|The following is reprinted
Reader Plunges Into History Again
The guano-rich Chincha Islands of Peru (1863)
The next time a pigeon drops a load onto the windshield of your car,
spare a thought for the guano miners of Peru's Chincha Islands. They spent
their working lives knee-deep in the stuff.
The economies of most countries are founded on things like farming or
factories. But that was not the case for Peru, the mountainous South American
country just north of Chile. Back in the 1800s, this country's national
wealth was based on bird poop!
THE REIGN OF SPAIN
The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru in 1532. After
taking a good look around and figuring out that the local Indians would
be no match for Spanish firepower, he claimed the country for Spain. In
1533, he did away with Atahuallpa, the Incan king, and formally made Peru
a Spanish colony. The Spanish remained in control for the next 300 years.
When independence came in 1821, the Peruvians suddenly realized that they
had to look out for themselves. One of their main problems was how to
make money. Peru wasn't overly blessed with natural resources, but it
did have a lot of birds. And where there are birds there's usually a whole
lot of bird crap.
Guanay cormorant (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii) - photo: Jens
It's true what they say: birds of a feather really do flock together.
And the area where all discerning South American cormorants love to flock
to is a group of three unimpressive-looking lumps of Pacific rock just
off the coast of Peru called the Chincha Islands. Maybe it's the fishing;
these seabirds just love to hang out en masse there. And what
do cormorants do after they've gorged themselves on the poor, unsuspecting
anchovies that swim in the waters thereabouts? Well, they relieve themselves.
In fact, they've been doing it there for centuries. So, by the early 1800s,
the Chincha Islands were coated in a very deep and very smelly layer of
Don't ask who discovered that bird poop, or guano, was an excellent fertilizer,
but it's true that few things will help your roses bloom better than a
good dollop of cormorant droppings. So, starting in the 1840s, citizens
of Peru, under the control of a military strongman called General Castilla,
realized that there was white gold in the hills. And that all that waste
was too good to, well, waste. The general dished out licenses to highest
bidders (or bribers) to "mine" guano. And he set himself and
his cronies up in prime positions to exploit the amazing profits that
were expected from guano sales to the United States and Europe.
The only problem was, who in his or her right mind would want to spend
days working on what are possibly the smelliest islands on Earth, knee-deep
in guano, while being dive-bombed by incontinent cormorants? The people
of Peru were poor and desperate, but they weren't that desperate.
The usual solution to this sort of problem is obvious: oppress your local
minority. Castilla tried this, but there just weren't enough natives to
go around. Fortunately, one of the important businessmen controlling the
guano trade, Domingo Elias, knew where he could get his hands on some
really cheap labor: namely, China. The Taiping Rebellion in China was
a civil war that drove hundreds of thousands of Chinese out of the country.
Many were desperate to leave and would go anywhere: the United States
to build the railroads, England to work in sweatshops - or the Chincha
Islands to mine guano. The first coolies (from the Hindi word kuli,
which refers to an unskilled laborer, usually from the Far East, hired
for low or subsistence wages) arrived in 1820. Soon, they were probably
wishing they'd stayed home. They were kept in conditions of near slavery
and were flogged if they didn't meet their quota of two to five tons of
guano - each! - per day. Needless to say, they were paid terrible wages.
The only avenues of escape were suicide or opium, both of which were rife
on the islands.
CLEANING UP THEIR ACTS
Castilla and his bunch of guano gangsters did very well. During the 1850s,
there was so much guano waiting to be shipped out that vessels would commonly
have to wait at the dock for 30 to 80 days to load up. Between 1840 and
1875, the value of Peru's exports rose from 6 million pesos to 32 million
pesos ($43,351 to $231,226). Unfortunately for the rest of Peru, Castillo
and company didn't get around to plowing the profits they made back into
the economy. In fact, on the rare occasions they did, the results were
disastrous. Again using coolie labor, Peru built over 770 miles of railroads
around the country in the 1860s, at a cost much higher than the profits
yielded by the guano trade. In just a few years Peru leaped from last
to first place as the biggest borrower on the London money markets.
By the 1860s, new and cheaper forms of fertilizer were being developed.
Guano's big rival was salitre, or nitrate of soda. As most of the salitre
trade was conducted through neighboring Chile, Peru began to lose out.
Then, in 1866, Spain tried to recapture the Chincha Islands from Peru.
Although Peru won that little skirmish, the financial cost of the war
was crippling. In 1879, Peru went to war with Chile in an attempt to wrestle
control of the salitre trade. Peru lost the war in 1881 and was occupied
by Chilean soldiers, who went on an orgy of looting and destruction. The
Golden Age of Guano was well and truly over.
ENOUGH OF THIS POOP
By the time Peru got back on an even keel in the early 1900s, it had
learned not to place all its cormorant eggs in one basket. It diversified
into agriculture, copper mining, oil production - in fact, anything that
didn't involve guano.
And today? Well, those hungry cormorants are still creating one almighty
mess on the Chincha Islands. But fortunately for all involved, there are
no Chinese laborers to clean up after them.