We’ve all heard of great gold rushes, but what about the Great Guano Rush? The Scramble for Africa, yes. The scramble for fecal matter? Not so much. You get the idea. In years gone by, the Chincha Islands were at the heart of such phenomena. Home to huge populations of nesting seabirds, mountains of guano built up on the barren, rocky islands over centuries. Though they have largely remained uninhabited throughout history, there is evidence of civilizations having visited them for over 1000 years to collect the surprisingly valuable substance.
In 1802, Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt became the first European to encounter guano on a trip to Peru. His writings on the uses of the substance — with phenomenally high nitrogen, phosphate and potassium contents, it is an extremely effective fertilizer — spread across Europe and North America and, by the mid-19th century, the guano rush had begun. The 1856 Guano Islands Act passed by the U.S. government even gave U.S. citizens the right to claim uninhabited guano-rich islands anywhere in the world.
In light of their huge reserves of the magic life-giver, the three tiny, unassuming islands that make up the Chincha Islands had come to be among the most coveted — and subsequently contested — places on Earth, with the vast majority of the world’s supply of the prized commodity harvested from Peru’s guano islands. In 1864, Spain seized the islands, sparking war with its former colonies Peru and Chile. Thousands of bonded Chinese workers were brought in by British merchants, forced to live and labour on the barren islands.
In The Colony, Dinh Q. Lê looks at the state of the guano industry in the islands today. Though not having been permanently inhabited for over 100 years, workers return for harvests every few years, guano having become popular thanks to environmental concerns after the overshadowing by the growth of chemical fertilizers.
The three-screen installation plunges viewers into the desolate environment — an apocalyptic soundtrack from composer Daniel Kramer accompanies footage of activity taken from several perspectives (from boats and on the ground, and using drones circling above) interspersed with haunting animated sequences showing the ghosts of exploited Chinese workers in the islands’ abandoned buildings. The Colony — a title that alludes both to the island cluster’s abundant bird colonies and its unique place in commercial colonial history (and through extension, the neo-colonialism at work in mineral-rich corners of the Earth today) — is accompanied by photographs of the Chincha Islands taken in 1865 by famed American Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, and maps of the area dating back to the mid-19th century.
The Colony is on display Wednesday to Sunday from 11am – 7pm until Sunday, October 9th. More information here.