The 19th Century Annexation of the Guano Islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean
Bill Berkowitz / The Daily Kos
(July 3, 2021) — To paraphrase the actress Betty Davis in “All About Eve,” “Hold onto your computers, iPads, or smart phones, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Even a cursory look at the history of United States Imperialism brings the realization that invasions, annexations, betrayal, initiating coups, and colonial usurpation built a US empire. However, most of us are unfamiliar with the scope of this history. That’s the value of Daniel Immerwahr’s path-breaking book, How To Hide An Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).
If you’ve never heard of the Guano Islands, where in the mid-nineteenth century men were put to work in slave-like conditions to harvest tons of seabird poop for US farms, you wouldn’t be alone. Guano is a highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium: nutrients essential for plant growth. (The term guano is from Quechua: wanu via Spanish.)
The Guano Islands were small dots on the map that contributed to the basic survival of farmers in the US. Because farmers needed large quantities of guano to replenish nutrients in the soil, in 1856, Congress passed The Guano Islands Act, a law allowing US citizens to take possession of unclaimed islands containing guano deposits, in the name of the United States. When guano was found on an island, “such island, rock or key may, at the discretion of the president, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”
In the Introduction to How To Hide An Empire, Immerwahr, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, writes, “The history of the Greater United States … can be told in three acts. The first is westward expansion: the pushing west of national borders and the displacement of Native Americans. … The second act takes place off the continent …. [with] the United States annexing new territory overseas.”
In the late 19th century, the US “absorbed the bulk of Spain’s overseas empire,” including the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, “and annexed the non-Spanish lands of Hawai’i, Wake Island, and American Samoa.” It followed this up by buying the US Virgin Islands.
In the third act, the US “distance[s] itself from colonial empire.” But, it still holds on to part of its colonial empire (“containing millions” of people), in “small dots on the map,” which “are the foundations of US world power.”
During an NPR “Fresh Air” interview, Immerwahr said “that in the 19th-century East Coast farms were suffering from something called soil exhaustion.” In pursuit of what was called “white gold,” the US “started annexing overseas territories and ultimately, starting in 1857, annexed almost 100 uninhabited guano islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean.”
Companies hired men to mine/extract the guano, which was very difficult, dangerous and isolated work. Some men were apparently kidnapped from China to work the land. Others, like African Americans from Baltimore “were sort of promised an idyllic [life], [and] tropical work[ing] conditions,” where there would be beautiful women and that they would mostly be picking fruit.
Instead, when the men arrived, they found “a jagged, scorched island,” that was barren of fruit trees and there were no women. To get out of debt from the passage, they needed to harvest large amounts of guano, and that “the next ship would be there in a few months.”
Since the guano was hardened into rock, harvesting it was a grueling process: “So you blast it loose, and then that just kicks up all kind of dust in the air, which you inhale — sometimes the men would wear scarves over their faces to try to cut down on this. And this stuff smells terribly. The guano ships — if they’d been carrying guano — often had to be retired from service or could only be used for guano because, you know, once you had been hauling guano, you can only be a guano ship.”
According to Immerwahr, if the men did not perform up to their overseer’s standards they would be tied up and left out in the hot sun for hours at a time. “[C]onditions … were so bad that on one of the Caribbean islands -Navassa Island near Haiti — the African-American workers mutinied and actually killed five of their white overseers.”
The men were taken back to the states for trial. Immerwahr said that “The black Baltimore community rallies around them, and they get a lawyer named E.J. Waring, who is the first black lawyer to pass the Maryland bar.”
“The legal team goes for this sort of Hail Mary legal strategy, which is to argue that the guano islands are not actually in the United States. So what the men did is not covered by US law, and they cannot be tried in US court. And actually these guano islands are foreign territory because the United States cannot claim overseas territory. It’s unconstitutional.”
The case goes to the Supreme Court, which ultimately decides that “these places are actual parts of the United States, and therefore the men can be convicted. But in doing so, it actually lays the basis for the legal foundation for the US Empire because it establishes the constitutionality of the fact that the United States can claim overseas territory and that is consonant with the US Constitution.”
President Harrison got involved, sent a warship to investigate and the horrific working conditions were affirmed. Harrison found that these places, as horrendous as they were, are part of the US. However, “he end[ed] up commuting the sentences of the lead organizers of the Navassa revolt.” They’re no longer sentenced to death, however, “ironically they’re … sentenced for the rest of their lives to hard labor.”
Eventually, with the advent of chemical fertilizer, the guano from the islands was no longer necessary. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the islands become very useful, however, getting repurposed as key strategic military bases and airfields, staging grounds, and detention facilities.
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