German, Ohlendorff & Co. Peru

Olendorff Seal, Image & Found by Adam Hall Ohlendorff Seal, Image & Found by Adam Hall.

OHLENDORFF is curved around the inner top of a raised dotted circle border MANUFACTURERS is curved around the bottom and straight across the middle is & Co with LONDON below.
The other side has the same raised dotted circle border with DISSOLVED PERUVIAN GOVERNMENT curved around the inside of the border and curved around inside this is GUARANTEED ANALYSIS and in a straight line beneath this GUANO. In the centre of all this is the Cornucopia trade mark.

Ohlendorff was a German Company taken over by Anglo Continental later Fisons after the First World War (See Anglo Continental bag seals).‏

The following extract was written by Richard Cowen for a book in preparation (Exploiting the Earth, under contract with Johns Hopkins University Press.)
"Guano is accumulated bird dung. It can accumulate only in areas with dense bird populations and little rain, but in those special environments it can eventually form deposits many feet thick. As it accumulates and dries, it becomes a dense organic material that is very rich in nitrate and phosphate. Around the world, guano deposits are usually found on dry oceanic islands lying in the middle of oceanic upwelling regions that support very rich fisheries. Living off the fish, and concentrated in great numbers by the small areas of available nesting sites, literally millions of seabirds, each excreting about 20 grams of dung a day, can generate massive amounts of guano.

Around the world, the most productive guano islands have been along the equatorial upwelling zone, especially in the Pacific, and in the great cold currents of the world: the Humboldt current off South America and the Agulhas current off South Africa. The word guano is a corruption of a Peruvian word huano, written phonetically in Spanish as guano and then mispronounced by English-speakers. As far as we know, the ancient Moche people along the Peruvian coast were the first people to exploit guano on any large scale, mining the offshore islands to support large populations on their irrigated coastal fields. The tradition was continued by the Incas, so that huano ranked with gold in some ceremonies, and nesting seabirds were placed under protection.

Guano usage dropped as the Spanish essentially destroyed Inca society, but the tradition was not lost. "Guano, though no saint, works many miracles," said a Peruvian proverb. One of the first acts of the newly independent Peruvian government was to exempt huano from taxes in 1830.

As the old Spanish silver mines gradually were worked out, or flooded, the Peruvians began to try to export guano. Trial samples were well received in England, and the Peruvian entrepreneur Quirós put together a consortium of Peruvian, French, and English businessmen who bought from the Peruvian government an exclusive licence to mine and export guano for six years. In 1840 and 1841 they mined about 8000 tonnes of guano, and exported it, mostly to England, at an enormous profit on a wave of favorable publicity. Late in 1841 the Peruvian government realized that it had sold the monopoly too cheaply, and first negotiated a new deal and then nationalized the guano industry outright. It used much the same set of shippers as its agents, still leaving them a healthy profit, but keeping more of the proceeds.

For many years the three Chinca Islands, 120 miles south of the major port of Callao, were the main focus of guano mining. The Peruvian government organized guano mining on the three islands. The guano was sold directly to the trading companies that held the government licenses to export it. Vessels from many nations were hired to ship out the guano, each vessel being loaded from barges in bad weather, and down long canvas chutes from the clifftops in good weather. Eventually, enough guano was removed that a flat area could be carved out on one of the islands, and on a very unsavory foundation of solid guano were erected the headquarters for the Peruvian Governor, the British consul, the offices of the exporting companies, and the barracks for the laborers and the guards that acted as their overseers. Peruvian, British, and United States navy ships called regularly at the islands to make sure that operations were running smoothly.

Conditions were ghastly: the stench of ammonia pervaded the entire island. Probably the best living conditions were on board the dozens of guano ships that were there at any one time (it took about three months to load a ship from the barges that plied to and from the guano islands). Even then, as guano dust billowed out from the holds, crews often took to the rigging to avoid breathing it. The "trimmers" working to balance the load in the holds were not so lucky, and could only work 20 minutes at a time. A ghastly array of occupational diseases continually thinned the work force. The Peruvian government used convicts, indentured Chinese, and kidnapped Polynesians as laborers in these terrible conditions. The Peruvians and Chileans practically depopulated Easter Island and Tongareva in this way, before international outcry stopped the virtual slavery.

The Peruvian government derived most of its income from the guano trade from the early 1840s. Guano was Peru's leading export in the 1850s and its largest source of revenue, with 300 shiploads of guano a year leaving Peru, most of them in American ships. For a while Peru was the only organized nation in the world without internal taxation, and the Peruvian president's salary was twice that of the President of the United States. Peruvian Governments could issue bonds at 3% interest, lower than United States Government bonds! The first railroad in South America was built from Callao to Lima. However, it's hardly surprising that the money that flowed from guano should have been illegally diverted on occasion, and that successive Peruvian governments fell victim to greed, corruption, and overspending.

The British firm of Antony Gibbs & Sons of London played a major role in the guano industry. Gibbs had been merchants in Lima since Spanish colonial days. They signed their first guano-trading contract with the Peruvian government in 1842, and their last in 1861, though there were periods where they lost the contract. At times Gibbs was the dominant company in the guano trade, primarily because from 1847 onward it held the monopoly of selling Peruvian guano (the best in the world) in Britain and North America. In the 1840s Gibbs was buying guano in Peru for $15 a ton, and selling it for an average of $50 a ton. In most years Britain was the major market for guano, generally importing about 100,000 tonnes a year, but 200,000 tonnes in 1850, and more than 300,000 tonnes in 1858. The peak for American imports was 176,000 tonnes in 1855.

By the early 1850s, entrepreneurs were prospecting for alternative sources of supply, and lower-quality guano was being shipped to Europe and North America from various Atlantic, Caribbean, and Pacific islands. The State of Maryland even hired a guano inspector to test quality, and levied a charge of 40c/tonne for the "grade stamps" on the sacks.

Guano fever swept American farmers, especially those who had suddenly realized that crop yields were dropping as they exhausted their soil. The US Senate debated guano in 1850, and President Fillmore referred to the urgent question of the nation's guano supply in his State of the Union Address in December that year. The United States tried in vain to negotiate a treaty with Peru for a cheap stable guano supply. Guano made up 22% of the nation's commercial fertilizer in 1850, and 43% in 1860, at a price around $73/ton.

Britain, the USA, France, and Germany were all major guano importers, and it was probably the interest of so many powerful countries in the trade that allowed Peru to keep control: each power would resists occasional attempts by the others to muscle in on the Peruvian end of the trade. In these early years of the guano trade, demand always outstripped supply. In 1852 there was a bizarre attempt by a Brooklyn entrepreneur, Alfred Benson, to persuade the US Navy to protect his ships from Peruvian "interference" while he mined guano from the Lobos islands, 20 to 40 km offshore from Peru in what was commonly accepted at the time as international waters. Benson owned a fleet of ships that routinely made the Cape Horn voyage out to gold-rush California, but generally returned with little cargo. If they could load guano off Peru, reasoned Benson, he could make literally millions of dollars. However, the British and the Peruvians were well aware of the rich guano deposits of the Lobos Islands. The Peruvians had declared them off-limits to mining (they were to be a reserve to be exploited once the Chinca Islands were depleted) and the British were already on record as regarding the Lobos islands as Peruvian possessions. Benson's scheme was thwarted, but William R. Grace entered the guano market in 1854 in a much more legal way, by supplying the miners of Chinca and shipping out guano, in a trade that began the great W. R. Grace & Co.

However, Americans looked toward discovering guano deposits in less contested territory, at a time when the United States was in an expansionist mood. In 1854 and 1855, Americans began to mine guano from several islands in the southern Caribbean, trying to keep ahead of the Venezuelan government's attempts to stop them or make them sign lucrative contracts. Meanwhile, in 1855 the ill-fated Alfred Benson formed the American Guano Company to mine some newly discovered islands in the equatorial Pacific, this time hundreds of kilometers from land, uninhabited, and rich in guano; and he persuaded Senator Seward (eventually of Alaska fame) to sponsor the Guano Islands Act of 1856, which encouraged entrepreneurs to claim such islands as American territory: the first American overseas territories. Within ten years, areas of the central Pacific were sometimes labelled "American Polynesia" in atlases, as 59 islands, most of them in the Pacific, were claimed and registered with the State Department as guano islands. Even the Hawaiian Navy got into the action, as Kamehameha IV tried to annex Johnston Island to his Kingdom in 1858, and succeeded in annexing Palmyra in 1862.

By the time the guano trade had become large and profitable, and the Peruvian government was receiving a very healthy share of the proceeds, though Gibbs was flourishing too. From 1849 to 1861, for example, the Peruvian government's revenue was 65% of the gross proceeds from guano, with shipping costs eating up much of the rest.

The problem for the Peruvian government was that it usually spent each year's guano income before it received it, borrowing money all the time. Thus the nation ended in 1861 practically bankrupt. For example, Gibbs paid the 1842 contract money in advance as a loan to the Peruvians, and 84% of it was spent on equipping the army for a war against Bolivia. Gibbs maximized their profit by selling 90% of their guano through their own agents in London, Liverpool, or Bristol, where Gibbs agents operated. Guano continued to be exported to Britain for a number of years at about 150,000 tonnes per year during the 1860s, but with the advent of nitrates and mined rock phosphate, the guano trade diminished considerably because the new products had a high and more reliable quality. In the 1870s the guano market crashed: tonnages dropped to about 100,000 a year, and petered out by 1885. However, I can still buy it for my organic orchard."

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