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A man's claim to guano knee-deep in bureaucracy Island fortune in fertilizer has Baltimore connection

We join this tale of intrigue, deserted islands and bird poop a full 141 years and five murders after it began.

The setting is tiny, tropical Navassa Island, population zero, a condition understandable to any mariner who has ever approached its unwelcoming bluffs. And our latest installment comes to us courtesy of a peeved Californian named Bill Warren.

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Warren is convinced he has found a way to lay claim to the island's fallow fortune in guano (bird poop fertilizer) for practically nothing, if only a bunch of inflexible Washington bureaucrats would get out of his way. They, in turn, imply he's got less of a leg to stand on, legally speaking, than Long John Silver.

Warren is pressing his case in U.S. District Court in Washington even as the Interior Department prepares to launch a scientific expedition to the island this week, vowing that no one shall mine so much as a speck of guano from Navassa.

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But the key to the dispute may be in the island's past -- a history with deep Baltimore connections, rich enough in misery and 19th-century outrages to make Warren's present irritation seem about as troubling as a mosquito bite.

It is heirs that Warren seeks, heirs of Baltimorean Edward O. Cooper and his son, Edward K. Cooper, who along with Baltimore sea captain Peter Duncan were the original claimants to Navassa and its guano. Failing that, Warren hopes to track down descendants of the stockholders of the Navassa Phosphate Co., the New York firm that took overthe Coopers' guano mining operation until its demise in 1914.

Warren believes just about any such heirs could help him win his court battle, by signing over to him their inherited rights to the island -- in exchange for a cut of the action, of course. Winning would allow him to emulate Edward O. Cooper, who in 1857, Warren said, "owned the richest guano island in the world, and he got it at no cost under the Guano Act."

Ah, yes, the Guano Act. Or, to be more precise, the U.S. Guano Islands Act of 1856. By authorizing enterprising American seamen to claim small, uninhabited guano-covered islands for themselves and their country, Congress hoped to break Peru's international monopoly on guano, the finest fertilizer the world had yet seen or smelled.

A year later the Coopers dispatched a few dozen men to work their claim on Navassa, a teardrop shaped island of only two square miles between Jamaica and Haiti. But it wasn't long before their troubles began, as recounted in "The Great Guano ** Rush," a 1994 work by Jimmy M. Skaggs.

Two Haitian warships showed up in 1858 to order the Coopers' workers away. The island belonged to Haiti, the ships' captains said. The Coopers called for the U.S. military to intervene, as authorized by the the Guano Act. By the time the USS Saratoga hove into view, the Haitians had gone away, and the way was clear to turn Baltimore into one of the world's guano capitals.

Fertilizer plants in the city were already hard at work processing Peruvian guano. With the Navassa mine opened, the industry's growth continued.

Much of the island's early work force came out of Baltimore prisons, shipped under contract with the state of Maryland. But when the Civil War ended the Coopers found a new source of low-cost labor -- freed slaves. They and other African-Americans were short on job prospects in a market flooded by returning soldiers, and they signed up to work on the promise of up to 15 months of labor at $8 a month plus free room, board and transportation.

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On arriving at Navassa they discovered they'd gotten themselves into a fix akin to slavery, or even prison. Not only did a handful of white supervisors rule as virtual dictators, but the workers had no choice but to buy their supplies at a company store charging five times Baltimore prices. Many ended up owing more than they earned.

Even at fair wages the work was a grind, lasting from 5: 30 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week, rain or shine. Most jobs involved digging out some 3,000 pounds a day of old guano from between rocky formations of limestone. Soft when dry, gooey when wet and rock hard when old enough, the guano deposits went as deep as 20 feet into the crevasses.

Workers who protested or got out of line were jailed, thrown in stocks or "triced up" for hours at a time by ropes tied around their wrists, their arms outstretched overhead. Those too weak to complete their stint on the island were shipped home at their own expense. The ones strong enough to keep going did so on a diet of hardtack, salt pork and herring.

Such were the conditions that led to an uprising in 1889 among the island's 136 workers. Five supervisors were killed. Eighteen workers were hauled home on murder and manslaughter charges, and 25 more were charged for rioting.

The result was a series of sensational trials in federal court in Baltimore. Newspapers from The Sun to the New York Times tended to play down the testimony about working conditions. They instead highlighted the drama of the killings and survival tales of some of the supervisors, such as the wounded Charles Roby, known among the workers for his brutal behavior.

"ROBY'S GREAT PLUCK," one Sun headline began. "WOUNDED BUT FULL OF FIGHT Testimony of Four of the Officers -- The Rioters Were Determined and Bloodthirsty -- Individual Encounters."

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Three of the workers were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Fourteen more were judged guilty of manslaughter, fined $100 (the equivalent of 12 1/2 weeks wages) and sentenced to two to 10 years in prison.

The executions were held up by an appeal to the Supreme Court, and by then the case had become a celebrated cause among African-Americans throughout the country. When a letter from a worker still on the island made it through to President Benjamin Harrison, the grievances got a hearing in the White House, and Harrison dispatched the USS Kearsarge to Navassa to investigate in 1891. The subsequent report of further degradation and misery prompted Harrison to commute the death sentences to life imprisonment.

Nonetheless, mining continued on the island until 1898, when the Spanish-American War in nearby Cuba brought operations to a halt. The U.S. Coast Guard took over the island in 1916, building a lighthouse to help keep the new Panama Canal's eastbound traffic from foundering.

The Coast Guard eventually automated the lighthouse, and that left the island to the occasional Haitian fishermen coming ashore to dry their catch, and to the visiting lighthouse maintenance teams sent by the Coast Guard.

So, Navassa was undisturbed once again. Or, it was until the summer of 1996, when Bill Warren entered the picture. A man whose eclectic resume includes everything from his marine salvage business to an appearance as a guest singer in a show with Kathy Lee Gifford, Warren said, "Two years ago I was reading the U.S. Almanac and I saw Navassa under U.S. possessions, so I wrote to the U.S. Coast Guard to see if I could visit."

Not only could he visit, a Coast Guard official replied, but after Aug. 29, when they were officially shutting down the lighthouse for good, he could "come down and get the island."

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He went into a law library in San Diego and looked up the Guano Islands Act. His reading told him he was entitled to claim it for himself and mine the guano, which, with a recent boom in organic fertilizer, is now once again a marketable commodity.

He put in his claim with the State Department, but U.S. officials didn't seem to agree that the island was his for the taking. Nor did the people at the Department of the Interior's office of Insular Affairs, who say that just because the Coast Guard pulled out didn't mean that the U.S. government had given up its sovereignty.

"We were always the residual administrator," Navassa Island desk officer Joseph H. McDermott said. "There is no need for any exchange of documents."

Besides, he said, under the Guano Act one can't just claim an island that has previously been claimed. It has to be a case of "terra nullius," a no man's land. "It's a one-time deal," McDermott said, and Edward O. Cooper's claim was that one time.

All of which led Warren to file suit in federal district court in Washington in February 1997, and he has been sour on his government ever since.

"My feeling is, don't they already have enough land?" Warren PTC said. "So what does it matter to them about this island? It only really matters to me and to about 2,000 human beings who I could have employed. And I could have been a rich man, and now I probably never will be. I am prepared to take them to the World Court over this. We will set up our own government."

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Warren's only chance, McDermott indicated, was to locate an heir to the original claimants who would be willing to sign over his interests. One major problem with that is no deed to the island has ever been known to exist.

And even if Warren got ownership, McDermott said, "it has already been established that mining will not be allowed. That is much too [ecologically] intrusive."

With that philosophy in mind, the Interior Department is sending a team of six scientists onto the island Friday, including leader Michael Smith of the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation. On these sorts of remote islands, Smith said, there are almost always species of plant and animal found nowhere else -- lizards and snakes, palms and cacti.

In evaluating the island's natural side, they will poke among the ruins of 30 or so dwellings that once housed the island's miserable work force. There might also be a few recent "gifts" from Warren to greet them.

He shelled out $1,500 last week to send two Jamaicans to Navassa to collect guano samples (one of the necessary steps for making a claim under the Guano Act) and to post "No Trespassing" signs.

The government scientists, Warren snorted, "care more about a lizard or an animal than they do a human life."

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In the meantime, he is searching other maps and documents, pondering other dormant claims made under the Guano Act that he might now reclaim. But he does so with a growing air of defeatism.

"They'll do the same thing to the other islands," he said. "Everywhere I'll go, they'll go. We have so many regulations that encumber our daily lives -- local, state, federal, you name it.

"Oh, well."

Pub Date: 7/19/98


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