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Before the Falklands -- the Swan Islands

By Hewson A. RyanHewson A. Ryan is Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and former US ambassador to Honduras. / May 14, 1982



As the world watches the convulsions resulting from a minor but neglected sore point in British-Argentine relations, it might be instructive to recall a successful United States initiative on a similar problem.

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The Swan Islands, two minuscule Caribbean islands -- each a kilometer wide by three kilometers long -- located some 120 miles off the coast of Central America , were a continuing irritant in US relations with Honduras for over half a century. Conflicting claims of sovereignty between the mighty US and one of its smallest and weakest traditional friends cast a pall over otherwise amicable relations.

First discovered by Columbus on his fourth voyage, the islands had gone practically unnoticed, except for occasional visits from pirates, the filibuster William Walker, and occasional fishermen, until the middle of the 19th century. At that time a burgeoning world demand for fertilizers led to a search for ''guano,'' the natural fertilizer deposited by birds on islands in the tropical zone. These islands were unusually well endowed with guano.

In 1856 the US Congress, probably under pressure from the guano lobby, passed the Guano Act proclaiming that any uninhabited island containing guano could become US territory by merely being registered with the US government. The Swan Islands were so registered by an enterprising American in 1862.

In the following years the islands were mined for fertilizer by various US enterprises and used as a wireless radio station by the United Fruit Company which also grew coconuts there commercially. For a short period of time during the early 1960s, the CIA used the site for an anti-Castro radio station.

During the latter half of the 19th century, Honduras, probably not even aware of the US claims, had made no attempt to assert its sovereignty over the islands. In 1921, however, the government of Honduras presented its first formal claim to the US, asserting its sovereignty as the successor government to the Spanish discoverers.

The US equivocated then and on other occasions during the next several decades. In 1963 President Kennedy in a joint statement with the President of Honduras affirmed his intention to seek a mutually acceptable solution to the conflicting claims. Meetings were then held, but no progress ensued.

United Fruit Company and CIA radio use of the islands faded away, but a US weather station and an aerial navigation beacon remained. In the meantime Honduran public opinion was growing restive and was constantly inflamed by political orators against the ''illegal'' US occupation of Honduran soil. Honduran diplomats presented formal protests of continued US occupation of the islands and lodged vigorous complaints at such US actions as taking a census of the island's 20-odd inhabitants (mostly US Weather Service personnel plus a few Caribbean fishermen and their families).

In Honduras student protesters regularly stoned US diplomatic and consular buildings and painted walls with slogans demanding the return of the islands. In 1966 a group of university students chartered a launch and staged a symbolic invasion and flag raising to the surprise and wonderment of the island's inhabitants.

Finally in 1969, as the newly appointed US ambassador to Honduras, I was fortunate enough to be able to take with me the blessings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and instructions from the State Department for a decisive negotiation on the status of the islands.

Agreements were reached which permitted the continued operation of the US installations, the validation of existing land titles, respect for the status of the few inhabitants living there, and the recognition of Honduran sovereignty over the islands.

A treaty incorporating all of this was drafted, signed, and ratified, and on Sept. 1, 1972, the President of Honduras was able to help raise his nation's flag over this tiny but significant portion of Honduran territory. A potentially difficult and embarrassing situation for the US had been avoided.

There are great differences between the case of the Swans and that of the Falklands, but there are parallels, too. The Argentines naturally noted the parallels rather than the differences.

At the time of the treaty signing there was wide Argentine press, radio, and television coverage of the Swan Islands transfer of sovereignty, and the Argentine ambassador in Honduras, a distinguished historian in his own right, later published a lengthy treatise on the case which was widely circulated in Latin America.

The US has resolved several similar thorny territorial sovereignty issues with hemispheric neighbors. These have included Panama and the Canal Zone and Mexico and the Chamizal. Our hemisphere is still plagued with similar minor territorial disputes. Chile and Argentina, Venezuela and Guyana, Guatemala and Belize are typical examples. The Falkland and Swan cases demonstrate that they should not be neglected.