Navassa Island: Haiti and the U.S.
A Matter of History and Geography


Serge Bellegarde
October 1998

Once again, the issue of Navassa Island has been forcefully revived more so in Haiti than in the United States. The issue acquires an even larger dimension in this time of political sensitivity and heightened nationalism. This past August, the Washington Post reported how a group of American scientists had been to the island to discover a treasure trove of hundreds of biological species. In the words of Nina Young, a scientist with the Center for Marine Conservation, « Navassa may possess some of the most pristine and healthy coral reefs in the US » (Emphasis added)

The US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt admitted, in an interview given shortly after the discovery, that he did not have a clue as to the location of the island. For a Secretary who took pride in knowing te geographical location of every piece of federal land under his jurisdiction , the myth was shattered with Navassa Island when he said on National Public Radio in Washington that he wondered « whether it was in t he Arctic, the Atlantic or the Pacific… »(All things considered-News Program, NPR August 14 1998). When this issue hit the press in Haiti, the Haitian newspaper Haiti en Marche reported that the US Ambassador in Haiti, Thimothy Carney, made matters worse by declaring with arrogance that the island belonged to the United States which « claimed it in 1857 under a law that asserted US sovereignty over any uninhabited island that contained guano, a valuable fertilizer (The Washington Post, Monday August 17, 1998, page A03). Never mind that the island is located only a few miles from the coast of Haiti, between Haiti and Jamaica, and 200 miles from the mainland of the United States. A look back at some of the constitutions of Haiti would greatly contribute to put the issue of Navassa Island in perspective and hopefully clear up the confusion that the US Government seems to be creating about the legitimacy of Haitian claims over the Island.

When on January 27, 1801, General Toussaint Louverture took over the Island of Santo Domingo which had been ceded to France by the Treaty of Bâle in 1795, he immediately set out to write a constitution, his intention having always been for the Island to become independent. Thus on July 8, 1801, the Constitution was promulgated in the city of Cap. In the first Constitution, even before the birth of the independent nation, and after independence, similar language was used in the articles dealing with sovereignty over the adjacent islands. We reproduce below those articles in different Haitian Constitutions dealing with sovereignty over these islands.:

Constitution of 1801

Art. 1. The whole territory of Saint-Domingue and Samana, La Tortue, la Gonave, les Cayemites, l’Ile-à-Vaches, la Saone as well as other adjacent islands, (Emphasis added) constitute the territory of one colony which is part of the French Empire, but is submitted to specific laws.

Imperial Constitution of 1805

Art. 18 Are considered integral parts of the territory of the Empire the following islands: Samana, La Tortue, La Gonave, les Cayemites, l’Ile à Vâche, la Saône and other adjacent islands. (Emphasis added)

Constitution of 1806

Art. 29 The Island of Haiti, along with the adjacent islands attached to her constitutes the territory of the Republic of Haiti.

Constitution of 1816

Art. 40 The Island of Haiti, along with the adjacent islands attached to her constitute the territory of the Republic of Haiti

Constitution of 1843

Art. 1 The Island of Haiti and the adjacent islands attached to her constitute the territory of the Republic of Haiti

Constitution of 1846

Art. 1 The Island of Haiti and the adjacent islands attached to her constitute the territory of the Republic of Haiti

Constitution of 1849

Art. 1 The Island of Haiti and the adjacent islands attached to her constitute the territory of the Republic of Haiti

Constitution of 1867

Art.1 (second paragraph). Her territory and the islands, which are attached to her, are inviolable and cannot be alienated by any treaty or convention.

It is evident that the expression « adjacent islands », covers all islands in the vicinity of Haiti’s mainland. Under international law, a coastal State exercises sovereignty over a territory adjacent to its continental shelf. Under the notion of adjacency, and given its geographical location, Navassa Island is certainly part of the territory of Haiti. Furthermore, at the time that the United States is alleged to have claimed the island because it was uninhabited, under the Constitution of Haiti, it was Haitian territory even if it was uninhabited. It is logical to conclude that the takeover of the island did not have anything to do with law, but rather with the law of the mighty over the weak.

With the Constitution of 1874, the language regarding sovereignty over the adjacent islands becomes much more precise: The second paragraph of Article 2 reads as follows:

These adjacent islands are:

La Tortue, La Gonâve, l’Ile-à-Vaches, les Cayemittes, La Navase (emphasis added) la Grosse-Caye and all the others which are located within the limits prescribed by the rights of the people.

The Constitutions of 1879 and 1889 retain the same language as that of 1874 in their corresponding articles.

When, in a communication dated March 10, 1858, the British Consul in Haiti, Henry Byron, wrote to his minister, the Earl of Clarendon, Secretary of State of England, that he had been notified that some American citizens had set foot on the island and had claimed it as US territory, raising the US flag, he was going to unleash a flurry of diplomatic and political activities involving the British, the French and the Americans. Byron wrote the following: « …inquiries were made by British subjects resident in Jamaica whether a small Island called Narvassa, lying between that colony and Hayti and distant about thirty miles from the Pointe des Irois at the South-Western extremity of this Island, belonged to England or to Hayti… » He asserted that General Dufrène, the Haitian Foreign Minister, « assumed » that that was the case, given the geographical situation of the Island. However, he continues, after checking at Port Royal with the Commodore Kellett to inquire about the status of the island, « previously to the receipt of Commodore Kelletts’ letter, I had ascertained that Narvassa was undoubtedly a possession of Hayti ».

Apart from the economic interests at play --the Island contained one million tons of Guano, a precious fertilizer of a very high market value –the issue of sovereignty over Navassa once more highlighted the ferocious competition which characterized the relations between the British and the French Governments on one side and the American government on the other, all of them represented in Haiti by their respective consuls. When the American Peter Duncan set foot in Navassa and erected the American flag on it, the British Consul Byron immediately notified his counterpart the French Consul Millet, so that they could present a common front to prevent the Americans from obtaining a foothold in the area. Here is how he expressed himself to the British Foreign Office : « Convinced of the great value of a cordial united action here between the Consulate-General and the French Legation in Hayti in matters of any apparent political importance as regards the foreign relations of Hayti… »

Emperor Faustin Soulouque who was elected President in 1847 governed Haiti at the time. If, in many respects, the Soulouque regime was a dictatorship pure and simple from which the Duvalier regime heavily borrowed, he « showed a heightened sense of national dignity in the conduct of its foreign policy , » even though he did not succeed in reclaiming the Dominican Republic which had declared its independence in 1844.

The Haitian Government immediately went on a diplomatic offensive by seeking to enlist the support of the British and French Consuls in this matter. It is interesting to contrast their reluctance to this request with the eagerness with which they were pushing the Haitian Government to take action against the Americans. Here is how the British Consul reacted to the Haitian request for support : « We replied that we had no authority to make any promise, pledge or engagement whatever in the name of either your respective Government or such a subject, but that we would not fail to inform… » Soulouque and his Minister understood that Haiti had to act alone in this matter, whatever it took.

While the Haitian Foreign Minister informed the British and French Consuls that through Haiti’s agent in the United States, Mr. Clark, Haitian Consul in Boston, the Haitian Government would lodge an official protest, Soulouque had long concluded that only force would yield results and he had proved that he would not be swayed by any foreign pressure. Indeed, the British and French Consuls had « suggested to the Haytian Gvt the policy of their sending one of their own vessels to Narvassa with a view to ascertain any further knowledge of that Island and of the actual state of affairs … » Soulouque went much further than that. He decided in April 1858 to send two war vessels to Navassa Island with instructions to use force to expel the American settlers. The following quotes from the British Consul’s May 10, 1948 letter to his Foreign Ministry shows how displeased the French and British Consuls were that they were not « informed » of the actions: « Had this suggestion being followed, as they promised it should be, we should have been spared, I doubt not, the unpleasant exchange of notes forming the correspondence of which I have the honor to transmit a copy to your Lordship….At any rate, we had a right to expect that any future conversations or correspondence that might take place respecting the affair of Narvassa, would at least be marked on the part of the Haytian Government with the frankness and candour corresponding with the friendly manner in which we had conveyed to them intelligence of serious importance….. »

On April 24, 1858, the French and British Consuls wrote the following to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Haiti: « After the personal efforts that the undersigned had made with the Minister of Foreign Affairs to inform him of the occupation of Narvassa par citizens of the United States to extract guano, they should expect that no measure would be taken by the Haitian Government concerning this issue without it being communicated to the undersigned. Above all, they are particularly surprised that the lack of regards went so far as to hide to them the sending of an armed expedition. They find themselves in the situation of having to notify the Minister of Foreign Affairs that they are expecting from him at the earliest possible time detailed explanations on the nature of weapons as well as the true destination of the force… » The arrogant tone of this letter is only matched by a deep concern on the part of the Consuls: they were wondering whether Soulouque had abandoned the idea of reconquering the Dominican Republic and whether these vessels were going to be used to launch an invasion of the Dominican Republic on this occasion.

It is an understatement to say that Soulouque and his minister were most furious at this interference on the part of the Consuls. The Count of Terrier-Rouge, the Minister of the Interior and interim Foreign Minister answered the query in those terms: « …The expedition in question is a measure adopted openly and publicly by the Government. It is not a clandestine one. The Government of H.M. had to act in this manner to verify the occupation of part of the Haitian territory…The Government of H.M. has never believed that in such a case, it was obliged to submit his decision to the appreciation or the control of foreign representatives who had sent it an unofficial communication on the matter. The Government of H.M. does not have to furnish explanations, which asked, of it in such an authoritarian way, regarding an issue related to its internal administration.

The Government of H.M. does not comprehend the behavior of the representatives of the two powers with whom the empire is most concerned with maintaining the best possible relations. This behavior leads it to some painful thoughts and the undersigned is charged with communicating his profound regrets about that. We certainly cannot be given the responsibility of showing a lack of regards towards the representatives of these powers, rather, they are the ones who do not take into account the Sovereignty and the Independence of Haiti. …. »

The form and content of this letter shows not only the Minister’s skillfulness in dealing with this delicate diplomatic and political issue, but also the firmness of convictions which came to characterize the Foreign policy of the Soulouque regime. Not wanting to back down, the British and French Consuls reiterated their views that the Soulouque Government had deceived them and that the Minister should « inform them if the expedition announced to go to Navassa has been ordered to take the Island by force in case of resistance by the people who have settled on the Island… » The Haitian Minister on his part insisted on the « absolute right of the Haitian Government to adopt the measure being applied… ». However, keenly aware of Haiti’s limitations in the face of such a coalition, the Minister skillfully conveyed the information to the Consuls in a way which could not be viewed as a backing down: « The Minister of Foreign relations is convinced that his language which has been imposed on it by the circumstances was not offensive..…It wishes to reiterate that the measure taken by Her Majesty’s Government does not harbor any hidden armament. Two vessels of the flotilla are simply going to carry delegates sent on the site to explore it and become informed of the occupation of Navaze. This mission is a peaceful one anyway and enclosed is a copy of the instructions which have been given to them…. ». The Minister also insisted that it was «  essentially an internal affair; indeed, it was the territory of the Empire and a mission conducted within its jurisdiction. ».

What course of actions the Soulouque regime would have followed remains opened to speculations, since it was overthrown in 1858 by Geffrard. Those events suspended all activities regarding Navassa Island. However, a study of Soulouque’s foreign policy indicates a pattern of firmness and conviction coupled with diplomatic skills unexpected from a regime which, on the domestic front, acted so repressively.

The fact that in 1998, the question of sovereignty over Navassa Island resurfaces which such virulence shows that the issue remains a sore point of contention between Haiti and the United States. Indeed, by virtue of its geographical location and of constitutional history, one would be hard pressed to argue the fact that Navassa Island is part of Haitian territory. Article 8, paragraph a of the 1987 Constitution retains the language of the Constitutions of 1874, 1879 and 1889, stating specifically that Navassa Island is part of Haitian territory. However, it is a sad fact that it is not easy to find a map of Haiti actually showing the Island of Navassa. Whatever one may say of the Soulouque regime, he never hesitated to use all diplomatic means at his disposal to attain his foreign policy goals.