“Fertile” Fortunes: The 19th Century’s Importation of Guano

Living in one of the Southern states in the U.S., the season when I do not “fight” the battle of bird droppings on my Buick Lacrosse does not exist. It is a fact of life that I pay for the sunshine and days of moderate temperatures. That being said, I found my recent research on Alexander von Humboldt and guano had me looking at the “gifts” from my fine feathered friends a bit differently.

Guanay Cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii) in the Walsrode Bird Park, Germany.  uploaded to Wikipedia by Quarti CC BY-SA 3.0

Guanay Cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii) in the Walsrode Bird Park, Germany.
uploaded to Wikipedia by Quarti CC BY-SA 3.0

What is “guano”? Guano is the excrement of sea birds (especially the Guanay cormorant, the Peruvian pelican, and the Peruvian booby) , cave-dwelling bats, pinnipeds, and birds, in general. The fertilizer created from these leavings is known for its high levels of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium, all essential to plant growth. The guano trade rose in the 19th Century becoming a soil builder for land greatly depleted from over production.

Before Humoldt’s expeditions, the Andean indigenous population collected guano from the sea islands along the Peruvian coast. Spanish colonists documented the means to which the rulers of the Inca Empire went to restrict access to guano, even punishing offenders with death. [Cushman, Gregory T. (2013). Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press] The Incas reportedly divided the guano-bearing islands among the provinces within their kingdom and dictated when and where it could be harvested.

Europe learned of guano’s use as a fertilizer from Alexander von Humboldt, who brought samples back to Paris from his 1806 voyage. Humboldt investigated guano’s fertilizing properties at Callao in Peru and later wrote of the topic. He gave the samples to Pourcroy and Vanquelin of Paris, who published the results of their experiments in the “Annales de Chimie” (volume 56). The western scientific community began to replicate the experiments.

One must recall “the Year without Summer” (1816) left much of Europe, England, and the United States in a devastated state. What the Napoleonic Wars had not destroyed upon the face of Europe the volcanic ash of Tambora did. Also, the early use of a three-crop rotation in England had taken its toll on the soil.

The first practical application of guano came in 1824. The editor of American Farmer purchased two barrels of guano and gave samples of it to various people in the Baltimore area. Edward Lloyd, the ex-governor of Maryland, declared guano “the most powerful manure he had ever seen applied to corn.” (Archipelago Bat Guano)

Twenty barrels of guano were received in England in 1840. “But notwithstanding the astonishing results from its application to the soil, the fear that enormous crops realized under its stimulus exhaust the land of its productive elements, deterred the great body of farmers availing themselves of so valuable a fertilizer.” [Journal of the American Geographical and Statistical Society (1895)]. Yet, the initial fears proved fruitless, and from 1841-1857, the United Kingdom imported over two million tons of guano fertilizer.

During the guano boom years, large quantities of the bird droppings were removed from the Peruvian guano islands, the Caribbean, the Central Pacific atolls, and the islands off the coast of Namibia, Oman, Patagonia, and Baja California. Some deposits were 50 meters deep. In 1856, the United States passed the Guano Islands Act, which gave U. S. citizens exclusive rights to unclaimed island deposits. A Peruvian-Chilean alliance fought the a war against Spain from 1864-1866 over the guano deposits. Saltpeter replaced guano as a fertilizer of choice by 1870. [“Guano”] Current DNA testing has suggested that new potato varieties imported alongside Peruvian seabird guano in 1842 brought a virulent strain of potato blight that began the Irish Potato Famine. [Dwyer, Jim (10 June 2001). “June 3-9; The Root of a Famine.” The New York Times. p. 2.]

1884 Advertisement for Guano - Public Domain

1884 Advertisement for Guano – Public Domain

In his Presidential address of 1850, President Millard Fillmore said, “Guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end.” [Salon]

By 1900, chemical fertilizers had replaced guano, but not before fortunes were made. Peru exported 20 million tons of guano and made a profit of $2 billion. Corporate giants such as W. R. Grace & Company, a Maryland chemical conglomerate, grew from their association with guano importation.

The Peruvian government “transferred the contract for the extraction of the guano to Anthony Gibbs & Sons” in 1855. “The firm’s profits from the guano trade were between £80,000 and £100,000 a year in the 1850s and 1860s with William [Gibbs] receiving between 50% and 70% of this until 1864, when he began to withdraw his capital. [Mark Girouard (1979). The Victorian Country House. Yale University Press.] William became the richest non-noble man in England, and remembered in the Victorian music hall ditty: “William Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” [James Miller (25 May 2006). Fertile Fortune – The Story of Tyntesfield. National Trust.] William Gibbs used the fortunes they earned from guano importation to build Tyntesfield Estate (Wraxall, North Somerset) and St. Michael and All Angels Church (Exeter).

Popular Fiction References:

• In Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel Lord Jim the characters Chester and Captain Robinson attempt to recruit the eponymous lead character for an expedition harvesting guano.
• The setting of Ian Fleming’s 1958 installation in the James Bond series Dr. No is on a Caribbean guano island, and the villain dies at the end buried in guano.
• In Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, Colonel “Bat” Guano leads an attack on the airbase responsible for sending a nuclear attack order to bomb the Soviet Union.
• The 1994 film Men of War centers on a band of mercenaries who are hired by an investment firm to seize a tropical island for its extensive guano deposits.
• In the 1995 film Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Jim Carrey’s character attempts to save an African tribe from being dispossessed of a fortune in bat guano. (“Guano”)

Meet Regina Jeffers:
A master teacher, for thirty-nine years, Regina passionately taught thousands of students English in the public schools of West Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina. Yet, “teacher” does not define her as a person. Ask any of her students or her family, and they will tell you Regina is passionate about so many things: her son, children in need, truth, responsibility, the value of a good education, words, music, dance, the theatre, pro football, classic movies, the BBC, track and field, books, books, and more books. Holding multiple degrees, Jeffers often serves as a Language Arts or Media Literacy consultant to surrounding school districts and has served on several state and national educational commissions.

Coming in 2015:
The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin: A Pride & Prejudice Mystery
Mr. Darcy’s Fault: A Pride & Prejudice Vagary
Angel Comes to the Devil’s Keep
A Touch of Emerald: The Conclusion to the Realm Series

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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2 Responses to “Fertile” Fortunes: The 19th Century’s Importation of Guano

  1. Pingback: Building an Empire, One Bird-Dropping-Covered Island at a Time | Commonplace Fascinating Facts

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