Chincha Islands: stories among the guano
Just like other islands along our coast, there were two reasons why the Chincha Islands where visited regularly by the ancient Andean inhabitants; to stock up on guano, that valuable natural fertilizer made of guano bird droppings, and to pay homage to some of their deities. There is abundant information of the first reason both in chronicles and reports from the colonies, and in more recent documentation; of the latter, there are some material remains that were discovered during the mid 19th century. The oldest discovery was a clay pot found more than a hundred feet below the superior level of the guano, and which was then sent to the National Museum in 1851. Unfortunately, we don’t have any more information about this piece, but it is believed that it preceded by a couple of centuries the Mochica remains found at sixty feet some years later; as well as those of the Chincha culture found at thirty five feet. These testimonies allow deducting not only that human presence on these islands goes back more that a millennium, but that they were also visited by seafarers from the Peruvian northern coast.
From 1841 onwards, the Chincha Islands became the hub of a hectic activity centered in exporting guano, which motivated a growing presence of functionaries, workers and ships. At some point it was necessary to build offices and houses for the first; sheds and a small urban center for the second; and for the ships, quays, loading facilities and even a hotel to provide some comforts for the crew during the long periods they spend waiting in front of the island to receive their valuable, but foul load.
Not much is left of those buildings except some illustrations, but what did managed to make it to our times, were some testimonies about what life used to be like on the islands. As it can be expected, some of them describe joyful events such as gatherings and parties organized on the ships waiting to be loaded; others show the dark side of that period characterized by a fallacious prosperity, showing the terrible living conditions of prisoners and Chinese immigrants who were hired to work on the islands; also, there are those that only give information about the amount of guano extracted or the international events that had the lands as main protagonists.
One of the interesting characters that spent some time on the islands was William R. Grace, a young Irish man who managed to build a true multinational commercial empire from the storage ship he landed in those waters in 1856. His correspondence shows the intense social lifestyle that took place on the islands and onboard the ships. It was in this context that William met Lillius Gilchrest, the daughter of the Captain of the North American ship Rochambeau, and the woman he married some years later. The young couple settled on the storage ship, at it was here where their first children were born. They then went on to live in New York, where Grace was elected Major in two opportunities.
The reports on the working conditions on the islands were written on a totally different note. When the guano exploitation began, local laborers were hired. But soon the high demand for guano implied a need to expand the workforce. Thus, first prisoners were brought on to the islands to pay their sentence with labor, and from 1849, Chinese immigrants. Eventually, the latter constituted more than half the workforce. It can’t be denied that life for these men was so tough, that some sought suicide as an escape. Indeed, some people who witnessed this situation such as Lillius Grace, left testimonies of these events. Ricardo Palma, one of the most outstanding Peruvian writers, and author of the famous Tradiciones Peruanas, and at that time a young accountant working on the warship Libertad that set anchor on the islands for two years, was also an eyewitness of those events.