Ted Widmer: Calls on the US to surrender island of Navassa (Navassa?)

[Ted Widmer, the director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, is the author of the forthcoming “Ark of the Liberties: America and the World.”]

IF you sail due south from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, you will eventually come to a tiny tear-shaped island with no beaches, no water and no human beings. Navassa, its enormous limestone cliffs rising straight out of the sea, is the oldest continuous overseas possession of the United States, older than Guantánamo, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska. Older than all of them, Navassa contains American history in microcosm.

Although it came into American possession only 150 years ago, Navassa was first sighted, according to legend, during the second voyage of Columbus in 1493. Thirty miles west of Hispaniola, it was close enough to be noticed but far enough away that its existence was always a bit in doubt. From the beginning it appeared indistinct on maps, a tiny smudge not much bigger than a ladybug on a windshield, in the windward passage between Haiti and Jamaica....

The United States Congress quickly placed the island under American jurisdiction based on the Guano Islands Act of 1856. The act, one of history’s more accurately named pieces of legislation, gave permission to the United States, from the United States, to claim any island in the world rich in bird droppings. Consequently, Navassa became an American “appurtenance” — not quite a territory but still indisputably American.

Except the declaration was disputed by the island’s nearest neighbor, Haiti, which has claimed Navassa since its independence in 1804. Haiti bases its rights on Columbus and on early treaties between France and Spain. But few paid attention, in part because Haiti itself was not recognized by the United States at the time since it was governed by people of African descent....

All that Navassa holds for us is the right — or more specifically, the power — of its possession. Perhaps we should celebrate the sesquicentennial by just giving it back — to Haiti, or an international trust or the state of nature itself. It would be a sublime gesture on behalf of freedom in its simplest state.

Would it not confound our critics to witness an American act of pure altruism? Would it not confound them even more if our oldest possession, the birthplace of American imperialism, became the birthplace of a better way of thinking about the way nations interact?...

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Thomas Bahde - 7/1/2007

Bravo to Ted Widmer's call for the U.S. to surrender control of Navassa, but there are two things here that should be kept in mind. By finally yielding our hold on this early extension of overseas imperialism, we cannot afford to let its history (and, by extension, the history of our involvement there) become even more neglected than it already is. Also, let us not forget that Bill Warren of San Diego claims to own the island--as he says, having purchased it from the heirs of the island's original claimant. Warren, whose claim to the island is not recognized by the government, says he wants to begin again mining the island's phosphate resources, despite the fact that the government won't let him set foot on it. Warren's claim *is* significant, however, in that it draws a pretty clear line between U.S. imperialism and the business interests that have always clearly defined it. Warren says that he will not acknowledge any treaties or international agreements made with regard to Navassa, claiming it as his own personal property. While I doubt Warren will cause an international incident over the island, it does provide a convenient reminder that diplomatic imperialism and economic imperialism are two distinct (if often related) forces. Yielding control over Navassa may be a nice gesture, but it will not change the complex and problematic character of U.S. imperialism, it will not make a lick of difference to anyone seriously critical of U.S. foreign policy, and it may not even settle the claims of at least one U.S. businessman to the island's abundant "resources."

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