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Parliament’s Poached Penguin Eggs and the Great Guano War

29 Mar 2021
Guano Diggers Ichaboe

In penguin school the first lesson should be: never trust a human. But it’s a lesson fat, flightless birds seldom get the chance to learn – until it’s too late.

In June 2000 a bulk ore carrier named MV Treasure, owned by Good Faith Shipping, is holed by who knows what and sinks between Dassen and Robben islands off Cape Town.
On board are 1 344 tonnes of bunker oil, 56 tonnes of marine diesel and 64 tonnes of lube oil. Before long, hundreds of tonnes are in the sea and the shoreline looks a bit like the inside of a coal scuttle.
A few days later the slick hits Robben then Dassen islands. Forget the irony of good faith and treasure: pray for the penguins.

This is old news, with resonances going back even further: Kapodistrias, Apollo Sea, bulk carriers which sank and spewed their black guts into the sea. Treasure, though, beats them all. It creates one of the world’s worst coastal bird disasters followed by the world’s most amazing sea-bird rescue operation. Thousands of officials, professionals, housewives and schoolchildren are joined by international film stars, boxers, models and oil-skinned workers, grabbing, shooing, boxing, scrubbing and feeding bemused penguins.

Some 19 000 un-oiled birds are captured and transported to the safety of Cape Recife near Port Elizabeth, another 19 000 oiled birds are cleaned, tagged and, when the oil slick is dispersed, released.

This is 21st century conservation at its best. It gives me a warm glow to have been part of it – until I meet University of Cape Town avian researcher Phil Whittington. He tells me that until 1968 the South African Parliament had a breakfast special on penguin eggs. He mentions a Great Guano War and tells me that in the last 100 years the African penguin population has crashed by about 90 per cent.

It’s all rather depressing and takes some of the lustre out of our rescue operation. But what catches my attention is the guano war. Did grown men really kill each other over bird shit?

Well, it seems they did. From information I dig out of some obscure books at the University of Cape Town and a handful of government reports, a strange tale begins to emerge.

It really starts with the Incas, who discover they can grow bumper crops using the smelly white stuff they scrape of nearby Peruvian islets. The tradition persists despite the decimation of Inca culture by the Spanish conquistadors. In 1835 some Peruvian guano is brought to Britain. It lands up in the hands of Alexander Humboldt – after whom the Humboldt current will later be named.

He discovers it to be rich in nitrogen and phosphates and shows it to be an outstanding fertilizer for wheat and turnips. Soon Liverpool merchants are daring the long passage to Peru and returning with holds full of ‘white gold’. Guano becomes the world’s first commercial fertilizer.

The African connection has to do with a rakish New York captain named Benjamin Morrell who has a penchant for wandering the oceans. In 1828 he sails up the coast from the Cape to Angola, hunting seals. He eventually writes a book with the windy title: A Narrative of Four Voyages to the South Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, Ethiopic and Southern Atlantic Ocean, Indian and Antarctic Ocean from the Year 1822 to 1831.

An American critic calls Morrell “a great navigator, a successful sealer and merchant, a voluminous and entertaining writer and a romantic liar.” But in his book is a sentence which will sign the death warrant for millions of sea birds, including African penguins. Commenting on a visit to lonely Ichaboe Island off the Namibian coast, he writes: “The surface of this island is covered with birds’ manure to a depth of 25 feet.”

Morrell is interested in seals, not guano, so he sails off. But his book falls into the hands of Liverpool businessman Andrew Livingstone, who charters three small sailing ships to hunt down Ichaboe. Two fail but the third, a brig named Ann under Captain Farr, hits pay dirt in March 1843.
The sea conditions are awful, Farr has no materials to construct a landing stage, each longboat of guano has to hammer through Ichaboe’s heavy surf and a southerly gale eventually parts the ship’s anchor chains. But he sails back to Britain with a goodly load of white gold and Livingstone makes a fortune.

The businessman has a problem, though: nobody owns the island and he has to keep its whereabouts secret. He pays the ship’s crew to shut up and sends them away on other vessels. But a crafty steward has a piece of paper on which is written “26 South 14 East” which he sells to the highest bidder. The secret is out.

Before you can yell “hoist the mainsail” the next guano hunter is sailing southwards – then another, then another. The steward is obviously doing good, unprincipled business.

The first ship to arrive is the Douglas under Captain Wade. He leaves a record: “On first landing in November 1843 on the island which enjoyed for a time so odorous a celebrity, the place was literally alive with one mass of penguins and gannet. They were so tame that they would not move without compulsion. Thousands of eggs of the penguin, collected by the sailors, formed a savoury addition to their usual rations of salt meat.”

Captain Wade’s men hack away at the guano cliffs in blissful isolation, but not for long. Soon other ships appear over the horizon.

Before long Ichaboe is littered with spars, booms, topmasts, hawsers and sundry junk forming loading devices and crude shelters. So are the surrounding islands.

Within a month 20 ships are at anchor. Captain Wade takes possession of Ichaboe “in the name of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.” By early 1844 the bobbing fleet of guano hunters has swelled to around 100. By this time hundreds of men are camping ashore under flapping canvas. Claims are staked. Tempers flare.

Then a black southeaster hammers the fleet, causing collisions and forcing vessels to run for open sea. When the gale dies down and the ships beat their way back to Ichaboe, it’s under new management. An Irish deserter from the Royal Navy named Ryan has convinced the temporarily marooned guano diggers to elect him president and has declared Ichaboe a republic. He demands £45 for use of the landing stage from each ship.

All hell breaks loose, aided by some smuggled liquor. No master or mate is allowed on the island, any officer attempting to land is pelted with dead penguins and threatened at knifepoint.

Then a well-provisioned intruder into Bedlam Britannia arrives, the American schooner Emmeline. Its master negotiates a deal with Ryan – provisions for guano – and its crew begins digging. The British are hopping mad. War is declared against the new republic.

Up to 2 000 men fight with picks and spades. The dead are hastily buried in the guano, unearthed by remorseless diggers and buried again in someone else’s claim.

Finally a frigate, Thunderbolt, is called up from Cape Town and Ryan realizes his little war is over. The marines land without opposition.

By January 1845 there are 6 000 men hacking away on the tiny island and 450 ships at anchor. No more incongruous sight has ever been beheld along that hostile, desert coast. “It was a spectacle for the eye and mind,” remembered one Cape Town merchant, “which probably has never had a parallel in the history of commerce.”

By May 1845 it’s all over. About 300 000 tons of guano have been shipped to Britain at around £7 a ton and most of the penguin islands round the Southern African coast have been scraped clean. Without guano in which to bury them, where are the corpses? There is no record of them.
What penguins remain have no burrows and they nest on the bare rock at the mercy of the elements and egg-eating kelp gulls. The islands are once again silent but for the cries of birds and the crashing of waves.

The Cape Government, bless it, then decides the islands need protection and in 1885 create the Division of Government Guano Islands. This regulates the mining of the non-existent guano and formalizes the theft of penguin eggs.

Years later – in the 1940s – the writer Lawrence Green visits Ichaboe and finds only a tiny penguin colony there. He laments that “the dwindling of the penguins hits me in the stomach, for I know no finer breakfast than a penguin egg boiled for 20 minutes and served with butter, pepper and salt.”

This is a taste, it seems, shared by more people than is good for the beleaguered penguins. The tale is told in yellowing government records: state inspectors, it seems, are strangely obsessive in documenting the massive exercise in officially sanctioned looting.

A hundred years earlier it had been oil. A report in 1790 states that “the Government sends every year a detachment into the Isle of Roben (Robben Island) to shoot mors and manchots, which are called at the Cape, penguins, from which they extract great quantities of oil.”

Then comes guano, then eggs – and the authorities appear to have counted each egg. In the peak years at the turn of the last century the average annual penguin crop from Dassen Island alone exceeds 450 000 eggs. The total documented haul on the 24 islands where African penguins nested between 1900 and 1930 is a staggering 13 million eggs. All duly recorded.

Penguin egg collecting is halted in 1969, though the parliamentary kitchen carries on the traditional penguin breakfasts under special dispensation for some time after that. And, of course, poaching continues.

African penguins are the only members of the penguin family which breed in Africa and they pre-date human occupation by about 60 million years, appearing after the massive extinction of marine reptiles at the end of the Cretaceous period. They also pre-date seals, whales and dolphins. In the politics of life, they’re elder statesmen.

Their nearest relatives are not puffins, which they resemble, but petrels and frigate birds. Penguins, however, exchanged air flight for water flight. Their Latin name, Spheniscus demersus, means ‘plunging wedge’ and plunge they can, reaching 20 kilometres an hour and diving to 130 metres when necessary.

But their common name, penguin, is derived from a Portuguese word meaning ‘fat’, and the relationship between humans and fat flightless birds is not a good one. Ask the dodo.

So here’s a question I’m left with. Was the disaster caused by the sinking of the Treasure the latest event in a long history of disinterest in the plight of penguins, or did the magnificent public response mark a new environmental awareness which will characterise the 21st century?

The answer, either way, is of great importance to embattled African penguins.