1952, states “’Le Mati’ of March 29, 1952, carried a reprint in translation of an article credited to the ‘News Tribune’ of Washington and entitled ‘Haiti Presents New Protests on the Subject of Navassa.’ … the embassy suspects that the newspaper may belong to the American negro press … the Department will note that the article is favorably slanted toward Haiti and the suspicion arises that it has been planted in the ‘News Tribune’ with a view to influencing American public opinion in favor of the Haitian claim.”
Although Navassa was uninhabited in 1952, the United States maintained its hold on the island as a strategic prize. The Haitian government also demanded the United States pay it $40 million, which was the value of the phosphate removed from Navassa by the Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore between 1857 and 1890.
The newspaper article’s statement that Haitian President Paul Magloire would travel to Washington and ask President Harry Truman to reverse the original decision of US President Franklin Pierce to occupy Navassa was also troubling to the State Department and the CIA station in Port-au-Prince. The article stated: “… President Pierce, during whose administration to Guano Act was passed, was very hostile to negroes.” In 1952, the status quo enthusiasts at the State Department and their neo-colonialist comrades at the CIA were still supporting the arcane acts of Pierce and Buchanan, which unilaterally stole Navassa from Haiti without compensation.
In June 1857, Haiti sent two warships to Navassa to demonstrate its claim. Buchanan responded by sending a US Navy frigate to Navassa to ward off any Haitian occupiers. Haiti had reason to believe that the US would recognize Haitian sovereignty over Navassa. In 1852, US Secretary of State Daniel Webster threatened to send US warships to the Lobos Islands off of Peru to stake America’s claim to the guano-rich islands. Webster demanded that Peru sell the islands to the United States. Peru said it would defend the islands and rejected the right of American companies to mine guano on the islands. Peru’s claim to the islands was so solid that US President Millard Fillmore apologized to Peru and he recognized Peruvian sovereignty over the islands.
The Guano Act ensured that the United States would not only stake a claim to Navassa but also to several other islands claimed by other nations. These included Midway, Wake, Johnston, Christmas, and Kingman in the central Pacific and the Swan Islands in the Caribbean. In 1923 and 1929, the United States warned Honduras against trying to assert its claim to the Swan Islands by occupying the islands, where the US maintained a military observation post. In 1961, the CIA used the main Swan Island as a base from which Radio Swan broadcast messages in support of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. In 1972, the US relinquished its Guano Act claim to the Swan Islands and gave them back to Honduras.
According to declassified CIA documents, US President Woodrow Wilson, using the Guano Act as cover, laid claim to Serrana, de Quito Sueno, and Rocador in the western Caribbean. As with Navassa, the building of US lighthouses on these islands consecrated US sovereignty over the islands. It did not matter one wit to Wilson, who many now consider the “original neocon” (neoconservative), that Honduras, Nicaragua, and Colombia also claimed the same islands.
In the Pacific, Swains Island, which is claimed by Tokelau, a dependency of New Zealand, is occupied by the United States as part of American Samoa. Swains Island was annexed by the United States in 1860 under the authority of the Guano Act.
Today, various US leaders have criticized China for fortifying various islands it claims in the South China Sea. The US Navy and Air Force have made provocative forays within the maritime boundaries of the Chinese-claimed islands. In addition, the US has announced a beefed up military presence in the Black Sea to challenge Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and the port of Sevastopol. The United States is returning to Subic Bay in the Philippines to supplement the Philippines military in a potential military showdown with China over Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited reef in the South China Sea seized by China in 2012 and claimed by China and the Philippines.
China and Taiwan both stake their claims to the islands in the South China Sea based on the “Nine-Dash Line” map published by the Nationalist Chinese government in 1947. It has been subsequently adopted as the basis for the claim to the islands by the People’s Republic of China. In addition, China’s claim to the islands is further substantiated by a 280 AD map drawn by the Chinese Empire showing the islands of the “Zhanghai” sea being patrolled by Chinese vessels. Today, the Zhanghai Sea is known as the South China Sea. Over the past century, officials of the United States, France, Britain, and Japan have indicated that China holds sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel island chains in the South China Sea.
While China has historical and legal claims over the islands of the South China Sea, the United States’ continued occupation of Navassa, Swains, Wake, Kingman, Midway, Johnston, Howland, and Jarvis islands are based on nothing more than a desire for bird droppings.