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British and Anglo-Saxon presence in Chile during the 19th century: Valparaíso

The English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish individuals numbered over 20,000 at the peak of Valparaíso's port activity during the 19th century. An additional thousand were scattered throughout the rest of the country, particularly during the nitrate boom towards the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The influence of the British colony played a pivotal role in understanding the rise and fall of the main port.

In the early 19th century, Valparaíso was little more than a small cove. However, in the decades following Independence, British merchants began to establish themselves. After the defeat of the Peru-Bolivian Confederation, Valparaíso solidified its position as the most important port on the Pacific Ocean from 1840 onwards. By 1845, Chile became a major supplier of provisions to California during the ‘Gold Rush.’ It was during this time that British immigrants began to increase dramatically. Around 1870, the port's growth was such that it approached the size of Santiago, with even more advancements due to its crucial route to California for U.S. ships and to Australia for the British. By 1890, Valparaíso's population reached 190,000, of which 10,000 were English and another 25,000 were from various European nations.


With the opening of the Panama and Suez Canals, Valparaíso's prosperity declined, leading many English traders to move to Santiago, Australia, or New Zealand. The British colony also had a significant presence in the northern region of the country during the nitrate boom, particularly in the ports of Iquique and Pisagua. John Thomas North, the ‘nitrate king,’ was the main entrepreneur in the nitrate mining industry, but, as with Valparaíso, many left the country as the nitrate wealth waned, especially during the 1930s.


British immigrants also arrived in the southern and austral zones. In the Araucanía region, more than 2,500 British immigrants settled during the first colonization phase (1883–1901), primarily in the central part of the Araucanía Region (Temuco, Carahue, Galvarino). In Magallanes, the Welsh were the most numerous group, although various groups of Scottish, English, and Irish settlers also established themselves. Chiloé received around 500 British settlers, who were granted land in the northern part of the island, though most of them left for other parts of the country shortly thereafter.


Currently, the British community in Chile is dispersed throughout the territory, but many have managed to ascend the social ladder alongside Chilean-Basque communities. Descendants of the British have established various schools and exclusive clubs. Figures like Patricio Aylwin, Joaquín Edwards Bello, Carlos Condell, Juan Williams Rebolledo, Patricio Lynch, Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna, Bernardo Leighton, Enrique Mac Iver, and Bernardo O'Higgins stand out as some of the main descendants of the British and Irish colonies in the country.


The British bourgeoisie that arrived in Valparaíso saw their new home as an opportunity to amass wealth without forsaking their traditions. The colony's neighbourhoods replicated their homeland; they brought their cigars, clothing, and tea, practiced their sports, and remained seafarers, this time within the Chilean Navy. For them, it wasn't Valparaíso of Chile but rather Valparaíso of Great Britain.


As soon as the port opened its shores to free trade in 1811, right after Chilean Independence, the English – who were previously involved in smuggling – began to anchor in Valparaíso. The first to arrive were the Crosbie brothers, John and Joseph, on the brigantine Fly. They brought tools, pottery, wool, and cotton, with instructions to return with hemp and copper. This marked the first exchange in what would become a rooted trade relationship between Great Britain and Chile.


Until 1814, out of the eight foreign vessels that anchored in the port, five were British. The Spanish reconquest temporarily halted this movement, but by 1819, English-language signs were already adorning the storefronts on commercial streets.


There are numerous accounts from astonished visitors about the prevalence of Anglo-Saxon culture in the port. According to Gilbert Farquhar Mathison, who visited in 1822, had it not been for the tiny and humble appearance of the place, a foreigner might have imagined that they had arrived in an English possession. Indeed, Cerro Alegre, or ‘Merry Hill’, was a sort of British ghetto. Its wooden houses, most of them two stories tall, with impeccable and subdued colours, and its ornamental gardens set it apart from the orchards of El Almendral neighborhood, where flower gardens were more common. In 1832, a decade after Cerro Alegre was settled, one of Valparaíso's most influential Englishmen, Joshua Waddington, subdivided and put up for sale Cerro Concepción, which would be inhabited by both English and Germans. In 1854, the British built the Anglican Church of Saint Paul there, which still houses the polychrome organ donated in honour of Queen Victoria in 1901. From the heights of the hills, the British bourgeoisie could look down on the streets below, where their businesses were located.


One of the oldest and most successful shops was the House of London, founded by Antonio Gibbs in 1826. The truth is that the English controlled trade, industries, and financial activities in Valparaíso during the latter half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. In 1917, they established their own Chamber of Commerce, which brought together companies and banks of Anglo-Saxon origin. A testament to this prosperity was the Bank of London building on Prat Street, adorned with bronzes and marbles imported from England. The A. Edwards Bank, which still exists today, began as a financial agency in 1845, thanks to Agustín Edwards Ossandón, a Chilean of British descent. The Anglo-South American Bank, established in 1889, managed the substantial accounts generated by nitrate. The streets exuded the rigour of financial institutions. Some of their facades remain as evidence of the opulence of those times.


English could be heard on the streets; fair-haired ladies went to Riddell's House to buy their silk dresses imported from England, then they would visit the London Apothecary for creams, and before returning home, they would stop by Loutit's House on Condell Street to acquire their favourite English magazines. Once at home, tea would be served. English visitors passing through the port were taken aback when invited by the locals, who offered them yerba mate. The idea of sharing the same drinking vessel with other attendees horrified them. Porteño society noticed this reaction and decided to adopt the British tradition. Drinking mate became a sign of bad manners and lack of hygiene. Even the newspaper El Mercurio published an article in 1846 in favour of tea, highlighting that when drinking mate, the oldest person in the gathering should be the first to try it, which wasn't always the one with the cleanest mouth.


Missing their homeland, the English founded the Union Club in 1842. There, they enjoyed the library, reading the South Pacific Mail newspaper, which circulated every Thursday from 1909, or smoking Capstan and West Minster Turkish cigarettes in the lounge. They held social gatherings in the meeting rooms or played billiards.


Children from British families attended schools founded by their compatriots, with the oldest being Mackay School (1857), which had British teachers like Thomas Sommerscales, the renowned painter who settled in Valparaíso. The boarding school was located on Cerro Alegre, and the classrooms were on Santa Isabel Street. Alongside academic excellence, young individuals were instilled with a passion for sports: tennis, cricket, golf, rugby, hockey, and, of course, football, which became highly popular among the residents. In 1892, the ‘Club de Deportes Santiago Wanderers’ was established, the oldest active sports club in Chile, founded by Chileans under British influence; in 1895, the Valparaíso Wanderers, consisting solely of English members, was formed.


Another British tradition passed on was the English-style horse races held in ‘Placilla’, leading to the formation of the Valparaíso Spring Meeting association in 1865. While the style of play may have been European, the festivities after the races followed a Chilean tradition, featuring local cuisine and plenty of alcohol. On one occasion, the Chilean horse Huemul defeated the British horse Kentucky, and the newspaper ‘El Progreso’ sarcastically published, ‘Many of the most respectable Englishmen in this port are strongly afflicted with spleen, a tremendous disease that only affects the children of the nebulous England.’


But the English didn't just introduce new pastimes; known as masters of the sea, they were also instrumental in the Chilean Naval Forces. In 1818, when Manuel Blanco Encalada was Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, most of his principal officers were English. That same year, Lord Cochrane arrived in Valparaíso, a descendant of a lineage of illustrious British mariners. By 1819, he was commanding the Chilean Squadron, imposing the unwavering sense of duty characteristic of the British. Under his command, ship captains were all British, except for one American. They would form families with Chilean women, initiating a lineage of seafaring men. Robert Simpson, for example, arrived in the port in 1821 as a lieutenant and reached the rank of Vice-Admiral; his sons also became officers in the Navy.


The Chilean government ordered its large ships, war instruments, and other maritime equipment from England. The Morrison and Co. firm, located in Valparaíso, represented the British Armstrong shipyard, known for its quality. In 1910, the government of Ramón Barros Luco commissioned the construction of the battleships Latorre and Cochrane. Even the uniforms of officers until the 19th century were like those of the British, except instead of a rooster emblem, they had the national star.

According to data from the British colony itself and the British embassy, the British and Irish descendant population in Chile is estimated to be over 700,000.


Translated by MV


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