Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Howland Island

Louisiana was named for the French Emperor and Maryland for the English Queen, Rhodesia for the explorer who discovered it and Greenland for its ice; Howland Island was named for the lookout in the crow's nest of the good ship "Isabella", an American whaling vessel under the command of Captain George E. Netcher of New Bedford, who sighted the island on September 9th 1842, and wrongly assumed that nobody until then knew of its existence. In fact, several whaling ships had already sighted it, including Captain Daniel McKenzie, also of New Bedford, who recorded doing so in December 1828 with his whaler the "Minerva Smyth", but did not name it, because it was already named, as Worth Island, after Captain George B. Worth, who discovered it in the Nantucket whale ship "Oeno" in 1822 and did not have the good grace to name it for the lookout who first saw it, but did what most bosses do, and took the credit and the glory for himself.

Worth Island it may have been, but Howland Island became its formal name when, on February 5th 1857, Alfred G. Benson and Charles H. Judd landed there in smallboats from the Hawaiian schooner Liholiho, which was under the command of Captain John Paty; they raised the American flag, and claimed the territory in the name of the American Guano Company of New York, by erecting a small house and "leaving various implements of business." The two remained, with a number of "native labourers" (native to Hawaii that is) until the 26th, filling the smallboats with as much guano as they could manage.

The Liholiho (the name means "glowing" in Hawaiian and was the epithet for the island's second king, Kamehameha II)
 was also responsible for naming and claiming Jarvis Island and Baker Island on that voyage, shortly after which The Great Guano-Digging Operation began, not quite on the scale of gold-prospecting in the Yukon or oil-exploration among the Beverly Hillbillies, but in the guano-digging world the rivalry between the American Guano Company and the United States Guano Company was equivalent to Apple versus Microsoft or McDonalds versus Burger King, and let's be honest, guano is guano. 

And what, I hear you ask, is guano? The word is properly wanu, in the Quechua language of the Andes mountains, but rendered in Spanish with a guttural "g" as guano, and it refers to the excrement of seabirds, cave-dwelling bats and virtually any other winged creature that flies in the region, including the Bar-Tailed Godwit and the Baseball-Glove-Throated Pelican, but not the Twin-Engined Lockheed Electra, which cannot make the journey. Worth, or Howland, was an uninhabited atoll that had for millennia provided a wildlife toilet in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a service station stop-over for the annual migration. Millennia of accumulated bird-shit is also an accumulation of natural minerals whose qualities are extremely useful; very high quantities of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, all of which make for top quality fertilisers; and this was the start of the epoch of the intensive farming industry, but still before the invention of artificial feeds, nurturers and composts, so guano was a godsend. Such vast quantities of guana were mined by those two US companies - and of course, once they heard about it, British pirates had to get in on the act as well - that within fifty years guano had become an endangered species, and the booming industry crashed.

And that would probably have been the last mention of Howland Island in the history of the world, but for an extraordinary woman named Amelia Earhart, whose attempt to fly around the world, single-handed, following the line of the equator, in precisely that Twin-Engined Lockheed Electra mentioned earlier, ended with her disappearance on July 2nd 1937, somewhere over Nikumaroro atoll in Kiribati. Earhart was heading for Howland Island, accompanied by her navigator Fred J. Noonan, to use its human toilet facilities and to refuel her plane; what happened is still a subject of much fascination and enquiry among journalists, scientists and airplane enthusiasts. What is known goes something like this:

At that time the Americans were attempting to colonise the atoll, the first potential residents arriving in March 1935, on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter "Itasca". Among other priorities, they established a very primitive airfield, named Kamakaiwi Field in honour of one of those first residents. In March 1937, when Amelia's global circumnavigation approached its final stages, heading east over the Pacific before returning to ground zero in America, a ship named the "Shoshone" was dispatched to Howland, with equipment and labourers to complete the airfield in a hurry, under the supervision of one Robert Campbell. Amelia was in Honolulu, waiting to make the next stage of the journey, and would have taken off on March 19th, except that she crashed the plane while trying to do so, and had to stay while it was being rebuilt. By June the airfield at Howland was ready, and Amelia and Fred were on Oahu, "The Gathering Place", the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands, ready to head for Lae in New Guinea, the next service station before Howland Island. They left Lae on July 2nd, but never arrived at Howland Island. For several weeks ships combed the area, but the only trace of the Lockheed that has yet been found is a piece of aluminium picked up on Nikumaroro atoll in 1991. Researchers at TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), have authenticated the piece, which was a patch of metal installed on the Electra during Amelia's eight-day stay in Miami, the fourth stop on the outward part of her journey. Amelia never reached Howland Island in body, but she is there in spirit: Earhart Light, a day beacon near the middle of the west coast, was named in her memory.

Amelia's Electra, with an arrow to indicate the part that dropped like guano over Nikumaroro atoll

You will be able to read much more about Amelia when my novel "A Journey In Time" is published in 2016. In the meanwhile, you can listen to Joni Mitchell's splendid tribute to Amelia by strumming the link on Joni's name.

Howland Island, to add one last piece of information. was established as a National Wildlife Reserve in 1974.

Marks For: 1937

Marks Against: 0

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2015 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

No comments:

Post a Comment