Here is a worthwhile interview with legal scholar Christina Duffy Burnett, who does really interesting work on law and American empire. (I discovered this interview through Opinio Juris) If any of my globalization and empire students are reading this blog today you'll want to read it for sure because it directly reflects our reading of the past week. Nice when it works out that way.

I have never met her, but we are on a panel together at the upcoming meeting of the American Society of Legal Historians and I am looking forward to meeting her.

This interview was of particular interest to me since she has written on the U.S. guano islands, one of my favorite topics.

I managed to get a bit about a guano islands case in my new book in discussing US legal spatiality, and of course I've been really interested in guano issues since I wrote my MA thesis eighteen years ago comparing the British and American responses to the guano supply crisis of the 1840s and 1850s.

Sometime I need to publish some part of that work, the issues are too important, and too intrinsically interesting on a variety of agricultural, sectional, legal, diplomatic, and global scales. It's guano, after all.

The trade included everything from the constant attentions and sabre-rattling of the State Department to enslaved Chinese workers hurling themselves off of guano cliffs rather than continue to mine it, to goat herders on a tiny speck of land in the Persian Gulf called Kooria Mooria driving off the British attempt to create a national source of guano. The more I think about it the more it is insane that I have been working on anything else.

The legal status of the islands is every bit as fascinating as Burnett describes, but I strongly believe that the territorial issues are only part of their importance in terms of U.S. imperial governance and the role of an activist state in foreign economic policy.

It was the American price controls and monopolistic structuring of the guano trade that were coupled with the territorial assertions that were the most important features of the Guano Act of 1856. It was a massive expansion of federal power in the service of both the slaveholding interests in Virginia and Maryland and the commercial interests in Baltimore and New York. The Guano Act was, incredibly, sponsored and pushed by no one less than George Mason and William Seward acting in concert in 1856 of all tumultuous times.

And it really worried states rights fanatics, for instance (to pick one at non-random) Jefferson Davis, who was then in the Senate. In 1860, he called the Guano Act "extraordinary in its character and...really dangerous in its effects." Davis warned that the Guano Act had created:

"in the interests of the guano trade, a power far more extensive than any contemplated in any provision which has moved before in the Senate of the United States. It is better to arrest our steps...[and] proceed toward the repeal of the act. I see no stronger reason for interposing the whole power of the Government to protect this traffic than any other...My objection is, therefore, a radical one. It goes to the whole theory of the act. It covers the entire system."


There is a lot more. I think I will return to these issues.

Meanwhile, go check out the interview. It also features this nice old image of the Chincha Islands, and some others too.



And if you are on campus, stop by my office and I will show you the 50 lbs guano sack I have from that era. (it is just the sack mind you, the guano is long gone).

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