Guano, “Fertile Fortune” of the 19th Century

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. https://commons. Leucocarbo_bougainvillii_qtl2. jpg

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

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 – When Guano Imperalists Ruled the Earth]

611a3bc0f70af99535de8cddbfaccfbdBy 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).

51F0XHYQ+sL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_EXCERPT: As bizarre as it may sound, I actually used “guano” in one of my Jane Austen plot lines. In Mr. Darcy’s Fault: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary, we discover how forward thinking Darcy is when he invests in “guano.” 

The day at the museum brought Darcy such joy that for a few stolen moments, he abandoned his fear of Georgiana’s ruination and his fear of Elizabeth’s eventual refusal. A man of more worldly experience than he would likely think Miss Elizabeth’s curiosity cumbersome, but Darcy found the lady’s insightful questions exhilarating. In the realm of flirtations, Darcy often stumbled. Because of his wealth, women feigned interest in what he shared, but Darcy recognized their true intents written upon their bored expressions. However, Elizabeth Bennet hung on his every observation; she challenged him and teased and was thoroughly enchanting. If his heart were not already engaged, the afternoon’s outing would secure Darcy’s regard for the woman.

“My father’s Cousin Samuel traveled with Alexander von Humboldt in the Americas,” Darcy explained as they strolled through the numerous displays. “Naturally, Cousin Samuel’s participation piqued my interest in the expeditions. I devoured von Humboldt’s earliest accounts of the journey and am anticipating the next volume. Cousin Samuel offered to introduce me to the man if this madness with Napoleon ever knows an end. Von Humboldt took residence in Paris.”

“Papa wished to read the gentleman’s findings,” Elizabeth said with a bit of awe.

Darcy drew her closer for enjoyed the warmth of her body claiming his.

“It would be my pleasure to permit Mr. Bennet to borrow the books. Pemberley’s library holds books on a variety of subjects.”

Elizabeth glanced at him, and Darcy noted the upcoming tease forming upon her features.

“Do you think to seduce me, Mr. Darcy, with an offer of free rein for my dearest parent in your renowned library?”

Seduce, Darcy thought. If only.

“Would my doing so secure your agreement to my proposal, my dear?” Darcy whispered for her ears only.

Elizabeth blushed the most enticing shade of rose.

“I shall add your promise to the list of your positive traits, Sir.”

“Is there any chance the positives might some day outweigh the negatives?”

“Perhaps.” Elizabeth gifted Darcy with a beguiling smile. “Even your innate stubbornness can be viewed with new eyes.”

Darcy barked out a laugh, which had Bingley and Miss Bennet turning to stare back at him.

“You are delightful, Elizabeth Bennet.”

Elizabeth tightened her grip upon his elbow.

“Tell me more of Mr. von Humboldt. Papa says the gentleman knows much criticism for his Romantic school of thought and for his neglecting of the human societies of the lower Americas.”

The fact Elizabeth Bennet knew something of von Humboldt’s studies did not surprise him. In the months Darcy “studied” her, he recognized Elizabeth’s potential as the mother of his children. He held no doubt Pemberley’s future would depend upon his heir possessing a fine mind for the impossible.

“On the contrary,” Darcy explained, “the gentleman dedicated sections of his works upon the poor conditions the African slaves endure each day. Von Humboldt’s disgust for the issue of slavery, as well as the inhumane conditions inflicted upon the indigenous peoples by colonial policies coat the man’s descriptions. Mr. Bennet would find the gentleman’s observations quite informative. As for me, I welcome von Humboldt’s observations on guano.”

“Guano?” Elizabeth asked with a deepening of her adorable frown lines.

Darcy’s lips turned upward.

“It is a type of fertilizer made from the leavings of seabirds, cave bats, and seals. Guano is richer in what the land requires than what we currently use. I instigated a four crop rotation upon the estate, but the land still suffers from overuse. Of late, I invested in an expedition, which will recover guano for importation into England.”

“You are always looking to the future,” Elizabeth whispered in reverence.

“I hope to secure ‘our’ future, Miss Elizabeth,” Darcy corrected.



About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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