Peru's Pooper Scooper

The following is reprinted from Bathroom 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 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 Tobiska [wikipedia]


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 cormorant crud. 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.


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.


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.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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While the original use does come from the HIndi, the more common etymology for "coolie" when referring to Chinese is the homophonic representation in Mandarin, which means "bitter strength".
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