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HOWLAND ISLAND

     

Howland Island lies 1650 sea miles to the southwest of Honolulu, and 48 miles north of the equator. It and Baker Island, which lies about 35 miles to the south and a little east, are located northwest of the Phoenix group, and a 1000 miles west of Jarvis.

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Howland is a low, flat, sand and coral island, shaped like a flattened "hot dog" or elongated bean. It is a little over a mile and a half long, by a half mile wide, with a maximum elevation of 18 to 20 feet, and a land area of about 400 acres. It is surrounded by a narrow fringing reef, just awash at low tide, off which the ocean deepens rapidly except at the north and south ends.

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The entire western or lee beach is sandy and low, that on the eastern or weather side higher, more abrupt, and covered with coral rubble and sandstone slabs. There is no pronounced beach crest and no central basin (dried up lagoon) such as one usually finds on such flat coral islands.  Most of the Island is flat as a board.  For this reason it was naturally adapted to development as an airfield. Part of the north central portion has been dug over for guano, and there are some artificial trenches near the kou thickets, but otherwise most of the surface is quite flat.

Only six species of plants were found on Howland, prior to its recent occupation. Lepturus bunchgrass, Boerhaavia herb, and two kinds of purslane or pig weed (Portulaca lutea and oleracea) dominate the surface. There are scattered patches of Tribulus, and a few small clumps of scrubby kou trees (Cordia), apparently more dead than alive, due to the dryness and nesting birds.

The climate is decidedly warm and dry, although, not disagreeably hot, except in the noonday sun. Occasional light showers fall, especially in the early morning. The columns of warm air, arising from the sandy flat, helps to prevent the formation of clouds over the island, and hence heavy tropical showers by day. The winds blow almost continually from the eastward, south of east in summer, north of east in winter.The usual species of sea and migratory birds are found on Howland. A variety of the small, grey Polynesian rat has been so abundant as to cause much distress to persons living on the island. The presence of this rat, kou trees and a few archaeological sites, such as stone paths and pits in which food plants might have been cultivated, suggest that the island was known and visited by Polynesians. There are the usual hermit crabs and insects, and marine life abounds.

Captain George E. Netcher of New Bedford, who visited Howland in the whale ship Isabella, September 9, 1842, is credited with naming the island, it is said, for the lookout who first sighted it. But there is no doubt that it was seen and perhaps even landed upon by several vessels prior to that, one of which was the American whaler Minerva Smyth, Captain Daniel McKenzie, of New Bedford, December 1, 1828. Later many whalers stopped there, and on it many a fine ship was wrecked. It was called Worth Island after Captain George B. Worth, who discovered it in the Nantucket whale ship Oeno, about 1822.

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On February 5, 1857, Alfred G. Benson and Charles H. Judd landed on Howland from the Hawaiian schooner Liholiho (Captain John Paty), raised the American flag, and took formal possession in the name of the American Guano Company, of New York, by erecting a small house and "leaving various implements of business." They stayed until the 26th, taking a generous sample of the guano which they found in great abundance.

On the same cruise of the Liholiho, Jarvis and Baker islands likewise were claimed, and shortly thereafter guano digging operations were begun on them by the American Guano Co., under bonds 1 and 2, dated October 28, 1856. But strangely, claim was not made to Howland until December 3, 1858 (bond No. 4), and accounts of guano enterprise generally assign it to the United States Guano Company.

The reason for this was this competition between two guano companies for the use of the island. In June, 1859, representatives of the American Guano Co. were landed on Howland. The same month the ship Ivanhoe arrived, hoping to get possession for the United States Guano Company, but left, disappointed. However, the latter company somehow managed to get a toehold on the island, for in February, 1861, it was learned that Captain Stone of the American Guano Company's brigantine Josephine landed on Howland and politely notified two agents of the United States Guano Company, whom he found there, to be ready to leave whenever the opportunity offered. Thereafter Howland was visited regularly by the American Guano Company's vessel which brought supplies to the guano islands.

The years 1870 to 1872 marked the peak of Howland guano digging. Between August and December, 1870, with Captain Ross as superintendent, seven ships (German, British, and American) were loaded with 7,600 tons of guano, in 109 working days, a record for this guano island. American guano digging enterprise seems to have come to an end on Howland in October, 1878, when "Captain Jos. Spencer, wife, and 3 children, E. Wheeler, Chas. Hines, John MacWiggins, Gabriel Holmes, and 34 native labourers" returned to Honolulu aboard the Joseph Woolley.

John T. Arundel and Co. occupied Howland between 1886 and 1891, using 100 natives from Niue and the Cook group to perform the physical labour. Allen F. Ellis gives interesting notes concerning this period in "Adventuring in Coral Seas."

American colonists were established on Howland, March 30, 1935, from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. The airfield is called Kamakaiwi Field to do honour to a veteran colonist of this period.

Howland Island came into prominence in 1937, through the world flight attempted by Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred J. Noonan. In March the Shoshone hastened to Howland, where work was rushed to complete the airfield, under the supervision of Robert Campbell, so that the fliers might land there on the flight between Oahu and Lae, New Guinea. An accident during the take-off at Wheeler Field, March 19, prevented the flight at that time.

In June the fliers made a successful trip in the opposite direction as far as Lae, from which they took off for Howland on July 2, but did not arrive. During the next few weeks numerous vessels combed the area, but no trace of the fliers has been found. The lighthouse on Howland has been called Amelia Earhart Light.

 
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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 3rd December 2012)