From 99% Invisible:
In 2014, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, making it the largest marine preserve in the world at the time. The expansion closed 490,000 square miles of largely undisturbed ocean to commercial fishing and underwater mining.
Boundaries of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument via NOAA
The preserve is nowhere near the mainland United States nor is it all in close range to Hawaii. Still, President Obama was able to protect this piece of ocean in the name of the United States.
To understand how the U.S. has jurisdiction over these waters in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, one has to look back to the 19th Century when, for a brief period, the U.S. scoured the oceans looking for rock islands covered in guano. That is: seabird poop.
Guano was a great fertilizer and many believed it would revolutionize farming, which traditionally involved cycling crops or simply depleting soil nutrients and moving to new land.
While novel to Americans and Europeans, using bird poop as fertilizer was nothing new to the Quechua people of Peru who had long mined it from the Chincha Islands off the southwest coast of Peru. For centuries, seabirds nesting on the islands had piled up guano, sometimes close to a 100 feet deep, making it a rich and ready source of the stuff.
Europeans hadn’t shown any interest in guano until the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt visited the Peruvian coast in 1804, and saw laborers unloading ships filled with seabird poop. Von Humboldt took a sample and brought it back to Europe. A German chemist named Justus Von Liebig subsequently began promoting a theory that soil fertility came down to a few critical nutrients—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Peruvian guano was rich in all three.
It was the agricultural analogue to discovering gold.
The Peruvians began to mine guano on a commercial scale. Their operations relied on an abusive labor system, first with locally coerced laborers and then with imported Chinese workers. Miners lived on the islands in tents and shacks, working up to 17 hours a day. The wages were low, and the conditions were awful; guano is acrid, and caustic when inhaled.
The guano trade made its way to Europe via British merchants, and soon farmers across the continent were using Peruvian guano on their fields. Word of the fertilizing power of seabird poop reached the United States, and by the late 1840s the country had entered a state of what historians have called “guano mania.” Tens of thousands of tons of guano were being imported to the U.S. every year.Previously:
British firms controlled the Peruvian trade, and guano was expensive. American interests resolved to break the monopoly. Entrepreneurs in the United States petitioned Congress to create a mechanism to help them claim their own guano islands. Some lawmakers opposed this effort, on the grounds that it smacked of the same kind of imperialism that various European countries were engaged in around the world at the time.
The U.S., of course, already had its own approach to imperialism, having taken over much of North America by stealing territory from indigenous people. But political leaders didn’t think of this as imperialism, since these lands were incorporated into the country, first as territories and then as states.
Ultimately, a compromise was reached: the guano islands would not be considered as subject to the sovereignty of the U.S. but rather as “appertaining” to the United States. While few knew what this meant from a legal perspective, it was softer than claiming full ownership.
In 1856, the Congress passed the Guano Islands Act. Over the next several years U.S. companies claimed more than 70 islands throughout the Pacific and the Caribbean....MORE
Today In Guano
Let me rephrase that.
From Law 360:
Judge Kills Suit Seeking $213M On 140-Year-Old Guano Notes
Questions America Is Asking: "Are We Entering a New Golden Age of Guano?"
A topic of endless fascination.*
*Errrm, maybe not endless but we do have a few prior posts:Sexy Clothes and Dim Lights ca. 1900
New York Guano
Munnawhatteaug: The Fish That Built America
New York Guano
More than you ever wanted to know. First a partial re-post:
Equity Valuation and Forecasting Future Returns and a Gift for our Readers
A subject near and dear to my heart. I may be the only person I've ever met who read every page of The Cowles Commission's Common Stock Indexes 1871-1937.
[you must be a blast at parties -ed]
Mr. Cowles is quite explicit as to the reasons the Commission didn’t go further back than 1871. (pg. 4)
A big one is the paucity of publicly traded industrials.
My favorite tidbit is the listing, among the pre-1871 industrials, of New York Guano.
Some things never change.
Here’s Yale’s (and my) gift:...From Cabinet Magazine:
It links to a big ‘ol hog of a PDF.
Islands and the Law: An Interview with Christina Duffy Burnett
...Christina Duffy Burnett is a professor of law at Columbia University, where she teaches legal history, immigration, citizenship, and the US Constitution. Much of her work deals with the legal problems that arise at the margins of empire. She spoke with Sina Najafi by phone in June of 2010.
This is a very general question, but let’s take a stab at it anyway: do islands matter in the law?
The best way to get at this may be to start with something quite specific. In the summer of 2003, I stumbled on a 969-page typescript treatise which is kept in the library of the US State Department. Flipping through this great leather-bound brick of onion-skin pages, I gradually absorbed that the whole massive volume had been put together in the 1930s by a lawyer working for the US Government who’d been given a killer assignment. Apparently somebody had walked over to the desk of this poor functionary, scribbling away in some basement office, and said something along the lines of: “You know, we have a bunch of islands in the Pacific and the Caribbean—little islands. How about you figure out what the deal is with all these places, legally speaking.” I was holding the result: The Sovereignty of Islands Claimed Under the Guano Act and of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Midway, and Wake. And it was splendid to behold: nearly a thousand pages of intricate legal arguments and historical documentation on the strange history of the United States’ nearly invisible, but surprisingly vast, insular empire.
The Guano Act? What is guano? It’s bat excrement, right?
Yes. And bird doo, too. In this case, it refers to the bird version.
So there was a US law about bird droppings that somehow proves important for thinking about the law of sovereignty?
Indeed. The Guano Islands Act of 1856 arguably laid the legal groundwork for American imperialism....MORE, if interested.
.... But that’s not the interesting part, really—although it’s curious enough, and there are some great stories about what goes down on these islands: shanghaiing Polynesian laborers, piracy (of course), mutiny, etc. Some of the islands are still claimed by various shady types. Indeed, a rather mysterious gentleman contacted me some years ago in connection with his alleged title to an uninhabited guano island in the Caribbean.
A James Bond villain-type?
I don’t think I can speak any further on that matter over an unsecure line...