Peru achieved independence from Spain on July 28, 1821. It wasn’t until about 1845 that Peru was finally able to settle down and start prospering on its own. From about this time to approximately 40 years the largest input of wealth in Peru, one that would revitalise the whole economy of the young republic, came from a rather surprising source. Guano, or bird droppings, had been accumulating on the coastal islands of Peru for hundreds of years when, due to scientific breakthroughs in Europe, it was suddenly discovered to have great value as a fertilizer.
The use of guano as fertilizer is said to have originated with the Moche tribe who lived along the northern coast of Peru from around 100AD to about 800AD. From around the 14th century the Incas made extensive use of the guano. The word “guano” actually comes from the old Quechua word “huanu,” meaning “dung.”
Ever since the Spanish had arrived in the country in 1527 it had mainly been forgotten about. In the early 19th century, when there became a need for new sources of fertilizer, for the European market in particular, the guano industry woke up from its long slumber. Tests carried out in Europe showed that when used alongside more traditional fertilizers the guano performed extremely well. By 1841 the first cargo ship left the Peruvian port of Callao laden with around two thousand tons of guano for its final destination, Liverpool.
_From left to right: Peruvian Pelican, Guanay Cormorant, White-Breasted Cormorant, Peruvian Booby (Image courtesy of Jeff Lawrence)_
To remove the guano from the rock beneath thousands of Chinese workers were brought in on over-crowded, diseased-ridden slave ships. They had signed on, for periods of up to five years, after having been promised riches for both themselves and their families by the English agents at work in China looking for cheap labour. They were also under the false impression that they would actually be going to work in the gold mines of California rather than the guano islands, railways, or sugar plantations of Peru. Many died during the five-month ocean voyage, through illness, flogging, or from jumping overboard to escape the terrible conditions on board, although it was estimated that around 30,000 workers still made it to the Chincha Islands between the mid 1840s and the mid 1870s.
A number of small villages, home to around three thousand workers and officials in total, eventually grew up on the islands. These buildings comprised mainly tiny, frail bamboo huts but those used for administration or for the housing of the officials were generally somewhat superior. The Chinese workers had to endure extremely arduous conditions, working up to 120 hours per week (an average of over 17 hours per day with no day off) under very hot, dry conditions.
_Chinese accommodation on the Chincha Islands (Image courtesy of Jeff Lawrence)_
By the mid 19th century the price of Peruvian guano was very high and controlled mostly by British companies. In the early 1850s a British officer who was visiting the Chincha Islands reported seeing the simultaneous loading of guano into 100 ships, representing 11 different countries. In addition hundreds of other large ships would be waiting their turn, for up to eight months, off-shore.
In 1860 433 ships took away a total of almost 350,000 tonnes of guano just from the Chincha Islands alone and the total annual income for the whole country came to just under 15 million dollars. Sir Clements Markham, the notable British explorer, made a visit to the Chincha Islands during that year and estimated that at the current rate of extraction the guano would last for another 20 years.
_Ships offshore from the Chincha Islands waiting to load up with guano (Image courtesy of Jeff Lawrence)_
The windfall brought about by this exporting boom created an artificial prosperity in Peru, which meant that the government could get by without having to implement proper financial control over the country. It also led to a huge increase in the number of capitalists who lived off the state and lived in exuberance from the massive amounts of money their guano export companies produced.
_The hotel near the main harbour of the Chincha Islands (Image courtesy of Jeff Lawrence)_
These problems came home to roost in the following decade when the supplies of guano, which had been extracted in increasingly higher numbers in the preceding years, suddenly began to diminish. This also led to a large decrease in the national revenue, which depended extremely heavily on the industry, and subsequently a large increase in the country’s debts, both internal and external.
In 1868 Peru’s Finance Minister, Jose Nicholas Baltasar de Pierola’s overly optimistic outlook led to him being over-confident in the remaining amounts of guano and mineral salts. His estimation that the resources would last for the foreseeable future led him to continue with the country’s plans of expansion and development, plunging the country even further into the red. By 1872 the country’s finances had worsened to such an extent that it was on the brink of bankruptcy.
It wasn’t just guano that was supplying the Europeans with their highly prized fertilizers. Another source was found in the deserts of southern Peru, which were rich in mineral salts such as sodium borate and sodium nitrate. The resources of sodium nitrate were estimated to be enough to last for a thousand years if the current export rate through the local port at Iquique, almost 70,000 tonnes per year, was continued.
In 1879 things took a massive turn for the worse when the War of the Pacific broke out with Chile over the rights to these nitrate rich deserts. Peru’s defeat resulted in the loss of the Tarapaca province, a provider of great wealth to the country, to Peru’s southern neighbour. Thus, the warnings of the likes of Manuel Pardo and Sir Clements Markham who had predicted great financial disaster due to the over reliance of the fertilizer industry came starkly true.
With the loss of the nitrate-rich regions and with the guano supplies almost empty Peru had no way of achieving the necessary income to pay off the foreign debts and had to resort to transferring the state railways to the British.
(This is an abridged version. To read the full article, visit Jeff’s Travels