Barack Obama was re-elected on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, as the 44th president of the United States of America (USA).
He became the first African American to hold the office when he was elected president in 2008, and his re-election in 2012 is seen as nothing short of historic. The world closely watched the activities leading up to the presidential elections and celebrated his re-election along with the United States. Obama fever was on and Jamaica was among the afflicted!
For instance, Dionne Jackson Miller, host of the popular radio current affairs programme on RJR 94 FM, “Beyond the Headlines,” tweeted throughout the whole presidential election and after – I stopped counting after 50 tweets! – keeping me and the rest of her Twitter followers quite informed. I just loved this tweet from Dionne after she listened to Obama’s speech:
Oh Dionne, you’ve got Obama fever!
So what can Jamaica expect from Obama’s re-election as president of the United States? Well, that remains to be seen. However, the deep interest and attention paid to the US presidential elections in Jamaica is evidence of the influence that our northern neighbour has had on Jamaica’s development throughout our history as a result of our geographical closeness. At times, though, both countries have not seen eye-to-eye.
One such thorny issue had to do with the low-lying offshore islets around Jamaica, specifically the Morant and Pedro Cays (pronounced ‘keys’ like the Florida Keys).
Jamaica is not a single island, as many naturally think. Jamaica is in fact an archipelago consisting of a chain of islands, rocks and cays. An archipelago is defined as a group of islands within 100 miles off the coast. Peter Espeut, a local sociologist, environmentalist and Roman Catholic deacon, conducted an inventory of Jamaica’s archipelago and found that this comprises 65 rocks, cays and islands.
Jamaica’s principal cays are the Morant and Pedro. The Morant Cays lies 53km to the south-east of Morant Point and consists of three islets. The Pedro Cays lie 64-80km south of Portland Point and include four islets.
Today the Morant and Pedro Cays are used by fisher folk as commercial fishing bases. Recently the Pedro Cays were in the news as a result of the Cays being used as a fishing base but without the requisite sanitary conditions being in place, despite years of promises by the Government to do just that. See this Jamaica Gleaner report on the health issues facing the fisher folk who’ve made the Pedro Cays not only their fishing base but also their home: JET, Clarke To Meet Over Pedro Cays Health Worries.
In former colonial days, however, the Morant and Pedro Cays were exploited for “guano, the valuable fertilizer derived from the excreta of bats and sea birds” (Senior 2003, pg. 104). However, the Morant and Pedro Cays did not have a clear owner until 1862 and 1863 respectively. According to the Handbook of Jamaica (1886, p. 546):
The Morant Cays and the Pedro Cays were taken possession of on behalf of the British Crown in the years 1862 and 1863, respectively, and it was at first intended that they should be annexed to Jamaica.
The Colonial government eventually decided not to annex the Cays to Jamaica or any other colony but to keep it for the Crown (Handbook of Jamaica 1886, pg. 546):
It was, however, subsequently decided not to annex these cays to any colony but to give the Governor of Jamaica power to “deal with” all guano islands or cays within the West Indian Naval Station which were not already dependencies of any British colony and which were, or might be declared to be, subject to British sovereignty.
The Colonial Secretary then gave the Governor of Jamaica the authority to grant leases to take guano from the cays (Handbook of Jamaica 1886, pg. 546):
Accordingly letters patent were issued in June, 1864, authorizing the Governor of Jamaica to grant leases of, and licenses to take guano from such islands Leases have under this authority from time to tie been granted by the Governor of Jamaica to different persons at the rate of £51 a year for the Morant Cays, and at the rate of £75 a year for the Pedro Cays. The cays are rented for the purposes of collecting guano, boobies’ eggs, turtle, &c.
Jamaican/American Disputes Concerning Rights to Guano Deposits on Morant and Pedro Cays
So what does all of this have to do with Jamaican/American relations during this time? The fact that the Cays did not have a clear owner meant that anyone could exploit the guano deposits found there. In fact, the Americans were the first to dig for guano on the Cays and, by right of discovery, kept all guano found. According to provisions within the United States Guano Act, passed on August 18, 1856, “whenever any American discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock or cay, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession, and occupies the same, such island, rock or cay may, at the discretion of the President of the United States be considered as appertaining to the USA” (Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2).
The Act further states however, that “the discoverer is required to satisfy the Department of State that his title is clear and valid” (Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2), meaning that there were no prior claims to the Cays.
Indeed, although the British Crown did not take official possession of the Cays until 1862 and 1863, the Jamaican Government “had exercised administration over the [Morant] Cays for a hundred years, and it is possible the passing of the Guano Act of the U.S.A may have led to its declaration in 1862, to make assurance doubly sure” (Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2).
This state of affairs over the valuable guano deposits on the Cays, however, brought the Jamaicans and Americans to blows over who had the right to the guano deposits. In fact, following on the declaration of British ownership of the Cays in 1862 and 1863, the Jamaicans now saw the Americans as interlopers. After complaints made by Jamaicans “that they had been subjected to ‘outrages’ by the crew of an American vessel” (Senior 2003, pg. 104) who were declaring ownership of the guano deposits by right of discovery under the United States Guano Act (1856), the Cays were formally annexed to Jamaica in 1882 (Handbook of Jamaica 1886, pg. 546):
…these cays have been formally annexed to the Colony of Jamaica, so as to give the Governor Sir Anthony Musgrave on the 9th of May, 1882, under the authority of those letters patent, issued a Proclamation declaring that the date of annexation should be the 1st of June 1882. For judicial purposes these cays form part of the parish of Kingston.
The following is an advertisement for a guano supplier in the Daily Gleaner for Monday, September 8, 1884, pg. 4:
The guano deposits at these cays were eventually exhausted and replaced with a vibrant trade in boobie eggs and turtles. According to the Handbook of Jamaica (1886, pg. 546) “sea birds arrive at these cays in great numbers during March, and in April the islets are covered with their eggs which are collected and conveyed in schooners to Jamaica” and “later in the summer turtle[s] are caught.”
While this dispute between the Jamaicans and the Americans concerning these Cays did not result in a break down in diplomatic relations, it did cause tensions between Jamaicans and Americans who were removing the guano from the Cays before the official annexation to Jamaica in 1882, with questions arising about the ownership of the cays and how best to protect Jamaica’s interest in them. For instance, in a letter highlighted in the Daily Gleaner for Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2, the letter writer, a Commodore Brown, noted that:
“…in the present legally undefined position of these Cays, which do not form part of the Colony, any persons employed at these places will find difficulty in obtaining effective protection, or redress for any grievance which they may suppose they have sustained at the hands of their employers.”
The questions concerning who owns the Cays were eventually answered when they were both annexed to Jamaica, effective June 1, 1882.
How many of you Jamaican Echoes readers knew about this bit of our history? I definitely did not know about this event in our past so I taught myself something new today!
Until next time…
Daily Gleaner, Saturday, September 10, 1881, pg. 2
Daily Gleaner, Monday, September 8, 1884, pg. 4
Drummond, Nashauna (2008). Jamaica: the Archipelago. Daily Gleaner, Tuesday, January 22, 2008.
Senior, Olive (2003), Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.
Sinclair, A.C. and Fyfe, Laurence R. (1886) The Handbook of Jamaica for 1886-87. London and Kingston.clair, A.C. and Fyfe, Laurence R. (1886) The Handbook of Jamaica for 1886-87. London and Kingston.
Wikipedia.com (2012). Barack Obama.