Navassa Island - America's Forgotten Caribbean Outpost
An unsigned painting of Navassa Island, circa 1870. The brig Romance is anchored in front of the company settlement near the shore with its guano mining operations visible up the hill – Unknown artistUnknown artist, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the turquoise embrace of the Caribbean Sea, between Jamaica and Haiti, lies a small, uninhabited, and largely forgotten piece of American territory: Navassa Island. This tiny, rocky island, only about 5 square kilometers in size, is an isolated wildlife refuge with a history that’s as rich as it is tumultuous. From its days of guano mining to its current status as a haven for wildlife, Navassa Island is a unique and little-known chapter in American history, a place of natural beauty overshadowed by its controversial past.

Navassa Island was claimed by the United States in 1857 under the Guano Islands Act, a law that allowed Americans to take possession of uninhabited islands for the extraction of guano, a valuable fertilizer made from seabird droppings. For the next few decades, the island was the site of intense guano mining, which involved harsh and dangerous labor conditions, often likened to slavery. The guano was largely depleted by the end of the 19th century, and the island was abandoned, left to the mercy of the elements and the wildlife that reclaimed it.

The island’s legal status has been a matter of dispute for over a century. Haiti has long claimed sovereignty over Navassa, based on its proximity and historical connections. Despite occasional diplomatic flare-ups, the island remains under U.S. control but is largely ignored in the broader narrative of American territory.

Today, Navassa Island is a wildlife refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its isolation and lack of human presence have allowed it to become a sanctuary for wildlife, particularly seabirds and marine species. The surrounding coral reefs are vibrant and healthy, home to a diverse array of fish, corals, and other marine life. The island itself is covered in scrub and cactus, with seabirds like the brown booby and the red-footed booby nesting in its cliffs and crevices.

The island’s natural beauty is stark and wild, a slice of Caribbean wilderness that has remained largely untouched due to its inaccessibility and the protective measures in place. It’s a reminder of what the Caribbean might have looked like before human intervention, a glimpse of a world that has vanished from much of the region.

Despite its status as a refuge, Navassa Island faces numerous challenges. The isolation that has protected it also makes it difficult to manage and monitor. Illegal fishing and poaching are constant threats, and the impact of climate change on its delicate ecosystems is a growing concern. The island’s future, like that of many isolated wildlife sanctuaries, is uncertain, dependent on the broader environmental and political currents that shape our world.

For the few who have the opportunity to visit, Navassa Island offers an unparalleled experience of solitude and natural beauty. It’s a place where the sky and the sea meet in a dazzling display of color and life, where the only sounds are the wind, the waves, and the calls of seabirds. It’s a place that feels a world away from the bustle of modern life, a forgotten corner of the Earth where nature still holds sway.

Navassa Island’s story is a microcosm of the larger narrative of human interaction with the natural world. It’s a tale of exploitation and neglect, but also of beauty, resilience, and the enduring power of the wild. As it sits quietly in the Caribbean sun, Navassa continues to be a symbol of the forgotten places on our planet, the wild sanctuaries that still exist in the margins, and the ongoing struggle to protect and preserve these precious remnants of the natural world.

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Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!