In 2007, U.S. National Public Radio news reported that the head of Ulysses S. Grant had mysteriously disappeared from its place of honor in a small African island. Not Grant’s actual head – it remains safely interred in the eponymous tomb, quite close to Columbia University – but the head from Grant’s statue, which, until recently, had stood proudly in Bulama Island, in Guinea-Bissau. President Grant, it turns out, had served as “Arbiter” in a nineteenth century dispute between Britain and Portugal over which colonial power had sovereignty over the island, which led to him awarding the territory to Portugal. After Guinea-Bissau achieved independence in the mid-1970s, the Grant statue was among the few “vestiges” of its “colonial past” that survived – that is, until, an apparent metal shortage prompted unknown persons to attack the statue in 2007, which was later found “buried – headless and sliced into pieces.”
On one level, this might seem an unfortunate denouement to an otherwise successful arbitration, perhaps even disrespectful of the 18th President (if decapitation qualifies as disrespect). If one takes the time to read the Bulama Island award, however, there is somewhat less cause for concern. The award itself is underwhelming: it is barely one and a half pages long, and its “reasoning” occupies only one paragraph. The award refers to “evidence,” but this was drawn only from written submissions made by the disputing parties and evaluated by a State Department official, who appears to have drawn up an award for the “Arbiter” simply to ratify, with the stroke of a pen. So it is not as if President Grant put too much effort into the decision. And by modern standards, it would hardly qualify him for admission to the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators.