- Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History by Gregory T. Cushman
The first time I whiffed the full significance of guano was courtesy of Eduardo Galeano. In Faces and Masks, the second part of his epic trilogy Memory of Fire ( 1987, p. 217), the Uruguayan maestro evokes the commodity’s cycle of boom and bust in one of his trademark vignettes. The year is 1879, the scene of enactment the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru: “Pure shit were the hills that rose on these islands. For millennia, millions of birds had concluded their digestive process on the coast of southern Peru.
The Incas knew that this guano could revive any land, however dead it seemed; but Europe did not know the magical powers of the Peruvian fertilizer until Humboldt brought back the first samples. Peru, which had gained worldwide prestige for gold and silver, perpetuated its glory thanks to the goodwill of the birds. Europe-ward ships sailed laden with malodorous guano, and returned bringing statues of pure Carrera marble to decorate Lima’s boulevards. Their holds were also filled with English clothing, which ruined the textile mills of the southern sierra, and Bordeaux wines which bankrupted the national vineyards of Moquequa. Entire houses arrived at Callao from London. From Paris were imported whole luxury hotels complete with chefs.”
After forty years, Galeano concludes, “the islands are exhausted. Peru has sold twelve million tons of guano, has spent twice as much, and now owes a candle to every saint.”
The episode that Galeano vividly conjures up is afforded extensive and illuminating treatment by Gregory T. Cushman, the outcome being an absorbing account of how guano and its myriad associations are yet another example of global agency and transformation inexorably at work.
Cushman begins his exposition of how “guano attained its place in fertilizing the world” (p. xxii) by recounting a creation myth from The Huarochirí Manuscript, a Quechua text dating from the early seventeenth century but which relates to events and circumstances of far earlier times. From the outset, he locates Latin America at the heart of the matter, even though it “usually escapes mention in works of Pacific history” despite the fact that “twelve of its twenty continental states have touched on the Pacific Ocean for at least part of their history.” Similarly, Cushman emphasizes, the vast ocean that makes up one-third of planet earth “is also glaringly absent from Latin American area studies” (pp. 15-16). While other regions besides Latin America played a key role in opening up the Pacific world, Latin Americanists of all stripes, not just geographers, will find much of interest in Cushman’s analyses. Peru, of course, figures prominently, but so too do Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico, to say nothing of that resolute [End Page 173] explorer, visionary thinker, and founding father of modern geography, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).
In a project as ambitious and eruditely documented as this – some of Cushman’s almost 800 footnotes have seven or more references each – there is much to relish and admire. For me, chapter 2 (“The Guano Age”) is the best of the pick. It begins with Humboldt’s descent in September 1802 from Andean heights to Pacific littoral, where “one phenomenon impressed itself on Humboldt’s senses more powerfully than any other during his time on the Peruvian coast,” namely “a yellowish-brown substance known among locals by the Quechua word wanu,” which “smelled so powerfully of ammonia that he erupted in fits of sneezing whenever he got close.” When he inquired about it, Humboldt was told that “as many as 100 barges . . . sailed regularly to the Chincha Islands,” where their holds “were filled with guano mined from deposits thought to be at least fifteen meters thick.” Though “indigenous informants swore that these great mounds had been laid down by enormous colonies of marine birds” (p. 25), the guanay (Peruvian cormorant) and the piquero...