“Tommy's Gone to Hilo”


Shanty. Characteristic line: "Away, (H)ilo... Tommy's gone to (H)ilo!" The girl complains that her Tommy has left her and gone to Liverpool, Baltimore, Bombay, or wherever it is that she least wants him to be. She may offer/threaten to follow


Most versions of the song use the name "Hilo" (Hugill says all; this was before the Henry collection was published), but the town, according to Doerflinger, Shay, etc., is not the village in Hawaii but the port of Ilo in southern Peru, a major source of nitrates.

That's nitrates as in "saltpeter." As in "gunpowder." Gunpowder consists of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter -- with the mixes used in the nineteenth century requiring 75% saltpeter and just a handful of the other two components. And saltpeter was the hardest component to find -- since ancient times, a little had been made from human urine, and Europe had set up major factories in India starting around the eighteenth century (see Stephen R. Bown, _A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the Modern World_, Dunne, 2005, p. 40). But it still wasn't enough. (For background on this, see the notes to "Chamber Lye.")

It was Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander Baron von Humboldt (1769-1859) who made the next key step. According to _Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology_. revised edition, Equinox Books, 1972, entry #334, he went on a world tour in 1799 in which he explored the west coast of Latin America and discovered the nitrate deposits of Chile and Peru.

Bown, p. 143, notes that the Latin American coast is washed by a cold current from Antarctica (the "Humboldt Current"). This carries much organic material, and since the water is cold, it also has much oxygen. As a result, it is full of fish and other life forms which attract birds. The birds nest on the shores nearby, leaving their droppings behind. And the major component of those droppings is urea -- a good source of nitrates. (So much so that the Incas apparently rationed the guano as a fertilizer among their various provinces; Bown, p. 145).

A curiosity of the climate in the area is that. due to peculiar air circulation patterns, it almost never rains. So there is absolutely nothing to disturb the heaps of guano. They just kept on piling higher (Bown, pp. 144-145).

Chile had a slightly different source of nitrate. Its deserts were never home to much life; according to Isaac Asimov, _The Building Blocks of the Universe_, revised edition, Lancer, 1972, p. 47, the nitrates there were the residue from dried-up ancient lakes.

.According to Floyd L. Darrow, _The Story of Chemistry_, Chautauqua Press, 1928, exports of Chilean nitates began in 1830. At this time they were presumably used mostly for explosives -- though the Chilean deposits, known as "caliche," were largely sodium nitrate, with about a 50% mixture of miscellaneous dirt, so they had to be purified and then converted to potassium nitrate (Bown, pp. 148-149). But, once it was learned how to convert sodium nitrate and potassium chloride into saltpeter (a process discovered in 1846), caliche became a fully viable product (Bown, p. 156). In addition, methods were eventually discovered to keep sodium nitrate from absorbing moisture, so it could be made into a fairly reliable gunpowder (Bown, p. 156)

Shortly before the discovery of the caliche conversion process, Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) conducted his experiments in soil fertility which proved that nitrogen was a necessary fertilizer. So the demand for nitrates, already high, took another jump. And the guano was organic, and made a better fertilizer than caliche, and was coveted as such. (Though caliche too would be used for fertilizer in time.) Plus the caliche, though readily accessible, was inland, and shipping it to the coast was tricky (Bown, p. 149). This made the guano, available right at the coast, that much more valuable. Indeed, for some decades, fees on the trade provided the vast majority of revenue for Peru, and were all that kept that nation solvent (Bown, pp. 153-154)

There was even a war fought over nitrates, though it did not involve a major power; the participants were Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. The problems went back to the period of Spanish rule. According to Hubert Herring, _A History of Latin America from the Beginnings to the Present_, Alfred A. Knopf, 1964, p. 585, "The War of the Pacific (1879-83) was a contest for possession of the bleack Atacama Desert reaching six hundred miles from Chilean Copiapo to Peruvian Arica.... In disdain for this sorry land, Spain had never bothered to establish a boundary between Peru (which in colonial days included Bolivia) and Chile."

When the war began, Chile was much smaller. The region from roughly Talta in what is now Chile to the mouth of the rive Loa north of Tocopilla was in Bolivian hands, giving Bolivia a large chunk of the Andean nitrates as well as access to the sea. The region north or that, including the town of Iquique, was part of Peru, and it too contained nitrate beds, though they were not as large as those in Bolivia (for a map of this, see Geoffrey Barraclough, editor, _The Times Concise Atlas of World History_. revised edition, Hammond, 1991, p. 97). But it was Chile which was exploiting the beds, backed by European capital, though they paid royalties to Bolivia and Peru. It was an attempt by Peru and Bolivia to increase these royalties that led to the war.

William Spence Robertson, _History of the Latin-American Nations_, D. Appleton and Company, 1932, p. 422, tells how Bolivia and Chile had already been involved in diplomatic wrangles over the caliche beds; Bolivia at that time had very poor access to its seacoast due to the Andes. A dictator in Bolivia set aside the fragile agreement between the two countries, and Chile promptly attacked (though the declaration of war came slightly later; Robertson, p. 423). Peru (which also had only tenuous links to its nitrate region, according to Bown, p. 160) soon joined the Bolivian side, but as Bolivia dissolved in internal squabbles, the allies were utterly defeated by Chile, which conquered the entire nitrate region, and even occupied Lima from 1881 to 1884 (Herring, p. 586). A peace treaty was finally made in 1884. Robertson, p. 426, notes that "This treaty embodied a thinly veiled cession of the nitrate desert to the victor in the War of the Pacific." It also left Bolivia entirely landlocked, and largely lacking in natural resources that could be exploited at the time; little wonder that the nation remained poor and subject to frequent revolutions! (To this day, they want the land back, according to Bown, p. 162, and maintain a navy of sorts on Lake Tititcaca in hopes they will someday have an ocean fleet again.)

It is reported that, in the 1850s and 1860s, guano was mined from Peru at an average rate of four hundred thousand tons per year, with about a quarter of that going to the United States and the rest to various ports served by British ships. The guano trade was messy, smelly, and sometimes led to outbreaks of illness, but even so, the profits were high -- according to Bown, p. 146, the demand for South American guano consistently outstripped supply in the mid- to late nineteenth century, and Herring, p. 586, says that it supplied two-thirds of the Chilean government's revenue in the 1890s. The jingoistic American governments of the period went so far as to capture some of the islands, according to Bown, p. 147.

The need to bring as much guano as possible to market produced terrible abuses. Heaven help the sailor who got drunk in Callao or Ilo or even Chilean Valparaiso and ended up working the Chincha islands (the best source of guano, off the Peruvian coast not too far from Lima and Callao). Bown, pp. 150-151 describes slavery conditions worse than even those in the American south. The workers sometimes worked 100 hours a week, were given inadequate shelter, limited and poor food, were driven by merciless overseers -- and, of course, had to breath the extraordinary fumes of ammonia and other dangerous chemicals; many also contracted diseases carried by the bird feces. Suicide was common.

Bown, p. 152, says that most of the workers were Chinese brought in on five year "contracts" which few of them survived. Others came from the Pacific Islands. This form of slavery was not controlled until the 1870s.

Although the quality of guano declined after the 1870s, when the best beds were used up (there was lots of guano left, but it wasn't as high quality due to rain leaching out the nitrates, according to Bown, p. 154), demand for nitrates did not really start to decline until the early twentieth century, and the guano trade was still strong going into the 1920s -- but Darrow, p. 233, notes its collapse in that period. In particularly, in the year 1926, the nitrate companies had a market value of 3,578,000 British pounds at the beginning of 1926, but only 1,634,000 pounds at the end of the year.

According to Shay, even ships not carrying guano (e.g. whalers) were likely to stop at Ilo; there were periods when Chilean ports were closed to foreigners, leaving Ilo as the major watering-port for ships rounding Cape Horn. The Panama Canal would have cut into that trade also, starting in 1914. Little wonder, then, that Ilo is now just another medium-sized town in Peru. - RBW

Cross references


  1. Doerflinger, p. 30, "Tommy's Gone to Hilo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Bone, pp. 61-62, "Tom's Gone to Hilo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Colcord, p. 71-72, "Tom's Gone to Hilo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Harlow, p. 73-74, 260, "Tommy's Gone to Hilo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. Hugill, pp. 261-264, "Shiloh Brown," "Tom's Gone to Hilo," "Tommy's Gone Away" (5 texts, 3 tunes - 1st text is only a fragment that might appear to be a variant of "Shallo Brown" due to the first chorus of "Shiloh, Shiloh Brown," but all the rest of it is "Tommy's Gone to Hilo") [AbEd, pp. 191-194]
  6. Sharp-EFC, LX, p. 64, "Tommy's Gone Away" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Linscott, pp. 150-151, "Tommy's Gone to Hilo" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
  8. Shay-SeaSongs, pp. 36, "Tommy's Gone to Hilo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. SHenry H53d, p. 96, "Tom's Gone to Ilo" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Silber-FSWB, p. 92, "Tommy's Gone to Hilo" (1 text)
  12. Captain John Robinson, "Songs of the Chantey Man," a series published July-August 1917 in the periodical _The Bellman_ (Minneapolis, MN, 1906-1919). A fragment of "My Tom's Gone to Hilo!" is in Part 3, 7/28/1917.
  13. Roud #481
  14. BI, Doe030


Alternate titles: “Johnny's Gone to Hilo (Ilo)”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1917 (Robinson)
Found in: US(MA,NE) Ireland