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This Year Has Been Shit. So We Might As Well Talk About Some Shit.

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guano-islands-ad

Guano, that is. Here’s a podcast on U.S imperialism and guano, a critical product in the rise of global imperialism. Much of this area also makes up the new marine national monument first created by George W. Bush and then vastly expanded by President Obama. Ultimately, our national monuments are part of our imperialist legacy. From the accompanying text:

Guano was a great fertilizer and many believed it would revolutionize farming, which traditionally involved cycling crops or simply depleting soil nutrients and moving to new land.

While novel to Americans and Europeans, using bird poop as fertilizer was nothing new to the Quechua people of Peru who had long mined it from the Chincha Islands off the southwest coast of Peru. For centuries, seabirds nesting on the islands had piled up guano, sometimes close to a 100 feet deep, making it a rich and ready source of the stuff.

Europeans hadn’t shown any interest in guano until the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited the Peruvian coast in 1804, and saw laborers unloading ships filled with seabird poop. Von Humboldt took a sample and brought it back to Europe. A German chemist named Justus Von Liebig subsequently began promoting a theory that soil fertility came down to a few critical nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Peruvian guano was rich in all three.

It was the agricultural analogue to discovering gold.

The Peruvians began to mine guano on a commercial scale. Their operations relied on an abusive labor system, first with locally coerced laborers and then with imported Chinese workers. Miners lived on the islands in tents and shacks, working up to 17 hours a day. The ages were low, and the conditions were awful; guano is acrid, and caustic when inhaled.

..

The U.S., of course, already had its own approach to imperialism, having taken over much of North America by stealing territory from indigenous people. But political leaders didn’t think of this as imperialism, since these lands were incorporated into the country, first as territories and then as states.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached: the guano islands would not be considered as subject to the sovereignty of the U.S. but rather as “appertaining” to the United States. While few knew what this meant from a legal perspective, it was softer than claiming full ownership.

In 1856, the Congress passed the Guano Islands Act. Over the next several years U.S. companies claimed more than 70 islands throughout the Pacific and the Caribbean.

Pretty interesting stuff. And better than modern politics.

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