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The Infusoria of Ichaboe

Wayne Barrar


In 1842, the tiny, uninhabited southern African island of Ichaboe was the site of
acute speculative activity in the form of guano mining. Within just a few years,
fierce and often desperate competition left the island essentially stripped of its
ecological history. Though guano’s fertilising power was the paramount focus,
an unanticipated spin-off enterprise arose when the material was found to hold
the fossilised remains of algae. These glassy, jewel-like diatoms provided an ideal
subject for the Victorian microscope craze and were used to make highly valued
microscope slides. Traded widely, they brought Ichaboe a new, supplementary
fame. This article—which forms part of the author’s broader photographic-based
project, The Glass Archive—considers these artefacts as microscopic traces that
serve as metaphoric links to landscape history and as ‘prompts’ to remember
and understand aspects of this colonial period more fully.