Around 32,000 English settled in Valparaíso, influencing the port city so much making it virtually a British colony during the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Valparaíso had whole neighbourhoods of British character, schools, social clubs, sports clubs, business organizations and newspapers. However, the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War changed this and drove many away from the city or back to Europe. Even today the British influence is apparent in many areas such as commerce and finance and the navy, as well as social activities such as football, horse racing, and the custom of drinking tea!
British investment helped Chile become prosperous and during the movement for Chile’s independence (1818), it was mainly the British who helped form the Chilean Navy, under the command of Lord Cochrane. British seamen helped the Chilean navy become a strong force in the South Pacific. Chile won two wars, the first against the Peru-Bolivian Confederation and the second, the War of the Pacific, in 1878-79, against an alliance between Peru and Bolivia. The liberal-socialist “Revolution of 1891” introduced political reforms modelled on British parliamentary practice and legislation.
British immigrants were also important in the northern zone of the country during the potash saltpetre boom, in the ports of Iquique and Pisagua. The main Potash Saltpetre industrialists were John Thomas North, along with Santiago Humberstone.
Some Scots settled in the country’s more austral (southern) regions, where the climate and the stark landscape may have reminded them of the Highlands and Northern Scotland. An important contingent of British (principally Scottish and Irish) immigrants arrived between 1914 and 1950, settling in the present-day region of Magallanes, especially the city of Punta Arenas when it flourished as a major global seaport for ships using the Strait of Magellan to transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. British families were also established in other areas of the country, such as Santiago, Coquimbo, the Araucanía, and Chiloé.
The cultural legacy of the British in Chile persists and has spread beyond the British -Chilean community into society at large. It was British technology in mining, the railways, maritime infrastructure, and other industrial applications which predominated in the country in the latter half of the 19th century, continuing through the 1930’s. Many of these British engineers and technicians, who came to Chile to support this British equipment and engineering, remained in the country. Even Chile’s modern system of lighthouses was largely the result of British expertise and technology. Towards the end of the 19th century, Scottish engineer George Slight designed and constructed 70 lighthouses, most of which are still in operation.
Chile currently has the largest population of British descendants in Latin America. Over 700,000 Chileans have British amounting to around 4% of Chile’s population.
The Golden Age of the potash saltpetre mines was between 1880 and 1930 – known as “White Gold” – with a huge demand from the industrialising countries of Europe, who needed fertilizers to help grow food for their rapidly expanding populations.
For a while in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, almost all the world’s supply came from the Atacama Desert in Chile. Humberstone was one of dozens of saltpetre towns, all of which were stuck out in the vast and inhospitable Atacama. Founded in 1872, it was originally known as La Palma and in its heyday was home to around 3,500 people.
Humberstone was a former mining town, named after James Humberstone, a British chemical engineer who emigrated to South America in 1875 to make his fortune from saltpetre. Chile’s “saltpetre” accounted for between 60% and 80% of all Chilean exports and between 40% and 60% of the national fiscal revenue.
The cause of war
The War of the Pacific lasted four years and claimed thousands of lives. Humberstone was in Peruvian territory in the early 1870’s and many of the other saltpetre towns belonged to Bolivia, although most of the companies that operated in the area were Chilean with British investment backers. In 1878, Bolivia increased the taxes charged and paid by one important Anglo-Chilean nitrate exporting company. Saltpetre was so important to the Chileans that they were prepared to go to war over it, and troops were dispatched to the north enabling them to win the war and to annex a large swathe of nitrate-rich Bolivian and Peruvian territory.
A generation later, another war sounded the death knell of the saltpetre industry. When World War One broke out, the British blockaded exports of saltpetre to Germany. This prompted the Germans to look for alternatives leading to the invention of synthetic nitrate substitutes that could be used to make fertilizer.
Suddenly, no-one needed Chilean nitrate and the industry collapsed.
Today, Humberstone is a ghost town. No-one has lived or worked here for over half a century. But in the dry desert air it has been well preserved. You can still see the old company store where the workers bought their food and provisions. In the central square, there is a bandstand and cinema that provided the workers with their entertainment. Nearby are the remains of a hotel and swimming pool. British-made heavy machinery is littered across the site. Humberstone is now a United Nations World Heritage Site with UNESCO working to restore it for future visitors to this arid, mineral-rich and history-rich corner of South America.
Valparaíso is a major city, seaport, and educational centre in Central Chile located about 120 km Northwest of Santiago by road and is one of the South Pacific’s most important seaports.
In the 19th Century, Valparaíso played an important geopolitical role when the city served as a major stopover for ships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Straits of Magellan. During this golden age, Valparaíso mushroomed, as a magnet for European immigrants, when the city was known by international sailors as “Little San Francisco” and “The Jewel of the Pacific”.
The second half of the last century was unfavourable to Valparaíso. The opening of the Panama Canal was a huge blow to the economy of Valparaíso as European shipping was able to avoid the much longer, and more arduous, Cape Horn route. Also, Chilean mineral nitrates exports declined as the synthetic substitutes began to be used further reducing maritime commerce in the region.
Today, many thousands of tourists visit Valparaíso from around the world to enjoy the city’s labyrinth of cobbled alleys and colourful buildings. The port of Valparaíso continues to be a major distribution centre for container traffic, copper, and fruit exports. Valparaíso also receives growing attention from cruise ships that visit during the South American summer. Most significantly, Valparaíso has transformed itself into a major educational centre with four large traditional universities and several large vocational colleges. The city exemplifies Chilean culture, with festivals every year, and street artists and musicians. In 2003, the historic quarter of Valparaíso was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Between 1880 and 1914 the vast plains of Patagonia Austral and Tierra del Fuego became one of the world’s great centres for the raising of sheep and the processing of their products. Vast estancias – sheep ranches – were established by individual settlers or by companies, the largest being “La Sociedad Explotadora del Tierra del Fuego” which possessed vast tracts of land in Tierra del Fuego and on the mainland in both Chile and Argentina.
The sheep raised on the estancias were sent to one of the many processing plants – “frigorificos” – from San Julian and Rio Gallegos on the east coast of Argentine Patagonia round the Straits of Magellan and west to Puerto Bories, near Puerto Natales in Chile, where they were slaughtered and the meat, wool and other products exported.
Many Scots, some migrating from the Falklands and others directly from Scotland, were amongst the earliest shepherds, ranchers, managers and engineers in these processing plants, merchants and shopkeepers, and continued to play a prominent role in this great agro-industry up to and well beyond the first world war.
Thanks to Cerro Guido Lodge for the images.
We arrived here on the 12th inst all well after a passage of 53 days. We had rather a dirty passage and I am sorry to tell you that we lost a man overboard and was drowned. I hope my father will be back again all safe and perhaps off again by this time. The ‘Jo’ was here when we arrived, but she sailed on Friday for Coquimbo for a cargo of Guana. I have been Cabin Boy since we left Honolulu as the steward ran away the day we sailed. The Captain said that I had to be in the cabin there and then some of the other.
Tell Jane that I think I could beat her making pie crusts which I thought was a hard job at one time and many other things that I thought I could never do. We will leave here tomorrow for three places along the coast. First at a place called Hawaska and then at Saltaid and at Caldara to load copper and silver ores for Swansea, Wales, and fill up with wool.
So the Captain thinks we will be back at Liverpool time enough to go to Honolulu again. I think we will be home by the 1st of June. There is not much trade to be done in the places we are going to. I think we will spend our Christmas there. Valparaiso is about the same climate as England. It is summer here now. There is about 100 vessels here, there is a fine English Man of War in here named The ‘Monarch’ and two Chilians. There is one of our men run away and we have got two others. We have all been keeping our log since we left Honolulu.
We were at church last Sunday. They just read the same prayers that they do at home. I will miss winter this time in England so it will make up for the two this year. There are a good many Europeans here. The natives are not as dark as the Canacas, not as civilised, they are all Roman Catholics. The Captain was up at the burying place. He says they just cover their body, their face and feet are not covered at all. And the Protestants they would not bury them at all until the Admiral of the English Man of War made them. They don’t bury them as they do in England, they throw them down a big hole. Valparaiso is not quite as big as Whitehaven, but there is some very fine shops and stores. The town is all lighted with gas.
The sea agrees with me very well, and so does the cabin for I put my Sunday clothes on today and my jacket I can’t get it on, my waistcoat would not meet by two inches and my trousers comes off by my knees, so I think if I grow any more I can’t get any of my clothes on at all. You can write unto Swansea but it will be no use writing here. I don’t know what the directions his last …………………Mrs Frazer will know, we will very likely be deep laden but perhaps that will be better for she will not be so crank. She sails very well, she has made the two quickest passages from Liverpool to Honolulu, and Honolulu to here for sailing ships. It will take us about three days to go to Hawaska. There is only two houses there, we will have to carry labourers from here with us to get the Ores. There is scarce a blade of grass to be seen and no water but Caldara is a nice little town where you can get plenty of water. I hope my grandfather will have had fine weather for getting his crop in. Give my kind love unto my father. To them all at the Park at Workington, Dowy Street, and all enquiring friends. To Jane, Mary and George, hoping they will find all well as it leaves us all at present, and receive the same yourself.
From your affectionate son Thomas Scarrow
A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all”