“Preventing a silent wilderness, securing the economic bounty” – Cape guano and the politics of seabird protection during the 19th and early 20th century
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The Cape Colony, after Peru, was the second-most-important supplier of seabird guano to commercial farmers on a worldwide scale during the nineteenth century. Despite the obvious benefits of selling guano licenses and leases to exploit various offshore islands within the Cape’s colonial waters for the colonial treasury at a time of decreasing imperial funding, successive administrations placed no restrictions over the harvesting of these spaces. Under conditions of administrative indifference and lack of proper oversight, the islands’ topography was disrupted and the birds temporarily driven away. Uncontrolled guano-scraping, egg collection, and wanton killing of the birds further aggravated this situation. Mindful of their investment and to ensure their enterprise’s continued profitability, leaseholders collectively instituted certain control measures, including appointing a peace officer and maintaining an armed contingent to oversee the daily collection, regulate landings, protect the birds, and prevent guano theft. Critically, they introduced an open and closed season for the guano collection. This measure was consistent with developments overseas where a greater sensitivity for nature conservation started to emerge, in turn, overlapping with increased demand from Cape farmers for legislative protection of a wide range of ‘useful animals’. Following years of pressure from commercially orientated farmers and their political representatives to secure access to cheap and subsidised fertiliser, the Cape Government established full governmental control over guano exploitation from Ichaboe on the Namibian coast to Algoa Bay in the southeast of the Colony. Enforcing the English Sea Birds Preservation Act 1869 and its suite of existing game protection laws, the colonial Department of Lands, Mines and Agriculture adopted the former island leaseholders’ proven and regulating regime. Prompted by perennial guano shortages and incessant demand by Cape farmers, the authorities regularly amended existing measures to the benefit of the agricultural sector resulting in animals’ continued protection. The early 1890s’ laws also included bats whose excrement gradually received status as a useful fertiliser. Having ensured the ‘economic bounty’ through its various laws, by the end of the Century, for moral reasons it could afford to extend protection to other game including pigeons and shrikes and “prevent a silent wilderness”.