Guano, which is accumulated fecal matter left by sea birds and bats, created quite the frenzy in the 19th and 20th centuries due to its strong fertilizing properties which were very beneficial in agricultural and farming practices. Due to its usefulness, countries around the globe began searching for places to extract this natural resource, typically by claiming the several small, mostly uninhabited islands that appear as specks throughout the world’s oceans. One country that was heavily invested in the extraction of guano and the discovery of these islands was the United States, and the U.S. connection to the guano islands has a somewhat complicated legal and symbolic history.
One scholar, Christina Burnett, explores the history of the Guano Islands Act, the legal basis for American acquisition of islands containing the bird feces, and makes the claim that guano islands should be more predominantly included in discussions surrounding U.S. imperialism due to the way they connect with the creation of boarders and the extension of sovereignty. While Burnett is successful in her exploration of the legal terms and their impact on how America obtained new land, she leaves out the significant link that these ideas have to Eurocentrism, an ideology focused on Western civilization which includes a biased view against non-western nations. America’s beliefs of superiority over such non-European countries can be clearly seen when explored alongside a 1904 New York Times article which acts as a primary source for this time in American history. This source aids in highlighting how the Guano Islands not only exemplify American Imperialism through the drawing of borders as Burnett argues, but also through the way that they helped solidify the U.S. as a global power with perceived dominance over non western groups.
In her work The Edges of Empire and the Limits of Sovereignty: American Guano Islands, Christina Burnett provides a well thought out analysis of the legality and specific terminology that play into the way that the Guano Islands Act impacted U.S. expansion and borders during the 19th and 20th centuries, with impacts reaching into the present day. Much of this argument revolves around the term “appertaining”, which is included in the act, and the way that the word’s ambiguity was strategic for the United States in determining where to extend sovereignty, but also created a good deal of confusion. Burnett explains how the lack of a clear definition for the term allowed the U.S. to use it to their advantage when acquiring land by deeming that “new territories "belonged to" but were not "a part of" the United States” (794) and therefore the U.S. government could claim these lands for America but did not have to bestow full constitutional rights to these areas. On the other hand, due to the somewhat vague nature of the term, there have been many debates as to what should be considered “appertaining” to the U.S. and it has “repeatedly been interpreted as leaving the issue unresolved” (796). Burnett gives several examples of this grey area at play, most notably when they explain the riot that took place on the island of Navassa, when guano miners revolted against the poor working condition that they were subjected to, and ended up killing some of the supervisors. The incident went all the way to the supreme court in Jones v. United States because officials were unsure how laws should be enforced on territories that merely “appertain” but are not a part of the United States. All in all, the way that Burnett explores the word choices of the Guano Islands Act and the reasoning behind these decisions is very effective in providing insight into U.S. expansion during this time period.
Furthermore, Burnett uses an in-depth look into definitions to support the claim that the Guano Islands should be included “not only within the history of American imperialism, but also within a broader history of European imperialism in the nineteenth century” (798). Because the islands and the legal documents created in regards to them had much to do with the way that the U.S. set up borders, they should be considered as a part of the imperialist era of the U.S. However, I would argue that Burnett leaves out a key detail about the islands, that being the way that they played into Eurocentric and American ideas about dominance across the globe. During this time period the United States had deep rooted ideas of superiority over non-western nations, including those in South America and the Carribean, which caused them to interact differently with these nations, specifically regarding the Guano Islands. These guano deposits were not only significant due to their unique legal distinction, but because of the way that acquiring them had as much to do with projecting power over non-European nations as it had to do with extracting resources. This gap in Burnett's argument becomes much more apparent when looking at a 1904 New York Times article on the topic of the guano islands.
In the article which appeared in the New York Times on August 14, 1904, the headline reads “England Seizes Bird’s Island : Cruiser Lands Force at Aves, British West Indies”. The contents of this article explain how a British ship landed on Aves Island, off the coast of Venezuela, and subsequently hauled guns and a British flag onto the shore, asserting their claim to possession of the land. It then goes on to explain how this event goes along with “many similar incidents connected with the claiming and working of guano deposits”, specifically a series of encounters in which nearby nations, such as Cuba or Venezuela, attempted to maintain control of these islands when European and American explorers arrived. Finally, the article includes a quote from a state department official who states that the U.S. reserves the right to claim any island for its guano and in turn they also “concede [this right] to the citizens of another country”, specifically the British. This article is a beneficial piece of evidence in the exploration of the Guano Islands and their place in the history of U.S. imperialism because it provides insight into the way that America responded to other nations' claim to these lands as well as a direct quote from a government official about their stance on the matter. Additionally, when read alongside Burnett’s piece, it helps to highlight a gap in that argument about the role of Eurocentrism and American ideas of superiority that are important to the conversation.
The first way that this source can help illuminate the issues with Burnett’s argument is in the way it speaks about British rights to the Guano Islands and helps to call attention to the relationship between England and the U.S. In Burnett’s writing, an explanation of the first encounter on Aves Island is included on page 783 where it states that explorers “"attempted to claim Aves Island as United States territory” when they landed there in 1854. However, upon returning from a momentary departure they found “employees of a rival British firm already engaged in the enterprise [of collecting guano]” (783). Burnett goes on to state that the two nations simply chose to divide up the island until Venezuela attempted to intervene, claiming that they already had possession of the area. In this part of the article, Burnett seems to overlook the fact that the United States was rather amicable when it came to interacting with the British, despite having the same goal of extracting guano. This sort of camaraderie is further highlighted by the aforementioned New York Times article in which the U.S. officials state that they believe the British have equal rights to claim and obtain resources from the Guano Islands as the United States. Despite the main idea of imperialism being to obtain and maintain power over more territory, this age of the American “empire” was clearly not solely about competition and control. However this idea can be multifaceted and becomes more complicated when non European nations enter into the disputes about who can claim the Guano Islands.
In this same section of the writing, Burnett explains how despite American and British explorers’ attempts to share the island and coexist, Venezuela was “unimpressed both by the rituals… and by the actual occupation of the place” (783) because they believed the Island to be a part of their territory. This is not the only example of South American and Carribean nations trying to stake their claim on these territories, in fact another notable instance that Burnett briefly mentions is Haiti’s attempt to claim Navassa Island. Prior to the revolt and the ensuing legal battle, Haiti had considered the island to be under their sovereignty and even voiced their “strenuous objections” (788) when the U.S. declared the island to be appertaining to them. In conjunction with these events, the New York Times article explains how these sorts of complaints were commonplace during the 19th and 20th centuries, citing yet another example in which Cuba lodged a complaint about the taking of a guano island. Despite the lack of exploration by Burnett, these incidents are significant because they demonstrate the views that the U.S. had towards non-European nations in regards to the Guano Islands, more specifically the way that America believed they had the right to stake claim to these lands, regardless of the objections that other countries may have. While Burnett makes the claim that the Guano Islands Act had to do with imperialism because it “impose[d] limits on expansion” (781), this article spotlights how it also relates to imperialism in the way that it furthered a Eurocentric agenda and catered primarily to white nations with a history of claiming superiority over other countries.
Lastly, the 1904 New York Times article describes the diminishing value and importance of guano by the early 20th century, further demonstrating how the U.S. was more concerned with projecting an image of power and dominance than they were about actually extracting resources. While Burnett’s analysis of the Guano Islands Act, which explains how the vague terminology was an excuse for America to circumvent certain responsibilities, is compelling, the other end of this argument is focused primarily on the extraction of natural resources which benefited the U.S., and leaves out the other potential benefits. In the New York Times article, the state department official says that “the trouble with guano nowadays is that it's hardly worth anything”, and yet the U.S. was still willing to side with the British against claims made by Venezuela. This is further confirmation that the acquisition of Guano Islands was not only about the resources that they provided for farming and agriculture, but also about displaying an image of power and possession across the globe. Burnett’s heavy focus on the way that the Guano Islands Act effectively limited the reach of U.S. power and sovereignty, ended up leaving out the ways in which it did the very opposite and was used to project dominance and power, despite the legal complications.
While Christina Burnett’s work about the guano islands is an effective piece of writing in regards to the legal status of the territories, she nonetheless fails to make a vital connection between the islands and the image of power that the U.S. has a reputation for projecting throughout history. Upon reading the 1904 New York Times article it becomes clear that these islands were not only important because of the guano which would be used as fertilizer, but also because they allowed the U.S., Great Britain, and other European countries to assert their dominance over South American, Carribean, and other nations who they viewed as inferior. Furthermore, this point is significant because it creates a stronger link between the guano islands act and the age of imperialism than Burnett’s argument about the drawing of borders alone is able to make. The United States has a rich history as an imperialistic nation, and by including their biased views towards non western nations in the discussion, American motivations surrounding the guano islands are much more apparent.
Burnett, Christina Duffy. “The Edges of Empire and the Limits of Sovereignty: American Guano Islands.” American Quarterly 57, no. 3 (2005): 779–803.
“England Seizes Bird’s Island : Cruiser Lands Force at Aves, British West Indies.” New York Times. August 14, 1904.