Lewis Lapham: Guano Quest Sparked U.S. Seizure of Islands

Source: Bluebridge via Bloomberg

"Island: How Islands Transform the World," by J. Edward Chamberlain. Close

"Island: How Islands Transform the World," by J. Edward Chamberlain.

Close
Open
Source: Bluebridge via Bloomberg

"Island: How Islands Transform the World," by J. Edward Chamberlain.

The blue-footed booby, red-legged cormorant and the Humboldt penguin are among the 150 species of birds that live on the Peruvian islands of the Ballestas.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

Owing to a strong offshore current, there is scant rainfall and sparse vegetation, so the bird droppings are baked dry, making the guano into excellent fertilizer. In fact, during the 1800s the sale of guano to Europe gave Peru its most valuable source of revenue.

To get in on the action, in 1856 the U.S. passed the Guano Act, which authorized Americans to seize unoccupied islands not already claimed by other countries that contained bird droppings. The U.S. was prepared to defend its guano interests with military action.

The last big island to be annexed by the U.S. under the Guano Act was Midway.

I spoke with J. Edward Chamberlin, author of “Island: How Islands Transform the World,” on the following topics:

1. Creation Myths

2. Crossing the Water

3. Garden of Eden

4. Island Cities

5. Polynesian Navigation

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

Source: Bluebridge via Bloomberg

J. Edward Chamberlain, author of "Island: How Islands Transform the World." Close

J. Edward Chamberlain, author of "Island: How Islands Transform the World."

Close
Open
Source: Bluebridge via Bloomberg

J. Edward Chamberlain, author of "Island: How Islands Transform the World."

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.