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

July 19, 1998|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF Sun researcher Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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