Guano mining was the first known commercial activity in the Shark Bay area. During the 1800’s it became a popular location for guano mining and guano raiders. Being in such an isolated area of the State it was easy for foreign ships to take the guano undetected.
The Western Australian government became so concerned about the illegal guano trade in Shark Bay they sent Lieutenant Helpman to investigate. Arriving on the colonial schooner Champion, Helpman noted both local and foreign vessels anchored near at least 13 islands obviously mining guano deposits.
The crews were collecting the droppings any which way they could before storing it in the ships holds. Ships were arriving from as far away as England, having heard of great guano deposits. Helpman estimated that there was at least 20,000 tons of accessible guano on the islands, now that’s a lot of droppings !
As a response to the illegal mining, a barrack was established near Quoin Bluff and a fee per ton of guano was charged. The first authorised commercial mining of guano began in 1850. Between 1867 – 1881, Francis Louis Bibra established a settlement on Dirk Hartog Island in order to harvest guano from the islands. The guano industry virtually ceased in the 1900’s due mainly to its over-exploitation of the unique fertilizer.
So What Is Guano ?
The word guano originated from the Inca Civilisation, who were the first known civilisation to use guano, and literally means “The droppings of seabirds”. Today it can refer to both bat and bird dung. The Inca used guano which was found on the coast of Peru for soil enriching (fertilizer).
Why Was Guano So Valuable?
Bird dung is generally very high in phosphorite making it a valuable fertiliser especially in the 1800’s when there was no commercial fertiliser available. It also became an essential agricultural product for American farmers.
Facts About Guano
The Chincha Islands in Peru became the number one place for Guano. In fact the country’s wealth centred around bird poop. The islands were literally metres deep in cormorant droppings.
Unfortunately for Peru no one wanted to work in the guano mining industry because it was horrible work and extremely smelly. So the government invited unskilled Chinese labourers to do the dirty work (so to speak).
During the 1850’s guano was in such demand, especially in Peru, ships had to wait up to 80 days before being loaded up.
The guano trade declined rapidly during the 1860’s as cheaper forms of fertilizers, such as salitre and nitrate of soda became readily available on the market.
Surely Not !
You may have heard this story whilst surfing the net or you may even have been told it. Though there is absolutely no proof this story is true I had to add it just for fun.
During the 16th and 17th century, long before the invention of commercial fertilisers, manure was used. Manure was generally transported by large ships. To make it easier and a lot lighter ,the manure was usually shipped dry.
Unfortunately for some ships, sea water in the hold, would penetrate the dry bundles. This started the fermenting process and of course the by product, methane gas. Unsuspecting sailors checking the hold with a lantern were normally blown to kingdom come, along with the ship. When the cause of these maritime disasters were discovered, it became policy to stamp the bundles of manure with the words “Ship High in Transport”. This was later abbreviated to SHIT.