Seabird guano has long been used as an agricultural fertiliser, probably since pre-Columbian days. This fertiliser, containing all sorts of organic materials, among which animal bones, was very widely used until an English geologist discovered in the 1850s that it was also possible to use mineral phosphates.

This discovery led to an immediate industrial phosphate rush, starting in Western Europe. This new extraction industry very rapidly crossed the Atlantic with the discovery of phosphate deposits in the Caribbean in 1860.

The industry rapidly developed on Caribbean islands with deposits found in Anguilla, Sombrero, Redonda, La Mona, Porto Rico, Aruba, Curacao, etc. And it was against this backdrop of a new mining dynamic in the Caribbean that the extraction of aluminous phosphates began on the island of Le Connétable, resulting from the reaction caused by the seabird guano* leaching into the igneous rocks of the island due to the rain. The islands – to which the United States briefly laid claim, citing the “Guano Act” that attributed all unoccupied phosphate islands anywhere in the world to the US – became a place of intense mining activity between 1882 and 1913 due to the presence of a series of American companies. The products were exported to Europe (France and England) and the USA. The appearance of the island was substantially altered by these thirty years of extraction, and nearly all of its current morphology results from the structure given to it by man via mining activities, with several successive platforms having been banked up.

While the coasts were untouched up to a height of between 15 and 25 metres, corresponding to healthy rock not transformed into phosphates, quarries were mined around the summit of the island, apart from one narrow central part of high ground due to the obligation incumbent on the operator to retain the possibility of building a lighthouse.

Mining was done using picks and gunpowder, and the ore was taken down using buckets suspended from cables anchored in the ground by solid chains and operated by steam engines, with winches and capstans and complicated sets of pulleys.

Sterile material was stocked on-site banked up behind dry stone walls, sometimes reaching considerable heights (20m) to create platforms as close as possible to the abrupt cliffs around the island. This structure reveals how everything was done to save space and the successive walls correspond to the various phases of operation.

In places the coast is made up of abrupt cliffs or battered by wind and currents, and there was only one small sector where people could be landed on a stone quay followed by narrow steps and no doubt a lifting device (such as a crane) to raise material from the cliff head.

The ore was carried in little trucks on rails and stocked in the zone where the bins were transferred aboard, at the highest point of the cliffs which are still reinforced by monumental dry stone walls. When sea conditions permitted it, an impressive system of jin-poles was used to take the bins laden with ore down to the boats using a system of two-way cables.

The dwellings were on the north-east of the island, and there are still the lower walls of various buildings and the manager’s house with a water tank, an annex, what is probably an area for raising the flag, a bread oven, various buildings set around what was probably a food store, a refectory, the kitchen and bakehouse, and a large residence for the workers. Lower down there is another tank to collect the water running off the roofs of all the buildings, corresponding to a building dating from a previous phase of operation. The material was stocked to the south of the island in a hangar which served as a store where several bins are still carefully tidied away, now corroded by the rain. On the top of the islands there was once a building with a buried tank and no doubt a lighthouse.

These relics therefore tell of the entire life of the mining operation with its everyday technical and human needs and how it changed over time. The island of Le Connétable is therefore an outstanding example of geological, industrial, and archaeological heritage, and a particularly representative example of phosphate mining in the Caribbean islands.