Isolated places: Jarvis Island

Jarvis Island, with the still standing day beacon.
A view of Jarvis Island, the still standing day beacon in the background.

The Pacific Ocean is home to many islands, but few are as shitty as Jarvis Island. This is true in both a figurative and a literal sense – the 4.5 square kilometer island is completely desolate, with a very sporadic history of settlement, and only sees scant rainfall that supports shrubs and a migratory population of birds. But at one time it was also home to a rich cache of guano.  We’ve discussed guano already in our entry on Clipperton Island, but this all-natural fuel plays a somewhat greater role in the history of Jarvis, which was included in the scope of the 1856 U.S. Guano Islands Act by which the United States Congress staked claims to various promising guano-filled islands.

Two years later, American workers sailed to Jarvis to implement a mining operation. Imagine, if you can, being a guano miner who has to live and work on a desolate, hot, sandy, windy, bird-shit-filled Pacific island. One hopes these men were well paid, though chances are that they probably weren’t, things being as they are. In any case, a small “town” was built on the island to house workers and managers and presumably some of the supplies that they had brought to sustain them, since Jarvis has no natural supply of fresh water and not much in the way of food, other than the wild birds that provide the island’s aforementioned shit.

A track built in the 19th century to cart shit around Jarvis Island.
A track built in the 19th century to cart shit around Jarvis Island.

This arrangement continued until 1879, when work stopped and the Americans returned home, leaving a big pile of mined guano behind them for some reason (perhaps the cost of bringing it back to the States was too great to justify.) A group of New Zealanders soon came to Jarvis to try to resume the mining operation, and they were followed by a British guano-mining company that claimed Jarvis in opposition to the US claim. Unfortunately, they only arrived after the man the New Zealanders left behind – alone, and with a lot of gin – killed himself after spending some months on the island as its overseer. It’s hard to blame him for his suicide if we imagine what a solitary life on such an island, with just a bunch of birds for company, would be like.

Despite the fact that Jarvis was such an inhospitable place, the US again took an interest in the island in the mid-1930s, when it implemented a plan to colonize it and the equally miserable Howland and Baker Islands. This is why maps of Jarvis Island contain a town called Millersville (named after a US bureaucrat who played some part in the project.) Several Hawaiian colonists moved to the island in 1936 and built some shacks that were partly made with materials from an old ship that had wrecked on Jarvis years before. Unfortunately for the bright future of human settlement on Jarvis, though, World War II and the Pacific theater put an end to it. Threatened by Japanese submarine activity, the settlers were evacuated by a US vessel and the settlement was bombed by said vessel, perhaps to keep Japan from using it as a landing base.

Ever since the evacuation, nobody has tried to live on Jarvis Island. The island is now closed to the general public and acts as a nature preserve, which is probably for the best. With the advent of better technology, though, maybe the island will be more hospitable to humans in the future.

Underwater, it's a different story. Jarvis Island seems to be a big party if you're a fish.
Underwater, in the coral reefs surrounding Jarvis Island, it’s a different story. Jarvis seems to be a big party if you’re a fish.

How to get there

Access to Jarvis Island is highly restricted by the United States, which requires visitors to hold official permits that have to be applied for (similar to the French requirement for a permit to visit Clipperton.)  And since permits to Jarvis Island seem to be impossible to get unless you’re a researcher attached to a university or a government agency, you’ll have a hard time traveling there legally if you aren’t one of those.  If you aren’t however, and you still want to travel to this ocean-bound hell of suicide and misery, you can take your own boat out of one of the other Line Islands to 0.3744° S, 159.9967° W.  If you’re found out and arrested, it’s not our fault.

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