An American expat in Asia writing about nautical and current events from the comforts of a virtual guano island.


What Is A Guano Island?

During the 19th century, Guano, the dried excrement of sea fowl, came to be prized as an agricultural fertilizer and was heavily traded by European and American traders. The race for guano deposits become so competitive that the United States passed The Guano Islands Act in 1856, which enables U.S. citizens to take possession of islands containing guano deposits. The Guano Islands Act is currently embodied in federal statutes as U.S. Code, Title 48, Chapter 8, Sections 1411–1419.

Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States. § 1411.

The discoverer, or his assigns, being citizens of the United States, may be allowed, at the pleasure of Congress, the exclusive right of occupying such island, rocks, or keys, for the purpose of obtaining guano, and of selling and delivering the same to citizens of the United States, to be used therein, and may be allowed to charge and receive for every ton thereof delivered alongside a vessel, in proper tubs, within reach of ship’s tackle, a sum not exceeding $8 per ton for the best quality, or $4 for every ton taken while in its native place of deposit. § 1414.

More than 100 islands were eventually claimed. Some of those remaining under U.S. control are Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, Kingman Reef, Johnston Atoll, Palmyra Atoll and Midway Atoll. Others are no longer considered U.S. Territory. Possession of Navassa Island is currently disputed with Haiti. An even more complicated case deals with Serranilla Bank and the Bajo Nuevo Bank, where multiple countries claim ownership. In 1971, the U.S. and Honduras signed a treaty recognizing Honduran sovereignty over the Swan Islands.

For another interesting piece on the history of the Guano Island Act go here.

The President is authorized, at his discretion, to employ the land and naval forces of the United States to protect the rights of the discoverer or of his widow, heir, executor, administrator, or assigns. § 1418.

Firepower and Fertilizer
Wikipedia Entry – Guano Islands Act
American University – ICE Case Study
The Great Guano Rush: Entrepreneurs and American Overseas Expansion by Jimmy M. Skaggs