Guano Mania

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 2014 President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, making it the largest marine preserve in the world at the time.

News Report:
The Pacific Remote Islands Marine Preserve is farther from human settlement than any other US territory. The President’s expansion of the reserve today will close 490,000 square miles of largely undisturbed ocean to commercial fishing and underwater mining.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And if you look at a map, the Preserve really is nowhere near the United States. It’s thousands of miles from the US mainland.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Emmett FitzGerald.

Emmett FitzGerald:
It’s not even that close to Hawaii.

Roman Mars:
Yet somehow President Obama was able to protect this piece of ocean in the name of the United States.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And to understand how the United States has jurisdiction over these waters in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, we’ve got to go all the way back to the 19th century when for a brief period, US sailors scoured the oceans looking for rocky islands covered in guano.

Roman Mars:
Which a lot of people think of as just bat poop.

Paul Sutter:
I think most people think of guano as bat poop, but in this case, we’re talking about birds and seabirds. So, seabird poop.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Paul Sutter.

Paul Sutter:
I’m a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In the mid-1800s, the United States became obsessed with the quest to find and sell guano to use as fertilizer on farms.

Roman Mars:
People believed it would revolutionize farming, and it did at least for a little while. But the quest for bird poop ultimately had even bigger ramifications. The use of sea bird poop as fertilizer starts in South America.

Paul Sutter:
Oh, it originates with deposits off the coast of Peru, off Southwest Peru, and particularly three islands there called the Chincha Islands.

Roman Mars:
The Chincha Islands are in the middle of a nutrient-rich current with tons of plankton and massive schools of fish.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And there are sea birds that live on the islands getting fat off all these fish.

Paul Sutter:
They’re gorging themselves on anchovies and they’re defecating all over these islands across hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Roman Mars:
And it almost never rains on the Chincha Islands. So over time, the guano just keeps piling up.

Paul Sutter:
And as a result, these deposits built up to almost a hundred feet deep in places.

Roman Mars:
That’s the size of a 10 story building – of poop.

Emmett FitzGerald:
For centuries, the Quechua people in Peru would mine these guano mountains and spread the bird poop out on their fields.

Roman Mars:
And it worked. They were really successful farmers.

Paul Sutter:
And the Spanish who colonized the region began noticing this, and really dabbled in it.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But scientists in Europe didn’t really get interested in guano until the famed Prussian naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt visited the Peruvian coast in 1804. He saw laborers unloading ships full of bird poop, and he took a sample and brought it back with him to Europe.

Roman Mars:
In the early 19th century, a German chemist named Justus Von Liebig began arguing that soil fertility basically came down to just a few critical nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Paul Sutter:
And that soil fertility can be restored or maintained by adding those nutrients, those chemical or mineral nutrients back to the soil.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Peruvian guano had really high concentrations of all three of these nutrients, especially nitrogen.

Paul Sutter:
It was the agricultural analog to discovering gold.

Roman Mars:
The Peruvians began to mind guano on a commercial scale, and they struck deals with British merchants to sell Peruvian guano back in Europe.

Paul Sutter:
And they set up shop on the Chincha Islands, and they initially rely on local semi-coerced labor, but eventually, they get into importing Chinese laborers. This is a form of bonded contract labor, so they’re also paid very little. It’s a very abusive labor system, they are misled in terms of the terms of this deal.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The miners lived on the islands in tents and bamboo shacks, and they hacked away at the guano deposits with shovels and pickaxes for up to 17 hours a day.

Paul Sutter:
They’re chipping away at this guano. They’re sending it down giant shoots, often right into the holds of ships. This is incredibly acrid, caustic stuff. It gets in their lungs, and it’s really debilitating.

Roman Mars:
But soon farmers all across Europe were using Peruvian guano on their fields.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Two of the companies profiting the most off this new trade were W.J. Myers from Liverpool and Gibbs & Sons from London.

Paul Sutter:
There was a little slogan that said, ‘the house of Gibbs made their dibs selling the turds of foreign birds’.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Word of the fertilizing power of seabird poop eventually reaches the United States where commercial farming, and particularly on slave plantations in the south, had stripped the soil of a lot of its nutrients.

Roman Mars:
Historically, farmers would plant cover crops, practice crop rotation, or raise cattle for manure production in order to keep their soil healthy. Or they would just farm a field until they had exhausted its nutrients, and then move on to a new piece of land.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But British merchants began advertising a new product that would help American farmers stay in one place and maximize their yields. Peruvian guano.

Paul Sutter:
Planters begin to experiment with it as a way of increasing their yields and in some cases have really good results.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Soon agricultural publications in the US were praising guano’s magical properties, and farmers throughout the country began using it to fertilize their fields.

Roman Mars:
By the late 1840s, the United States was in the grips of what historians have called ‘guano mania’ importing tens of thousands of tons of bird poop every year.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The US was bird shit crazy, but because British firms had a monopoly over the Peruvian guano trade, guano was expensive. And so, farmers began to petition Washington to help them get cheap guano.

Paul Sutter:
At one point, the president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, in his 1850 annual address makes ‘guano security’ kind of an important point of that address.

Excerpt from Annual Address:
“Peruvian 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.”

Emmett FitzGerald:
But Fillmore was mostly talk, and guano prices continued to soar. And so, US businessmen start to take matters into their own hands.

Roman Mars:
They began going out looking for other islands with new sources of guano.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And these bird poop prospectors come across an uninhabited island in the Caribbean called Aves.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
In 1854 a group of Americans landed there to mine the guano, and attempted to claim the island.

Emmett FitzGerald:
That’s Christina Duffy Ponsa.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
And I’m a law professor at Columbia.

Roman Mars:
And Ponsa says that US guano mining on Aves set off a minor diplomatic crisis. Venezuela felt that the island belonged to them, and they ended up sending a warship to kick the guano company off the island.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But when they got home the guano prospectors asked Congress to pass legislation that would protect them as they try to claim new islands.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
So, US citizens could feel like they had the backing of the US government if they encounter a controversy.

Roman Mars:
Like military backing, meaning you guys can go out, take these islands, and if anyone shows up with warships, we’ll bring ours, too.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And in the debate over this legislation, politicians argued about guano prices and other details, but there were also some senators who expressed a larger concern. They worried that by taking over islands for the purposes of mining guano, the United States could be perceived as having Imperial aspirations.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
Secretly trying to set up colonies and engage in territorial expansion by claiming islands in the Atlantic and the Pacific and all over the world.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And a little context is important here. This is all happening against the backdrop of European colonialism. Great Britain is about to establish its colonial government in India, and various European countries will soon colonize nearly all of Africa.

Roman Mars:
The United States had taken over much of North America and violently stole territory from indigenous people. But political leaders at the time didn’t think of this as colonialism, because the US always incorporated new territory into the country rather than maintaining colonies.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The US also prided itself on being a nation born out of a revolution against an Imperial power.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
So, the United did then and has always conceived of itself as an anti-imperialist country, and distinguished itself from European powers who in this period in the 19th century were acquiring territories all over the globe.

Roman Mars:
And so, even though in the case of the guano islands, they’re talking about claiming uninhabited rocks, some senators think that this looks a little too close to colonialism for comfort.

Emmett FitzGerald:
So, they work on developing language that will mitigate any fears that the US is trying to set up overseas colonies.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
So, eventually as the Senate goes through a series of drafts, the way that the islands are described is not as part of the territory of the United States or subject to the sovereignty of the United States. Those words drop out. They are described as appertaining to the United States, as in a sort of fancy old fashioned way of saying belonging to.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Appertaining. The thing about that word was that at the time, no one really knew what it meant from a legal perspective, but it was softer than saying ‘we own this, it’s ours’.

Roman Mars:
The senators also included an abandonment clause which said that the United States could relinquish possession over the islands once the guano had been exhausted.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And with all these caveats in place, in 1856 Congress passed the Guano Islands Act.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
And at that, point American citizens start claiming islands all over the place, it’s really companies that want to mine this guano, starts sending people out and telling them to claim these islands.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In total US companies claimed over 70 islands throughout the Pacific and the Caribbean.

Roman Mars:
Indigenous Polynesians and Hawaiians mined guano for US companies on far-flung Pacific islands.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And after the civil war, guano companies recruited free black men to mine guano on Caribbean islands. Like in Peru, US guano mining was brutal, and workers were often coerced and horribly mistreated.

Roman Mars:
Guano mania didn’t last all that long in the end.

Emmett FitzGerald:
By the 1870s, the vast guano deposits on the Chincha Islands were almost gone.

Roman Mars:
Many of the islands the United States took didn’t turn out to have very good guano, and synthetic fertilizers were just around the corner.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And while the history of the guano trade isn’t often talked about, it had lasting impacts that are still incredibly relevant to this day.

Roman Mars:
The guano trade introduced the idea that soil fertility could be bought and sold. Instead of carefully tending to their soil on the farm, farmers could just buy this guano supplement and sprinkle it on their fields. This paved the way for the fertilizer fueled industrial agriculture that we see today.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And the Gguano Islands Act set a precedent that would help enable future acts of American imperialism on islands that were very much inhabited.

Roman Mars:
Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States goes to war with Spain over the occupation of Cuba, and the US wins.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
So, after the Spanish American war, what happens is the United States takes Puerto Rico and the Philippines and Guam as basically part of its war booty for defeating Spain in Cuba.

Roman Mars:
And to be clear, these territories were taken as spoils of war, not as part of the Guano Islands Act. But when the US annexed these island territories in 1898, it sets off a huge debate about what to do next.

Emmett FitzGerald:
You could make these places in the States, but the white political establishment wasn’t too excited about absorbing a bunch of islands full of people of color.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
It’s about race more than anything else. White Americans want the nation to be a white nation. So, this is the same period of time in which Americans start tightening their immigration laws.

Roman Mars:
But politicians were reluctant to give up territory with real strategic value.

Emmett FitzGerald:
In 1901 this question about the status of Puerto Rico and the Philippines makes its way to the Supreme Court in a case involving goods that are shipped from Puerto Rico to the United States.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
The dispute arises around a shipment of oranges from Puerto Rico to New York. When the shipment arrives in New York, the customs collector imposes duties on the oranges as if they were coming from a foreign country. And the company shipping them challenges the duties saying, “Puerto Rico is part of the United States.”

Roman Mars:
The Constitution says that you can’t impose duties on any goods being shipped within the country. This case was about taxing oranges. But to decide this case, the court would need to answer a bigger question: what relationship do these islands have to the United States?

Emmett FitzGerald:
In the end, the court ruled that imposing a duty is okay, because these new places, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, are not fully a part of the United States. But in their decision, the Justices make clear that they aren’t foreign either.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
The famous phrase from these cases is that they’re foreign to the United States in a domestic sense. It’s an odd phrase, at the time no one really knows what it means. It basically creates a limbo, an in between status.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Some of the Justices pointed to the Guano Islands Act as a justification for creating this in between status. And the ruling went on to say that these new territories were ‘a pertinent’ to the United States. A pertinent, as in appertaining.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
And there’s that word, that word appertaining from the guano islands context. When even then and after then still lawyers trying to understand what that word means, can’t quite make sense. They’re never quite sure what, all we know is this is a way kind of holding a place at arms length while still controlling it.

Roman Mars:
It’s impossible to know whether this case would have unfolded differently if the US had never gone looking for guano, but the guano islands set a precedent.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
And that the court a familiar and legitimate mode of reasoning in creating a status that was really an invention.

Emmett FitzGerald:
A territory that belonged to the United States, but wasn’t a state.

Roman Mars:
And some of these territories still have this limbo status.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
Puerto Rico still has the status of a foreign ‘in a domestic sense’ territory of the United States. And that’s also the case for four other territories: the US Virgin Islands, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and American Samoa. All these places are in a form of limbo.

Roman Mars:
And the United States ambivalent relationship with extra territorial islands all started with the Guano Islands Act, a legal framework that allowed the US to take control over a place without making it fully a part of the country. Puerto Rico isn’t a state, nor is it an independent nation. Puerto Ricans are US citizens, but they can’t vote in US presidential elections.

Emmett FitzGerald:
And Professor Ponsa, who is from Puerto Rico, says that being stuck in this colonial limbo, appertaining but not belonging to the United States, has stalled progress on the island for over a hundred years.

Roman Mars:
Puerto Ricans have spent a lot of time and political energy trying to decide whether to pursue statehood or independence.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
And it has done a great deal of harm in Puerto Rico, because it distorts politics. When you’re arguing about questions as foundational, as should we be a state or not, it really haunts Puerto Rico’s political life.

Emmett FitzGerald:
The Guano Islands Act is still law.

Roman Mars:
In fact, in the 1990s a man from California named Bill Warren tried to claim the abandoned Island of Nevassa as his own private guano island. He failed.

Emmett FitzGerald:
But the US still holds claim over a few of the old guano islands in the Pacific.

Christina Duffy Ponsa:
Some of these islands ended up having some kind of strategic value as landing strips, and they had other kinds of military uses.

Emmett FitzGerald:
Amelia Earhart was planning to land on a guano island to refuel when her plane went down in the Pacific. And President Obama used guano island possessions to expand one of the largest marine reserves in the world.

Roman Mars:
The guano islands in the Pacific that the US still control are now called the United States Minor Outlying Islands. They don’t have any permanent residents, a few military officials and scientists live there throughout the year. But these little rocky islands are ongoing projections of the American empire. And a reminder about the time when guano mania gripped the world.

  1. Rodrigo

    It wasn’t the Quechua in Peru who did it. The Quechua are from the Andes. IT was coastal people, generically called by the Incas “Yunga” who used it, long before the Quechua became important, centuries before.

  2. Andrés

    Puerto Ricans CAN vote in US elections, provided we live in the mainland, or serve in the military, or various other caveats.

  3. Harvey King

    it mentioned that Puerto Rico’s independence movement actually hurts its development. Would someone give me a pointers on why?

  4. Timothy J Vogel

    Locally coerced labor … Easter Island (Rapa Nui) was majorly depopulated by guano slave raiders.

  5. Mr. David Weintraub

    No mention of “The War of the Pacific”? That war between Bolivia, Peru, and Chile was all about guano. The result expanded Chile’s northern frontier and removed Bolivia’s coast line.

    Bolivia finds the loss of their coastline to be so painful, they are in a state of denial to this day over 100 years later. To this day, Bolivia has a navy and a ship out at sea can sail under a Bolivian flag.

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