When it Comes to Phosphates, Guano is the Most Intriguing

In Ian Fleming’s novel Dr. No, James Bond diverts the flow of a guano-loading machine and buries the villain alive. This rare 1958 corrected proof, one of only 100 copies printed, realized $5,375 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The expression “blind as a bat” has been used for generations and it doesn’t seem too implausible since they navigate by radar, right? Except, of course, they are not blind and radar is not one of their navigational skills.

Most bats are nocturnal and do not use their eyes generally for an obvious reason … it is dark and hard to see. However, if forced out of a cave into daylight, a bat would be capable of seeing once its eyes adjusted to the glare. In fact, the fruit bat and leaf-nosed species have very good vision and navigate by eyesight.

Bats also lack a radar system.

Radar is an acronym for “radio detection and ranging,” a term coined by the U.S. Navy circa 1940. It is an object detection system to determine the range or velocity of ships or aircraft. Many countries worked on variations dating back to the late 19th century.

Bats emit high-pitched sounds that are bounced back to their supersensitive ears. This technique is closer to sonar or “sound navigation and ranging,” although the correct name is echolocation. In experiments, a bat’s sonar enables it to avoid a wire as thin as a hair and to distinguish a moth (dinner) from a variety of similar-shaped objects tossed into the air.

Another odd thing is the important role bat guano has played in agriculture. The value of bat guano as a fertilizer was not known in Europe until explorer Alexander von Humboldt returned from his 1806 voyage to Peru. Over the next 40 years, farmers in Great Britain and the United States learned of the astonishing results from its application to soil – and then the frenzy for control of the guano trade became very intense.

Anxiety over supply even reached the White House and led President Millard Fillmore to include the following in his 1850 State of the Union: “Guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end.”

Then in 1856, Congress passed the Guano Islands Act (still on the books) that allows U.S. citizens to claim any uninhabited/unclaimed island for the United States if the island contains guano. Over 50 islands in the Pacific and Caribbean were claimed, including Midway.

There was also a war fought in 1865-66, the Guano War, that pitted Spain against Peru and Chile.

More recently, guano apparently was on every Gemini and Mercury mission (for scientific reasons, we assume) and was the means by which James Bond killed Dr. No (a Chinese-German guano miner) in Ian Fleming’s novel.

Other phosphate sources just aren’t that interesting.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].