News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 16, 2012

Bruce’s History Lessons: The Guano Islands Act: Legislation for the birds

Bruce Kauffman
Special to the Tribune-Star

---- — It isn’t every day that the U.S. Congress passes legislation that encourages and protects American access to bird excrement, but the Guano Islands Act did just that. It passed this week (Aug. 18) in 1856.

Obviously, some background is in order. In the mid-1800s the world’s population — America’s especially — was growing significantly, meaning nations had to grow more crops to feed their people. Unfortunately, constant farming exhausted the soil. In particular it depleted the nitrogen in the soil, which is a critical component in supporting plant life because (as we all learned in high school) plants need nitrogen to complete the photosynthesis process that makes plant life possible.

A fertilizer was needed that would restore nitrogen, and guano — which is essentially bird droppings — was discovered to be an excellent nitrogen source.

Its first large supplier was the Chincha Islands off Peru, where large populations of large seabirds fed on the anchoveta fish in the waters around the islands. Over the years the resulting bird droppings produced layers of guano hundreds of feet thick, and soon the Peruvian government was exporting guano as a highly effective fertilizer.

Guano was slow to gain popularity in Europe, mostly because transporting large quantities of bird excrement across the Atlantic Ocean did not strike many shipping companies as an exciting prospect. But as European harvests declined and farmers searched desperately for an effective fertilizer, guano eventually came to the attention of the European agricultural community.  And when its use resulted in the doubling and tripling of European harvests, guano became in such demand that the Peruvian government nationalized the Chincha Islands and began charging exorbitant prices for guano. By some estimates in the four decades Peru was the major guano supplier, it earned $200 million dollars.

Most European nations, although grumbling constantly, had no choice but to pay, but in America, where guano also became an agricultural staple, resentment grew against the Peruvian monopoly, especially since it was aided and abetted by powerful British import-export firms — firms whose highest priority was satisfying British agricultural interests .

And so Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which enabled American citizens to seize any island anywhere that contained guano deposits, while also empowering the president to use military force to protect that seized property. The only stipulation was that the island could not be occupied by, or within the jurisdiction of, another government.

If it all sounds a bit silly, consider what effect fertilizers such as guano have had on human existence. From the beginning of human history to 1850 — many thousands of years — the global population grew to 1.2 billion people. From 1850 to today — not even 200 years — it is 7 billion people, and counting.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.