War of Bird Poop

Believe it or not, back in the 1840’s there was a war over bird poop. Europe and the USA had a population growth in the 19th century that strained the limits of agriculture. The land needed a boost of nutrients to grow food. A naturalist, Alexander Von Humboldt had discovered that plants around the desert coastal areas of Peru had been fertilized with guano and grew well. The pre-Columbian civilizations of the Incas and Moche had practiced agriculture with the dung. The seabirds on the islands and islets of Peru deposited excrement in layers over a hundred feet deep on these undisturbed islands. The dry climate preserved the nutrients in the mountains of dung. Vast flocks of numerous varieties of seabirds gathered to feast on the schools of fish that teemed in the waters cooled by the Peru current.

The first delivery of Peruvian guano arrived at the docks of Southampton, England and caused a stir because of the stench. Guano’s miraculous properties caused demand to skyrocket and triggered a financial boom. The Peruvian government allowed British and French companies to collect and trade the commodity in return for a cut in the profits. Merchants bought the guano for 12 pounds sterling per ton and sold it for double the amount. The boom sparked a search for new guano reserves. The USA wanted access to cheaper guano, but was frustrated by established British interests in Peru. The US government took formal action in 1856 and passed the Guano Islands Act. This allowed American citizens to take possession of any island containing deposits of guano, provided it wasn’t inhabited or under jurisdiction of another state.

Removing solidified bird feces was hard work. The workers inhaled noxious dust that contained pathogens which caused respiratory illnesses and dysentery. The government had problems keeping workers either from the people dying or refusing to work. Chinese indentured servants were brought in, but it proved to be too much endurance. Pacific islanders were recruited. Prompted by guano fever, the US took over territories in the Pacific and Caribbean. In 1889, the guano workers revolted and killed the supervisors. In the end, dwindling reserves deflated the guano bubble.

Norway started production of artificial nitrogen fertilizer in 1905 after the era of guano was over. The USA in 2014 applied preservation over guano-bearing islands. The Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument is the world’s largest marine reserve. Approximately, 490,000 square miles are protected now.Ireland Mizzen Head

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