How to Claim Your Very Own Island

Thanks to a 19th century law, Americans can lay claim to any uninhabited island with birdshit on it.

by Michaela Cross
Apr 6 2016, 5:57am

A bird on Baker Island, which was claimed under the Guano Island Act. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 1964 Leicester Hemingway, brother of the acclaimed author, celebrated Independence Day not with fireworks but by founding his own country. The new island nation—called New Atlantis—consisted of an eight-by-30-foot raft tied to an old Ford engine, and lay just off of the Jamaican coast. The self-declared president claimed one half of the raft for himself and the other for the United States of America. And he did so citing an old law about birdshit, one that remains on the books today.

New Atlantis was the joke, and the Guano Island Act the punchline. Created in 1856 for the easy acquisition of guano—shit, in this case from seabirds, which was used as both fertilizer and gunpowder—the act has been used to justify everything from libertarian fantasies to imperialism itself. It works like this: Find an unoccupied island, confirm the existence of birdshit, and stake your claim.

"Bird and bat shit was essential for the health and defense of countries in the 19th century," explained historian Matthew Raffety, an expert in the American maritime law of that time. "There was a huge boom to claim any poop-bespeckled rock that broke the waterline."

Guano is good for two things: growing plants and blowing shit up. In a rapidly expanding America, both uses were extremely desirable, so farmers and adventurers alike lobbied for an easy way to get their hands on the stuff. But acquiring new territory was no easy feat in the years leading up to the Civil War, since each new piece of land added to the US reignited the slavery debate. If that was going to happen every time a shit-covered rock appeared, it was going to take a while.

But then, Congress found a solution.

"They created a new, ill-defined legal category," explained Raffety. "These islands would not become 'territories' of the US, but instead would simply 'appertain' to the US. We'd sort of take control on a temporary basis. Basically, if you found a poop-rock that was unclaimed, you claimed it, and would be paid for the deposits, and your claim would be backed by the US."

The law created the slippery new category of "territories," which belong to the US, but don't have those pesky constitutional rights. Once the guano rush subsided, America started using this law less and less for collecting fertilizer and more and more to claim rocks in a game of imperialist chess. "It ended up being the beta test for American imperialism, for having territory that the US governs but does not need to extend the full set of rights and opportunities," said Raffety.

Related: How the Internet Forever Changed Starting Your Own Country

The Guano Act is how America got its first bite of Hawaii, and why we now have an underwater empire three times the size of California. Leicester Hemingway had no intention of mining guano, but neither did America when it acquired "Danger Reef" and "Scorpion Reef." New Atlantis was a play on this hypocrisy, as well as a way to make dough by creating commemorative stamps.

So could the act still be used to claim your own island? The answer is yes, but not without some difficulties.

Firstly, unclaimed islands are usually unclaimed for a reason. The US retains 12 islands under this act—some are almost entirely submerged, others are without water. Jarvis Island, claimed under the Guano Act in 1858,had a brief golden period when it was overrun with cats, but these were determined an environmental hazard and eventually exterminated. Most of the islands are declared national monuments simply, it would seem, because they're not good for anything else.

Nations have other reasons for claiming islands that have less to do with sunbathing and more to do with exclusive economic zones. That's why European nations were arguing over a rock called Rockall for decades: The surrounding waters and airspace were far more valuable than the rock—sorry, island—itself. Sandbars and volcanic eruptions mean that islands pop up all the time, but whether or not they're livable (or even pleasant) is another matter entirely.

Secondly, countries don't exactly like it when you claim their rocks. That's what American real estate monger Michael Oliver discovered after he dumped a boatload of sand on a reef near Tonga in 1972. His declaration of the "Republic of Minerva" was met by a hearty Tongan welcome in the form of a warship. The next day, the Tongan flag was flying on Minervan sand, the middle finger of international law.

Your best bet is to find an island off of US territory and hope it doesn't wash away.

"I do think you'd be on the hook to mine the guano," pointed out Raffety, "at something like $6 a ton, if I'm remembering correctly."

The Principality of Sealand. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

If you're worried the Office of Insular Affairs (which controls the "Minor Outlying Islands") will force you to become a guano-laborer on your new island paradise, take a leaf out of President Hemingway's book and claim the island for yourself.

"There's no law that says you can't start your own country," Hemingway told the Washington Post back in 1964, speaking in regard to the second half of his island.

Whether or not that's true is boring and complicated, but what definitely is true is that international sea law isn't really backed up by anything. "The thing about an international law is it's only as good as the community of nations' ability or will to enforce it," said Raffety. "Despite what's been a dream since at least the 1890s, there never has been a real universal law of the sea."

Which is why many have founded their own micronations. They might not be recognized by other nations, but according to Prince James of Sealand, an unrecognized (or in his words, "self-declared") micronation in the North Sea, "Sovereign statehood requires four things: A defined territory, a government, a permanent population, and the ability to communicate with other nations."

That said, even Sealand, which consists of only a rusty WWII gun platform, experienced an attempted coup when two German businessmen betrayed the nation and held the Prince Regent captive.

"[My father] was held at gunpoint and locked in a room," said the prince. "With his arms and legs bound, they dangled him over the side and threatened to drop him into the sea."

The Prince Regent was eventually released, and after gathering reinforcements, reclaimed his island-fort with a Bond-like escapade involving a helicopter and some rope. But the incident shows that even claiming the most humble nation is not without its dangers. The freedom that allows you to claim sovereignty can also lead to you being held captive by power-hungry German businessmen in your very own floating prison. Thus, the lawless nature of the sea is something of a double-edged sword.

Still, there are still those interested in founding their own islands—from libertarian dreamers like Paypal's Peter Thiel to pranksters like Atlantium's George Cruickshank. And while Leicester Hemingway's New Atlantis may have quickly joined the old Atlantis at the bottom of the ocean, self-declared micronations continue cropping up and the Guano Act remains. The UN can write as many sea laws as it wants but Sealand's motto remains largely true:E Mare Libertas.

From the sea, liberty.

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