I’m just going to lay this out there right now: This story ends with Ernest Hemingway’s brother sitting on a 30-foot raft in the middle of the Caribbean.
But first, let’s talk about Bill Warren.
Bill Warren is an entrepreneur, treasure hunter, Frank Sinatra impersonator, former Christian music host, and about 30 other descriptors. He’s probably a huckster, but he’s our kind of huckster. You’ve almost certainly seen something about him: This Treasure Hunter Says He Has Located Bin Laden’s Body. I could spend the next 2,000 words just writing about Bill Warren, but you’re here for the guano, so just read this exhaustive, entertaining, hilarious article bout him by CJ Ciaramella: The Nearly Astonishing Tale Of Bill Warren, Treasure Seeker.
Flashback to 1997 and Bill Warren has a new plan to make millions: Navassa. Navassa is one of the few guano islands not in the Pacific. Its claim is disputed by the United States and Haiti. It was the site of a brutal workers rebellion which led to the Jones v United States Supreme Court ruling that established federal jurisdiction over insular areas and led to the expansion of US oversees territories. Meter-for-meter, it’s one of the most politically complicated pieces of real estate in the US. So Bill Warren staked a claim, because, why not?
The Guano Island Act of 1856 is still on the books. If you found an unclaimed and uninhabited island in international waters, today, and it had guano on it, you could plant the US flag and claim it as yours under the Guano Islands Act. There actually are still uncharted and unclaimed islands out there, and new islands are still being formed, most commonly via volcanism, but, increasingly, through glacial retreat. Your best bet for finding a new island in international waters, beyond the 200-mile EEZ, is to watch the arctic, as melting sea ice reveals previously covered landmasses, like Uunartoq Qeqertoq, literally “The Warming Island”.
Warren wasn’t betting on new islands, though, he was betting on old islands, and Navassa, a grim piece of rock with no fresh water and imposing cliffs. He sued the federal government over ownership, claiming he had been given the deeds from some of the original claimants heirs. His case was promptly dismissed. Guano island claims are licenses to mine that terminate when the island is abandoned (though the US can still opt to maintain possession of the territory).
As a side note, Warren sought help from his local congressman, and was promptly blown off by Rep. Duncan Hunter. In retaliation, Warren decided to run against Hunter. He got 4 votes.
Bill Warren’s is not the strangest tale to come out of the Guano Island Act. Not by a long shot. That honor belongs to Leicester Hemingway, brother of the famous author, and the Republic of New Atlantis.
Hemingway wasn’t looking for guano. He was looking to start a new nation on the high seas. On July 4, 1964, he piloted a 30-foot steel and bamboo raft out into the Caribbean, 12.9 miles from the coast of Jamaica (at the time international waters, now part of Jamaica’s EEZ), tied it off to the engine block of an old Ford, and declared himself leader of a new nation, under the Guano Island Act. There is no indication that he ever mined guano, but, presumably, at least one seagull had to despoil his shiny vessel in order for him to make a guano claim.
Unlike Warren, Hemingway was tolerated. Jamaica was entertained by the entire endeavor, and, being outside of their waters, caused them no real hardship. The US just watched.
Hemingway’s plan was to establish a research institute to study the oceans, and use sales of stamps, passports, and other memorabilia, as well as tourism to fund the project. That is not too different from the Principality of Sealand, which still operates, today, sort of.
(An aside: Isn’t naming your country New Atlantis tempting fate a bit? That’s like naming a ship the New Titanic, right?)
Two years after launching, the Republic of New Atlantis was destroyed in a storm.
Hemingway’s nation-building wasn’t done though. Seven years later he would found Tierra del Mar, on a Bahamian sandbar. The US State Department did not take kindly to this attempt and quickly quashed it.
In an official department memorandum, Hemingway was described as “not a kook.”