The Guano Economy

Guano Island Off Peru

Guano Island Off Peru

When Peru finally won its independence from Spain in the 1820s, there was no short quick route to prosperity. Much of South America’s economy was primarily agricultural, based on large haciendas, many of which had just changed hands from Spanish loyalists to officers of the revolution. It took about twenty years before Peru discovered that its primary source of wealth was actually bird sh*t. There were a number of islands off the coast of the Atacama Desert in the south that were covered to a depth of several meters with a centuries’ long accumulation of guano. Europe, which was trying to recover from the ravages of the Napoleonic Wars, needed the fertilizer to insure rich crops.

Mining the guano was no picnic. Peru imported thousands of laborers from China to dig up and bag the guano for shipment to a customer base that was willing to pay top dollar for the … stuff. Native Peruvians did not breathing in the noxious particles, so it was mostly immigrants who worked the islands. For about thirty years, Peru was sh*tting pretty, until it hit the fan. (Had enough of the puns yet?)

After much of the guano was shipped overseas, it was discovered that the Atacama Desert was rich in nitrate fertilizers, which were a good substitute for the organic stuff. At this point, the main actors in the business were Peru, Bolivia (which then had a seacoast), and Chile. Bolivia arbitrarily raised the taxes on mining nitrates. As many of the companies supervising the mines and transporting the fertilizer were Chilean, they demanded tax relief. Bolivia refused, and Peru backed Bolivia.

What Kind of Bird Izzat?

What Kind of Bird Izzat?

In 1879 began the War of the Pacific, with Chile arrayed against both Peru and Bolivia. As Chile had better military leadership and weaponry, it won handily after a number of bloody sea and land battles. The upshot was that Bolivia lost its access to the sea (though they still have admirals for some reason), and Peru lost its State of Tarapacá, including Tacna, Arica, Iquique, and Pisagua. (Eventually Tacna was ceded back to Peru some years later.)

In the end, the British took over the nitrate mining industry, with most of its associated profits. Bolivia suffered the most, as it lost all access to the Atacama Desert. Peru was outraged at having been occupied by Chile, though it fought a fairly successful guerrilla insurgency. Nonetheless, it had suffered a humiliating defeat with repercussions lasting to the present time.

As to the profits from fertilizer mining, they dwindled rapidly; and Peru went from being a wealthy country to being an economic basket case.

For more information, click here for a good illustrated review of the 19th century guano mining industry.

 

Supreme Competence and Moral Probity

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

In at the Beginning of the Western Film Genre

There were cowboy films before William S. Hart. As early as 1903, there was Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, which was filmed in the wilds of New Jersey. Then there were the films of Broncho Billy Anderson who was the first film western star—those his films were also shot back East and were redolent of New Jersey.

No, it was William S. Hart who really got the ball rolling back in 1914 when he teamed up with Producer Thomas H. Ince to produce a series of oaters at Santa Ynez Canyon just a few miles from where I live. (John Ford got started around 1917 with Harry Carey, Sr. in Straight Shootin’, but Hart quickly became the better known of the two stars.)

The Hart hero was almost always a loner, half-civilized if at all, but radiating an awakening sense of moral probity. While he was in the process of making his decision, God help any bad guys who tried to do him in in the meantime.

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

A Still from Travelin’ On: Hart with Monkey

This was certainly true of Travelin’ On (1922), which I saw this morning at Cinecon. He is simply J.B., an illiterate loner who rides into a crude Arizona town run by Dandy Dan McGee, a saloon keeper who runs all the vices from his Palace of Chance. When a preacher, his wife and daughter pull into town in their wagon, they witness a fight between two toughs, which the preacher tries to stop. Some time later, Hart rides into town and runs afoul of Gila, one of McGee’s cronies, whom he makes short work of.

Both McGee and J.B. fall in love with the preacher’s wife. When Hart sees McGee make a move on her, he threatens to kill him the next time he sees him. Of course, he does, but not before he takes the rap for a stage robbery committed by, of all people, the preacher—and then he rides off alone, after saving the preacher from being justly hanged for his crime.

I never seem to tire of seeing Hart’s films. I visit his ranch in Newhall once or twice a year and see to some extent how his character was formed. He married a younger star named Winifred Westover and had a son named William S. Hart Jr. (whom I knew). He never remarried and lived on his ranch with his sister until his death in 1948.

It was around the time this film was made that Hart was upstaged by other Western stars, most notably Tom Mix. Mix was good, but there was something about Hart that was unique.