Fighting For Feces: The War For Guano

By Tyler Parsons on Monday, October 13, 2014
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“Mmm, this fruit paste is delicious, and the pottery is lovely.” —Ace Ventura, in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls (1995)

In A Nutshell

Believe it or not, but in the 19th century, petrified bird dung was a key economic resource. Its use as a fertilizer facilitated the more efficient agricultural sector necessary for industrializing countries. This placed immense focus on the western coast of South America, which contained the world’s best deposits of guano, and, inevitably, wars were fought for control of bird excrement.

The Whole Bushel

The nation best served by the guano trade was Peru, centered on the Chincha Islands. Peru experienced an extended economic boom from the 1840 to 1860s, and the guano trade peaked at 60 percent of the nation’s economy. Fueling this growth was an oft-forgotten slave trade—the importation of Chinese slave laborers. These men were tricked (sometimes they were told that they would be taken to the California goldfields) or outright kidnapped. The Chinese workers, of which some 100,000 were shipped, had the unfortunate task of chiseling away at the guano deposits in baking sun while surrounded by noxious gases. There were also other workforces. In 1862, Peruvian slavers took some 1,000 men from Easter Island, which signaled the final death-knell for that culture.

This lucrative trade drew the attention of the Spanish, and in 1864 a Spanish admiral seized the islands on the pretext of a supposed diplomatic slight (the murder of a Spanish national). Marines were sent ashore and Peruvian ports blockaded, wreaking havoc on the economy. Multiple Peruvian governments fell due to their meek response before war was finally declared in 1865, at which point they were joined by Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador, all of whom feared a reassertion of Spanish power, which they had won independence from scarcely 40 years before. The Spaniards, finding all ports closed to them and suffering a shock defeat at the hands of the Chilean navy, quickly ran out of supplies and admitted defeat, sailing to the Philippines.

The following decade, however, saw the former South American allies at war with each other. This was triggered by territorial disputes between Chile and Bolivia in the resource-rich Atacama Desert and was exacerbated by Bolivia’s decision to levy a new tax targeted at Chilean contractors inside its territory. Peru, a traditional Chilean rival which also had interests in the Atacama, joined on the side of Bolivia.

The result was a rout, with Chile’s modernized navy gaining complete control of the seas within six months. The Bolivians had no navy to speak of, while Peru’s was old and dilapidated. The Chinchas fell even faster, destroying the Peruvian economy (again). Something of a slog then took place on the ground, but control of the sea ensured Chile could better support its troops in the harsh Atacama Desert, and it eventually managed to overrun and occupy both of its opponents, forcing the Peruvian government to flee Lima in 1881.

The Peruvian economy never recovered from the trauma, which, combined with an increasing trend away from guano use (largely created by Chile’s exploitation of other nitrates found in the Atacama, which were the cornerstone of its economy until the 1920s) saw her economy collapse. Bolivia, meanwhile, had the entirety of her coastline taken by Chile and became rather bitter. They refused to sign an official treaty until 1904 and are still deeply resentful for the lost territory, attributing many of the country’s woes to its landlocked status. This contributed to an equally disastrous war with Paraguay in the 1930s, which, in part, sought access to the Atlantic via the Paraguay River. Despite its lack of a coast, Bolivia also insists on maintaining a navy, which essentially just broods and does laps of Lake Titicaca since they waited to build the navy until they’d already lost the coastline.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: Bolivia’s landlocked sailors pine for the high seas
Military History Now: A Shitty Little War
NY Times: How Bolivia Lost Its Hat
HistoryToday: The Guano Age in Peru
War of the Pacific, 1879–83