1521: Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham 399 BCE: Socrates

1891: Benjamin Harrison spares the Navassa rioters

May 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1891, U.S. President Benjamin Harrison settled a death penalty case from the remote Navassa Island by granting a commutation.

Back in the 19th century, islands stacked high with guano were worth their weight in bird crap. The phosphate-rich dung piled meters-deep in some places, and could be mined for agricultural fertilization and for use in gunpowder and explosives.

In 1856, Congress even passed a Guano Islands Act empowering skippers to plant the stars and stripes on any of these lucrative little turd reefs they happened to run across. That’s how the U.S. came to possess, for instance, Midway Island … and more than 100 other islands as well.

Most of these claims have long since been ceded, but a few remain today. One of them is (still!) Navassa, a three-square-mile speck off the coast of Haiti, 100 miles south of Guantanamo Bay.

Today, Navassa is uninhabited and administered by the Department of the Interior on somewhat disputable footing. (Haiti, just two miles away, also claims Navassa.)

But in the late 19th century, its sweet, sweet guano was being extracted by a Baltimore-based firm known as the Navassa Phosphate Company. This operation employed 137 African-American laborers, moving groaning shitloads of product by raw muscle power under a blistering tropical sun … and under 11 white overseers.

The nature of the assignment — an island very far from the nearest American settlement, with no other industry, community or outpost to repair to — made taking a job on Navassa almost like hitching on somewhere as a sailor: you were off to a little floating dictatorship, with no way out until the end of the contract.

Navassa’s overseers turned out to have a taste for the cat o’nine tails, and worse.

“The conditions surrounding the prisoners and their fellows were of a most peculiar character,” Harrison noted in his eventual commutation order.

They were American citizens, under contracts to perform labor upon specified terms, within American territory, removed from any opportunity to appeal to any court or public officer for redress of any injury or the enforcement of any civil right. Their employers were, in fact, their masters. The bosses placed over them imposed fines and penalties without any semblance of trial. These penalties extended to imprisonment, and even to the cruel practice of tricing men up for a refusal to work. Escape was impossible, and the state of things generally such as might make men reckless and dangerous.

Or, as a naval inspection judged it, Navassa resembled “a convict establishment without its comforts and cleanliness”: people being worked brutally to the bone during their contract, eating rancid rations and living in filth.

Not surprisingly, Navassa’s “convict” laboring population rebelled in 1889, and in a vicious hour-long riot slew five overseers while maiming several others.

Warships calling on the island shipped 18 back to face murder charges; ultimately, three black guano-miners were sentenced to death for the affair.*

However, a huge clemency push spearheaded by the Baltimore-based black fraternal organization the Grand United Order of Galilean Fishermen raised the cry to spare the condemned men.

Guano harvesting resumed after the riot, but was aborted in 1898 by the Spanish-American War; the Navassa Phosphate Company fell into bankruptcy, and although the U.S. later threw up a lighthouse on Navassa to aid Panama Canal-bound vessels, it’s been effectively uninhabited ever since.

* The appeals arising from the Navassa conviction generated the 1890 Supreme Court case Jones v. United States, affirming Navassa’s American territoriality, and establishing Congressional jurisdiction over violations of U.S. law that didn’t take place in any particular state. This bit of jurisprudence has turned up all over the place in the century-plus since it was issued.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Navassa Island,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rioting,USA

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One thought on “1891: Benjamin Harrison spares the Navassa rioters”

  1. Meaghan says:

    I was doing an “around the world book challenge” thing for a few years with an attempt to read one book set in every nation on earth. (Plus a few places that weren’t nations but should be, such as Tibet.) For the tiny Pacific island country of Nauru I read a book called “Paradise for Sale” which was about how it became rich off its phosphate and then came to ruin because of it. Virtually the whole island was made of phosphate except for a thin strip around the shoreline. Nauru strip-mined itself to death over the course of a century and became fabulously rich. Now the phosphate is gone and so is the money, and Nauru is a moonscape and the people are very unhealthy, with over 90% either overweight or obese and 40% with type 2 diabetes.

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