Of all the strange laws on the books in the United States my favorite is the Guano Islands Act (11 Stat. 119, enacted 18 August 1856). It states that, "Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States." Translation: if you find an uninhabited rock jutting out of the ocean containing guano (excrement of seabirds, pinnipeds, bats, and other animals with a fish-centric diet) you claim it. Not only can you claim it as your own, but it can become part of the United States.


In 1802 German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt discovered that samples of guano from the coastal regions of Peru were pretty much the ideal fertilizer for European style farming. It is absolutely loaded with nitrates, phosphates, and other things present in lesser quantities in the fertilizer (cow, pig, and human manure, euphemistically called "night soil" in Britain) used by European and American farmers at the time. Plus – and this, like the flag of Switzerland, is a big plus – it has very little odor. The fact that it could also be used to produce saltpeter for gunpowder pretty much sealed the deal; everyone on Earth was scrambling to get their hands on as much shit as possible throughout the 19th Century. The Dung Boom took off in earnest around 1850, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution and a population explosion in the Western world.

Some islands and coastal areas were positively choked with the suddenly valuable crud. Guano deposits over 150 feet deep were not uncommon and in some places it was right on the surface, requiring no mining. So finding and "harvesting" guano was not a problem. The problem was that industrial and agricultural demand for guano was so high that huge deposits that took thousands of years to accumulate were depleted in a matter of years. Europe and the United States went on an unchecked guano binge. For its part the Guano Islands Act led to about fifty claims, most of which are now part of other nations after the US relinquished all claims under the Act but a handful of which are still part of our country. Really. Most Americans have never heard of places like Palmyra Atoll or Kingman Reef. Sure, they're barren, incredibly remote, and uninhabited. But various Federal agencies continue to administer them as "Insular Areas" (neither states nor territories) known collectively as the US Minor Outlying Islands.

The Western lust for guano is a touchy subject in most island nations in the South Pacific, where phosphate strip mining has left visible, horrendously ugly scars on what little land they have. Independence was granted to many of those nations, former French and British Empire possessions, in the exact same year as the guano deposits where exhausted. Kiribati and Tuvalu, for example, became independent from the United Kingdom (where they were administered collectively as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands) in 1979. The last commercially viable guano deposits were tapped out in 1977. What a coincidence! Colonial powers were literally the guy who borrows your car and returns it with the tank on empty.

Every nation affected by the guano boom suffers to some degree from its legacy, but in some places the consequences were worse than in others. In some places you could say without exaggeration that they border on comedy. Horrible, dark comedy. TO BE CONTINUED…