Why December 2?
(You couldn’t make this stuff up if you were Monty Python.)
President Millard Fillmore, in the State of the Union Address, December 2, 1850
Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end. I am persuaded that in removing any restraints on this traffic the Peruvian Government will promote its own best interests, while it will afford a proof of a friendly disposition toward this country, which will be duly appreciated.
Did any other U.S. President spend so much time thinking about guano? Did any president ever mention it in a State of the Union Address? The curious case of Millard Fillmore, Seer, just grows.
Guano, or bird poop (and its relative, bat poop), contains phosphorus, which is an essential element for life. Consequently, it turns out to be a key ingredient in effective agricultural fertilizers. In international competition for supremacy in farming and farm exports, guano became a key resource to fight over, in the 19th century.
It’s almost safe to say the fights were economic; but guano did play a key role in wars in South America (see Andrew Leonard’s article, noted below).
Fillmore figured out that the substance had great importance, coupled that with the rather esoteric knowledge that sea birds tended to deposit guano in great abundance on certain islands, often unoccupied, and ordered the U.S. Navy to claim islands found to contain guano deposits that were not claimed by other nations.
By the American Civil War, the importance of phosphorus to the production of gun powder became an issue for the armies of the North and South. Millard Fillmore had set the stage for the North to win an important advantage in gun powder production, just one of many that led to the defeat of the South.
It’s one more thing we should thank Millard Fillmore for doing. Our study of history should inform us that it is, indeed, important for politicians to understand the importance of guano.
Fillmore knew his guano.
Take a moment on December 2 to toast Millard Fillmore’s prescience, on Guano Day!
- Phosphorus becomes even more critical, according to Mother Jones (phosphorus is a key component of bat and bird guano).
- Andrew Leonard tells more about how guano pushed the history of Peru than you perhaps wanted to know — but probably should know, if you are interested in how conservation of resources and wise use can save the future of a nation; at Salon: “When guano imperialists ruled the Earth,” February 29, 2008
- “The Guano Islands: Bird turds and the beginnings of U.S. overseas territories,” Alvita Akiboh, U.S. History Scene.com, July 29, 2012
- Quote of the moment: Millard Fillmore on Peruvian Guano, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, February 16, 2009
- Geology 115, a course at the University of California – Davis, spends time in great detail looking at the mining of guano and the chemistry that made it profitable, and how it created companies such as the W. R. Grace & Co. — a good resource
- “Peru’s thriving bird poo business,” Dan Collyns, BBC, September 2, 2010