Guano and British Victorians
: An environmental history of a commodity of nature

  • Lesley J Kinsley

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Inca rulers, recognising the extraordinary fertilising powers of their unique and copious reserves of seabird guano, presided over its careful distribution amongst their communities. For centuries, they fiercely protected and revered guano birds and their excrement, using what we would now call ‘sustainable best practice’. In 1842, however, the Peruvian government privatised these reserves, in the first stage of guano’s capitalist commodification. For the following two decades of the so-called ‘guano age’ (approximately 1840-80), British merchants dominated the global trade. Adopting a neo-materialist approach, this dissertation’s central concern is to examine guano’s environmental and commodity history from an under-explored British perspective. Unlike a global guano history, it demonstrates how a material substance of nature exerted agency in the arenas of trade, science, agriculture and sanitation in just one nation. Guano was no passive, inert ‘thing’, subject only to control and reordering by human agents, but a vibrant material and cultural actant in influencing human behaviour. Farmers and scientists treated it as a commodity and relabelled it as ‘artificial’. The energy of the ‘guano craze’ fuelled political, agricultural and scientific controversy. Desire for guano stimulated global searches, increased financial risk taking, and caused human suffering and environmental degradation to which Britons were largely, but not entirely, ‘blind’. Despite a vogue for ‘high farming’, in accordance with their hard-earned ‘ecological wisdom’, farmers carefully regulated the flow of guano’s nitrogen into British food and stomachs. Meanwhile, Victorian sanitarians sought to re-close the vast nutrient rift opened by guano’s global mass transport, through manipulating humanure and re- identifying it as ‘native guano’. In addition to advancing our understandings of material agency and commodification, this research reveals strong early signs of sustainable thinking, as we conceive it, beginning to emerge in a rapidly industrialising Victorian Britain, yet ultimately failing to prevail.
Date of Award24 Mar 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorTim Cole (Supervisor) & Peter A Coates (Supervisor)

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