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.

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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.
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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…

23 thoughts on “NPF: BIRD SHIT, VOL. 1”

  • Hey, guano was serious shit. It was the casus belli for the War of the Pacific, which resulted in substantial revisions to the political map of South America. And it motivated Spain to attempt to seize the Chincha Islands from Peru (the "Guano War"), Peru and Chile fighting as allies on that occasion.

  • And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Washington DC is still part of the US. The shit there is five miles deep.

  • Pennelope Pennebaker says:

    There is a movie from the 40s(?) set on a guano island. It's some sort of romance with handsome leading American man and beautiful native woman. I remember the guano cave and the gondola car that brought the guano out. I can't for the life of me remember the name of the movie – any help would be greatly appreciated (for 10 minutes).

  • In the novel, Dr. No runs a guano mine on Crab Key. Bond kills him by burying him in a mound of the stuff.

    Until the method for fixing atmospheric nitrogen made synthetic fertilizer possible, dung of various types was the only way to increase soil fertility. Imagine how much smaller the world population would be without synthetics.

  • If memory serves, one of L. Ron Hubbard's first scams was putting together a guano expedition. "Night soil" is still a thing, although I've seen it referred to as "humanure".

    Filed under Worthless Shit I Know About Shit.

  • Worst of all the guano islands is Nauru.

    Totally mined-out, and most of the proceeds squandered on idiotic 'investments' and loads of graft. Place is totally fukt now.

  • I remember Conrad's Lord Jim being offered a deal as the lone white man on a guano island. It was an extremely tricky landing, but possible with some seamanship. Jim would be expected to run things. He would have a gun or two in case the migrant workers gave him problems. One of the guys behind the deal was called "the cannibal". Lord Jim is definitely worth reading if you can keep the narrative layers straight.

    Nitrate fixation was a real challenge until Fritz Haber developed the Haber process. For a good book on the subject go for Vaclav Smil's 'Enriching the Earth'. Basically, nitrogen is relatively inert, but essential for life. Natural processes do, at best, a so so job of forcing nitrogen to react. Fritz Haber discovered, and with Carl Bosch, developed a commercial process for fixing nitrogen using a catalyst at high pressures and high temperatures.

    During the first world war, fixing nitrogen to use in explosives was a big challenge. Chaim Weitzman in England developed a process to extract fixed nitrogen from seaweed. After the war he helped get the Balfour Declaration passed to enable a Jewish state in Palestine. Weitzman was the first president of Israel.

    Haber had been born Jewish, but converted to Christianity. This didn't save him from the Nazis who forced him into exile. Before the rise of the Nazis, however, Haber was convicted as a war criminal for developing poisonous gasses during the first world war. His process allowed the world to avoid famine as the population has risen. Today three billion people are alive and fed thanks to the Haber process.

  • Not sure why anyone is complaining.
    Nauru and Kiribati seem to be profiting rather well from Australia's boat people policy.

    And YES that IS A JOKE.

  • WR Grace, the once mighty shipping company and later conglomerate began by shipping guano from Latin America to the U.S.

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