It’s hard to imagine the British Government getting excited about bird droppings. But in mid-19thc Britain it certainly did. Of course ministers didn’t sit around discussing anything quite so vulgar as bird poo but they did spend time talking seriously about ways of increasing agricultural and horticultural production, and one of these was guano. Guano was even considered important enough to send the Royal Navy on probably its least exotic mission of all time – a hunt for new places where large quantities of avian dung could be found, collected and exported to Britain to fertilize fields and market gardens.
Nightsoil, the subject of my last post, was still being used extensively for fertilizer in the garden and on farms in the early decades of the 19thc but campaigns to improve the water supply and public health, the installation of new drainage and sewage systems, the invention of ‘artificial fertilizers and above all access to vast quantities of guano ended its pre-eminence and caused its use to decline rapidly.
Read on to discover more about the Navy’s poo-hunting expeditions and how these massive imports of guano began to transform British agriculture and horticulture and made fortunes in the process…
Guano is simply a polite way of saying bird or bat droppings, the word coming from the Quechua word for dung. It had been highly prized in Andean agriculture for thousands of years. The Inca had collected it carefully but only when the seabirds who produce it were not nesting. Their Spanish conquerors ignored it, preferring the more obvious treasures of gold and silver. At the turn of the 19thc Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist and explorer, carried out a series of experiments with guano and reported it to be a good fertilizer. He had also sent back samples which had been tested in France in 1806 and his findings verified. Humphrey Davy said in 1813 “it might be supposed to be a very powerful manure.” But farm manure and night soil were still very cheap and easily available whilst transport costs for guano were high and the logistics complicated. Shipping took 3-4 months to reach Peru from Britain and even longer on way back because of the winds, so it was usually about 8 months for orders, news and market reports to make the return trip.
As a result it was not until after Peru gained its independence from Spain at the end of a long and costly war that anyone seriously thought about exploiting the country’s guano reserves, and then it was only done as a way of helping repay the new nation’s vast debts.
British merchants had been established in all of the Spanish colonies in South America, from as early as the 18th century, so they were well placed when the Peruvian government decided to try and sell guano. Samples were sent back to the UK by several companies in the 183os including one which reached William Myers, a Liverpool merchant. He carried out his own experiments and calculated he could sell the guano for £24 a tonne, and as a result he offered financial backing to his Peruvian associates. The first contract was signed in 1840 with a consortium of Peruvians, a French company and Myers who had paid £12,000 for a six-year monopoly on the trade.
The first ship to leave Peru was the Bonanza in March 1841. It was an apt name. By the end of that year 22 ships had left, including 19 going to Britain, carrying a total of nearly 8,000 tons. It was apparently an immediate success with the Liverpool Times saying in July 1841 that guano was “the most powerful and concentrated of manures.” However Peru soon became entangled in a new war, this time with Bolivia, and thus needed even more money. The Peruvian government unilaterally cancelled the guano contract and touted around for a new company to act as middlemen and to pay a much higher price for the trade monopoly. One of the companies they approached was Anthony Gibbs and Sons, a small Exeter-based shipping merchants and importers, who had been trading in a modest way in Peru since 1806.
Gibbs’ local agent in Peru declined the offer and the owners, William and Henry Gibbs – the sons – wrote to him in April 1842 “Congratulate you sincerely on your failure…your non-success a great relief to us.” However in the time it took for that letter to reach him, their agent, after many shenanigans eventually agreed to join a new consortium with Myers, and a French and a Peruvian company – to buy and export 40,000 tons of guano. It required a huge loan to buy the contract which horrified the Gibbs brothers. Indeed William wrote calling it “an act of insanity.“
Despite Myers’ optimistic calculations the guano trade was not an immediate financial success, in fact it was anything but that. 1842 was a disaster. Gibbs noted in November 1842 that there had been “plenty of enquiries but no orders’. In fact there were no sales in Europe and only 182 tons sold in Britain. Stocks of guano were piled up in warehouses, and the consortium resorted to cutting prices several times in order to shift them, but still to very little avail even when it reached a low of £10 per ton. The Peruvian government adamantly refused to alter the contract price. But by now the British government had become involved. They blamed the Peruvian government for the high cost of guano and began a search for new sources of the miracle fertilizer, the virtues of which were extolled by Gibbs in a pamphlet : “Guano:Its analysis and effects”
The first place outside Peru to be exploited was Ichaboe, a miniscule island off the coast of what is now Namibia. It had already been mentioned in a naval report as early as 1828 as having “birds’ manure to the depth of twenty-five feet”.
The technical obstacles that had to be overcome were immense, but despite the lack of any suitable harbour, large-scale scraping of the guano deposits began in 1843. By 1845 there were no less than 450 boats lying off the island while an estimated 6,000 men scraped the virtually otherwise barren rock. The guano was sold at £5-6 a ton in Britain and severely undercut the Peruvian market, although the quality was apparently not as good. The exploitation was so rapid that in December 1844, a ship’s captain wrote to the Times: ” from my calculations there is only 112,000 tons on the island and there now in the roads 98,00 tons of shipping.”
Ichaboe was soon stripped bare and, so although extraction continues to this day, only ‘new deposits’ can be collected. A much fuller story of guano collecting at Ichaboe can be found in Chapter 29 of Charles Andersson, The Okavango River: A Narrative of Travel, Exploration and Adventure.(1861) which can be read at:
While Ichaboe was still being worked, Parliament instigated further searches. In 1844 the Royal Navy sent a despatch to the admirals commanding its fleets around the world – in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro and Sierra Leone – with maps suggesting places where guano might be found. It was hardly , to put it politely, the most exotic quest they had ever been asked to undertake.
By 1852 naval commanders were being told to ‘lose no time in communicating the existence of any guano…for the information of the Royal Agricultural Society” The urgency probably reflected the increasing agricultural depression in Britain, when wheat prices sank to their lowest since the wars with France, and the continuing relatively high prices for Peruvian guano. A few other potential places were found – Shark Bay in western Australia, Aves in the Virgin Islands, an island off the coast of Aden and even Labrador – amongst others – but nothing spectacular and so Peru remained the principal source . [For more on the imperial quest for guano see Celia Cordle, The Guano Voyages, Rural History vol.18 No.1 (2007) pp.119-133]
With virtually no alternative sources of supply discovered despite the navy’s best efforts, demand for Peruvian guano gradually picked up. 14,000 tons were imported in 1845 and trade then increased rapidly year on year. By 1849 imports reached 73,600 tons and by end of that year British farmers had spent £¾ million on Peruvian guano. By then too, William Myers had dropped out of the consortium and so most of the profits was going to Anthony Gibbs and Sons, the once small Exeter trading company. By the 1850s the British market had taken a total of nearly a million tons, and the European market another 100,000 tons. Prices climbed back to reach £13-14 a ton and, to put it mildly, William Gibbs made a fortune. Of course his fortune came at a cost.
In his excoriating account of the industry in Peru in the Guano Age (1877); A J Duffield wrote “no hell has ever been conceived by the Hebrew, the Irish, Italian, or even the Scotch mind for appeasing the anger and satisfying the vengeance of their awful gods, that can be equalled in the fierceness of its heat, the horror of its stink, and the damnation of those compelled to Labour there.”
Everything had to be done by hand and he wrote about the appalling exploitation of the workforce, especially the ‘enslaved Chinese’, the revolting behaviour of the British sailors, and the corruption and laziness of the Peruvian elite based on the vast sums raised from guano. Duffield’s book can be read online at https://archive.org/stream/peruinguanoagebe00duffrich#page/n5/mode/2up
This ruthless exploitation helps explains why the original Peruvian sources began to dry up. Although guano is obviously a renewable source, the extraction process drove away many of the birds from their nesting grounds – and the labourers ate many others – so that with a few decades the islands were rapidly depleted of their once enormous stocks.
For more on the history of the Peruvian guano industry see: http://www.peruthisweek.com/blogs-history-of-the-peruvian-guano-industry-103794
As guano imports, and the costs and profits associated with them, rose so experiments began to find alternative fertilizers, and even ‘artificial guano’. [Watch out for a post on that soon] In the meantime the glory days of guano provided the huge sums money that were behind William Gibbs own house, Tyntesfield, which will also be subject of its own post shortly.