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

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.

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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.)

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