Want to live on your very own island? Of course you do. Believe it or not, there’s a federal law which could (at least in theory) help you snag one for free. First, you’ll need to make sure that it’s covered with fecal matter. Let us explain.
In 1856, Capitol Hill stood divided as ever over slavery, but politicians north and south of the Mason-Dixon line could all agree on one thing: America desperately needed more bird poop.
Avian excrement was big business at the time. For at least 1500 years, South American farmers had used dried seafowl feces, which the Quechua and later the Spanish called “guano,” as a fertilizer. Soluble and nutrient-rich, its virtues were many. Coastal Peru in particular had an abundance of this material, since the country’s warm climate attracts migratory birds en masse.
So, naturally, Peru was a big player in the international guano market. And during the 1840s, demand for this “white gold” soared like a high-flying albatross. Across the Atlantic, it proved sensationally popular with British agriculturalists. In 1842, Antony Gibbs and Sons—a U.K. trading company—entered Peru’s bird scat game. By 1848, they’d built a worldwide monopoly: as one common jingle declared, “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs selling the turds of foreign birds.”
Uncle Sam didn’t appreciate said “dibs.” From New England to Louisiana, U.S. farmers jumped all over the guano bandwagon. Yet, domestic fowl couldn’t squeeze out sufficient quantities and, thanks to British merchants, imported waste came with a steep price tag. Many attempts were made at busting the U.K.’s stranglehold, but none proved successful.
Public outcry escalated until, finally, Congress hatched a solution. Senator and former New York governor William H. Seward introduced a bill that ultimately became the Guano Islands Act. Passed on August 18th, 1856, the law still stands.
LAW OF THE LAND
According to the Act, should a U.S. citizen find guano upon “any island, rock, or key,” that person may claim the territory for America. However, there are a few provisos. The spot in question can’t be inhabited or fall “within lawful jurisdiction of any other government.” Furthermore, when all is said and done, the claim’s validity remains subject to the president’s “discretion.”
Assuming the island you happened upon satisfies all these requirements, there may be a few perks in store for you. At “the pleasure of congress,” a discoverer may be granted the “exclusive right” to live on his or her island “for the purpose of obtaining guano, and of selling and delivering the same to citizens of the United States.”
Prospective salesmen shouldn’t plan on getting rich, by the way. After carting up top-quality poo for shipment, you can’t charge more than $8/ton in 1856 dollars (the bill itself makes no allowance for inflation adjustment, but you might be able to argue for one anyway, which would bring the price up to roughly $222.22/ton). Those who’d rather let someone else come along and physically gather it will have to make do with half as much.
Also, don’t think that you can just go around breaking federal laws once you’re settled. In 1889, a murder took place upon the Caribbean island of Navassa, which was obtained through the Act. This led the Supreme Court to decide that since the terrain was U.S.-owned soil, the American legal system still applied there.
STAKING A CLAIM
Navassa’s guano mining operations ceased when President McKinley had the island evacuated in 1898—just after the Spanish-American War broke out.
Eighteen years later, Woodrow Wilson officially reserved this now-abandoned place for the construction of a lighthouse. In so doing, ownership of Navassa was effectively revoked from the eponymous Phosphate Company and the area fell under federal custody.
America’s coast guard would maintain a presence on the otherwise-uninhabited locale until this lighthouse made the transition from being human-operated to automated. In September, 1996, the U.S.C.G. removed its equipment and personnel, leaving Navassa empty again.
Entrepreneurs love nothing more than a vacuum. Pasadena resident Bill Warren assumed that because the coast guard had abandoned Navassa, it was ripe for the taking. “I flexed my muscles,” he said, “and claimed the island under the Guano Act.”
By then, guano—long upstaged by artificial fertilizers—had once more become a valuable resource thanks to the rise of organic gardening. Suddenly, Navassa’s abundant bird waste made her smell like a malodorous gold mine. Warren wasted little time.
The Act never states that U.S. citizens can’t claim an island that’s already been claimed and abandoned. Hence, Navassa looked like fair game. The Californian filed an “affidavit of discovery, occupation, and possession” with the State Department. Frustratingly, he didn’t get an official response. Several unanswered faxes later, Warren sued his own country in 1997, arguing that this silence had cost him $12 million worth of lost revenue (eventually, he demanded $50 million).
Alas, fate wasn’t with him. The Guano Islands Act only grants temporary licenses to operate on a given landmass. The year 2000 saw a U.S. Appeals Court rule that our government may terminate these licenses at any time. Furthermore, since Wilson’s lighthouse project had long-since placed Navassa under federal ownership, nobody could use the Act to claim it.
Therefore—as the court explained—Mr. Warren had “failed to demonstrate a legally cognizable interest in Navassa Island or its guano.”
SPREAD YOUR WINGS
Certain claims may have died awkward legal deaths, but—in the end—Seward’s brainchild helped his country nab over 100 outcroppings such as Johnston Island, which hosted a strategic airbase during World War II.
Hypothetically, one can still capitalize on the Guano Islands Act. The main snag, of course, is our planet’s dearth of available, jurisdiction-free land. Hence, your best bet might involve volcanoes. This past winter, underwater eruptions produced an entirely new Pacific island. Keep your fingers crossed that it's covered in bird poo.