One of Namibia’s lesser-known tales of colonial greed played out off the Namibian coast on a clutch of tiny islands near Lüderitz, with the discovery of large deposits of guano (bird or bat droppings). A corruption of the Quechua word “wanu”, guano had been cherished by the Incas as a natural fertilizer long before the colonizers in Peru cottoned on to its worth and began shipping it wholesale back to Europe and North America in the early nineteenth century. This may have helped prompt the recollection by a retired British mariner of an old US sea captain’s 1828 accounts of islands “covered in birds’ manure to the depth of 25 feet (over seven metres)” off the coast of Africa, thereby triggering Namibia’s “Guano Rush” some fifteen years later. The cold waters of the Benguela Current provide ideal conditions for the production of the seabird excrement: nutrient-rich upwellings feeding vast quantities of fish, on which large colonies of gannets, cormorants and penguins feast, plus an arid climate that prevents these nutrients from being leached into the sea.

By 1843, Ichaboe Island, some 45km north of Lüderitz, had become a centre of frenzied harvesting of “white gold”. Only 15 acres in size – the equivalent of some seven football pitches – Ichaboe was soon home to around 6000 seamen and 350 vessels. Working conditions were appalling and extremely hazardous: constantly damp, squeezed into makeshift accommodation and with no medical facilities, the workers frequently lacked fresh food and drinking water, much of which had to be shipped from Cape Town. What’s more, they suffered constant exposure to the stench of excrement and high levels of ammonia. But the financial rewards – for the concession owners, at least – were huge. Within two years, the rush was all but over; the island had been scraped dry, with some 200,000 tonnes removed in two years. The seabirds have now reclaimed the rock, though in depleted numbers, but small-scale sustainable guano harvesting still continues in Namibia today, predominantly on artificial platforms dotted along the coast, most notably at “Bird Island” just north of Walvis Bay.

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