Writing in the 1930’s, Lawrence Green described the commercial activity that took place each year on Seal Island. A good imagination is required to fill in the detail; words alone do not convey the stink, the noise, the mites, the permanent damp, the howling south-easter.
At the time Lawrence Green wrote, there was a contract in place to collect guano from the island, authorised by the government, and that contract was held by Miss Sophia Fernandez of Kalk Bay. It seems the government paid a contracted rate for the guano, which was used for fertiliser. Generally the government did its own guano collecting but Seal Island was worked by the Fernandez family of boat owners and fishermen. Old Pedro Fernandez held the contract for many years and when he died his daughter Sophia took over. She was a tough woman in a hard world, well experienced in working the Seal Island guano business.
Sophia’s brothers would carry out the tricky task of landing the guano-diggers on Seal Island, along with their supplies, and there they would stay for a month. Sophia organised the stores, did the hiring, checked the equipment and took on the myriad other tasks. Brother Thomas was the skipper of the fishing boat Simon which took the work party of seven men out to the island, and would keep the team resupplied. Brother Cyril was in charge of the digging crew.
To land on the rocky outcrop, Thomas brought the fishing boat close in, rolling heavily in the swell. Men and stores were transferred to a smaller boat which they had towed behind them from Kalk Bay. The men would row that small boat cautiously to the rocks, one man would judge the swell and jump ashore holding a rope. Once secured, they could begin to float ashore barrels of fresh water, boxes of basic supplies and the bags, picks and spades. No alcohol was permitted – Seal Island is not the place to get drunk. The supplies were of the most basic: coal for the cook, dry fish, tinned meat, potatoes and onions, oil and coffee. Tobacco rations, simple medicines and, importantly, insect powder. All year the seabirds had occupied the little stone hut where the men would live and, as Sophia said, “they were not good tenants”. The men would have to clean out the hut, whitewash it and dust generously with insecticide then and every night before they could sleep in it.
Work started immediately, the men in a line on their knees scraping at the guano. They were paid by the ton collected. At the end of the month the men could hope to each receive £7 after costs had been deducted. This was desperately hard-scrabble work in harsh conditions. A strong wind would blow guano dust into the eyes and nostrils of the collectors, there was no escape from the mites, in heavy weather supplies could not be landed and the men would be soaked all day. But they came home with solid pay, and that made it worthwhile.
Reference: Lawrence Green, Old Africa Untamed, 1940, Howard Timmins