The Guano empire and Britain’s other Informal empire.

The Guano empire and Britain’s other Informal empire.

21st January 2020 0 By admin

Let’s start this blog with a bit of controversy! Most people do not associate the British Empire with South America.  However, some of England’s very first footsteps into empire building took place along the Northern shore of this Continent. Some influenced by the new diaspora of American Exiles (loyalists) who fled in 1783 after the last British forces pulled out of New York. (1)            

Furthermore, Britain was to play a leading role in challenging Spanish control of the vast continent and provided help and expertise to revolutionaries and nationalists in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. (2)

South America was to become a key part of Britain’s ‘Informal Empire’ especially in the Nineteenth but also into the first half of the Twentieth Century. Britain provided investment, expertise and technology throughout most of the continent as she gained much of the value of Empire without the unnecessary costs and burdens of formal control and governance. Britain’s relationship to South America was to be very different from her relationships to most of the rest of the World – but no less influential. (3)

In this environment Peru rose from the ashes on the back of Guano exports and became a period of stability for Peru and the foreigners known as the Guano era. Thomas Wheelock found his opportunity to make his fortune.

The term “Guano” applies to natural mineral deposits consisting of excrements, eggshells and carcasses of dead seabirds found in almost rainless, hot-dry climatic regions and corresponding fertilizers. The most significant nitrogen Guano is the Peru-Guano, which has been used over 2000 years as agricultural fertilizer in Peru. (4)

The age of guano

A decisive turning point came in 1838 when two merchants sent samples of the Peru Guano to William Myers, a successful businessman from Liverpool, who was also interested in agriculture. The fertilization trials he has carried out with these samples must have been successful that Myers invested in Guano trading and ordered a larger quantity for the first time.

On July 23, 1839, 30 bags of Guano reached the port of Liverpool with the ship “Heroine” from Valparaiso, and Myers distributed the Guano to other interested farmers for experimental purposes.

For the first time, crop yields skyrocketed, and the bird fertilizer proved to be far superior to the hitherto common manure and the “Night Soil” harvested from the city latrines. At the instigation of William Myers, his local Peruvian business partner, Don Francisco Quirós, in Lima, signed a treaty with the Peruvian state on November 10, 1840, for the monopoly on all Guano mining.

The demand for Guano rose rapidly in England and shortly thereafter in the rest of Europe. The Guano boom began, what began as a rental contract system granted to an investor, Francisco Quirós, resulted in an agreement that granted the State 64 percent of the profits and finally agreed to give the latter 75 percent of the liquid income. (5)

The commercialization of guano attracted new traders, adventurers and craftsmen not only British but from all over Europe. In the mid-1840s, guano was the main product of Peruvian exports. The guanera islands of Peru were spread across the different provinces of the coast and had accumulated over the year’s immense amounts of bird manure.













The Republic of Peru was in fiscal crisis as it had failed to cover the costs that had been generated since the battles of independence in 1811.Neither the state nor national capitalists could compete with European and American companies in the investments that meant the exploitation of guano. The dominance of foreigners and the absence of Peruvian investors were questioned in the 1850s by Congress, which decided not to sign new contracts if domestic capitalists were not included. Thus, foreigners formed joint ventures, but without allowing national participation to exceed them.

The Profits were incredible, of the records that have survived in one shipment alone: earned around £ 100,000 in the first large quantities of Guano supplies, which, according to current purchasing power, amounts to around £13 million in today’s currency. It was recorded that at one time 1 pound (453 grams) of Guano cost $76 ($2500 in today’s money) (7)

Thomas Wheelock became member of one of the syndicates.

A list of British Investors living in Peru at the time shows the following people:

John Blacker, Alexander Blacker, Stephen Henry Sulivan, John Barton, Edward Robertson, Charles Wilthew, George Hodges Nugent, Charles Higginson, Henry Swayne, Clements R. Markham, Charles Edward Stubbs, Charles Eggert, Samuel Went, William Pitt Adams, William Russell Grace, Thomas Eldredge, Thomas Wheelock, Pedro Terry, John Rowe, Charles Rowe, John Mathison, Thomas Conroy, Joseph Brown, James Henry, George Logan, Charles Thomas, G. J. Rodewald, Gerald Garland, John Gallagher, John Robinson, Charles Williams, Chas. Browne, John and Francis Bryce, John Black, Archibald Smith, J. A. Burnett, J. W. Clarke, John Mackie, Adam Butters, Henry Humphreys, John and Charles Edwards, Thomas Dawson, Gerrit S. Backus, Douglas Hastings, Horatio Bolton, James Graham, Hugh Torrence, James Wingate, Samuel Duncan, Norman Evans, John Ward, John Gunner, Henry Hammond, Charles Kemish, Alex E. Prentice, Walter S. Church, José P. Davis, José Hindle, Thomas Buckley, Max Blum, Henry Hilton Leigh, Thomas Cole. (8)

The investors had to bear all expenses, from extraction to sale. The gross income was denoted for expenses and the net proceeds were divided between the tax office and the Investors. The export enabled Peru to pay their external debt (especially to England) and the payment of internal debt to families and traders who had contributed to the wars of independence or the uprisings that subsequently happened. To claim payment, individuals or families who had collaborated with patriotic causes had to provide consolidation bonds, which were documents certifying the debts and who in some cases bore the signatures of the liberators José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar. (8) (9)

Some reports indicate that some of the investors were making a profit between £30,000.00 to £100,000.00 a year (roughly £4 Million to 13 Million in today’s money), Thomas cashed in around 1862 and moved to Bordeaux, France. Diaries show he made a fabulous fortune leaving his oldest son (Thomas Alfred) in charge of his Peruvian affairs.

The Guano Boom rush was short-lived (20-30 years) partly because the supplies dipped and the discovery of fertilizers through mining and by industrially producing replacing the need to scoop the excrement from the rocks. The new chemical fertilizers could take nitrogen out of the air and deliver it straight to the soil.  It’s thought that artificial fertilizers now feed about half the world. The market wasn’t big enough for the both of them, and guano’s star descended as it had risen, bringing the Peruvian economy down with it.

But while it lasted, the money made by all parties was a fabulous amount that could be compared to the California Gold Rush and Thomas Wheelock took advantage of the opportunity.

NEXT Blog : The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland

1.- Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World - Maya Jasanoff ISBN-10: 9780007180080
3.- Informal Empire? An Exploration in the History of Anglo-Argentine Relations, 1810–1914 – Volume 24,Issue 2 May 1992 , pp. 419-436 Andrew Thompson
5.- Fertile Fortune – The Story of Tyntesfield James Miller (25 May 2006). . ISBN 1905400403.
6.- Peruvian Ministry of the Environment
9.- The Diary of Heinrich Witt, Volume 3 & 5
10.- Article in Webblog Intheboatshed.Net. 2011 Jenkins H. Guano trade by W. Myers—. 
11.- In: mare – Die Zeitschrift der Meere, No. 53. Kanter O. Kleckern und klotzen. 2005.