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The British and Chile’s Opening to the World by David Woods

Commercially, post-independence Chile opened itself to the world, and Valparaiso was its gateway. Even if, during colonial times, it was simply the port of Santiago, “Valparaiso, once a miserable village, was gradually transformed into a small but tolerable town”, wrote Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna, the fiercely patriotic and prolific historian, politician and would-be statesman.

Vicuña Mackenna, who would eventually serve as a remarkable intendente of Santiago and a feared member of Congress, admired Admiral Thomas Cochrane. Often forgetting that many were little more than pirates, he also extolled earlier buccaneering British naval commanders in romantic and emotional terms, and as leadership models for his vision of a strong Chilean military. Among the more respectable was Captain (later Vice-Admiral) John Byron. In 1741, the famous poet’s grandfather had found himself shipwrecked in Southern Chile. Tended by indigenous tribes and captured by the Spanish, Byron travelled widely in the country for several years, before returning to Britain in 1746. “It is a fact that the Byrons of England had a mysterious affection for this Chilean land,” noted Vicuña Mackenna.

Only around the time of the independence struggle did Valparaiso begin to emerge as a commercial and financial centre, rather than just a port. The main Almendral quarter and the port itself – previously largely separate communities - merged into each other and extended their reach. Churches, convents and hospitals began to pepper the terrain at the foot of the hills. The mule-drivers, fishermen and tradesmen who lived in the Almendral increasingly found customers on the dockside, among a new merchant community and growing numbers of transient mariners.

But it was still a small town; the limited 1813 census counted only 5317 souls in the province, almost all of them in the port and town of Valparaiso itself. Of these, 3785 were of Spanish descent while some 550 inhabitants of indigenous origin were recorded. Just 35 residents were Europeans. There were 164 local merchants, and the only recognized industry was the manufacture of tiles and bricks.

With the initial opening of trade – the Junta had acted quickly in 1811 to lower customs duties – the opportunities in this new land were apparent. At least they were to the British. Two brothers, John and Joseph Crosbie of London, were quickest off the mark. By the end of that same year their brig Fly had arrived in Valparaiso, loaded to the gunnels with everything that might be regarded as a necessity in such a remote place: hardware, tools, wool clothes, linen and cotton. The vessel’s master had instructions to return fully laden with copper. Such was the start of a vital commercial partnership between England and Chile that was to help underpin the wealth of both nations for more than a century.

On that first voyage of the Fly was a youngster from London, John Barnard, just 13-years-old. Evidently, he was a precocious adolescent. On his return to England, he immediately organized a new expedition, filling the Emily, under Captain Dart, with a cargo largely made up of firearms. Arms-dealing was as profitable as ever in those times and Chile’s war of independence with Spain was already well under way when the Emily anchored in Valparaiso in 1813. Not only that, but the English and United States fleets were skirmishing in the Bay. There was no shortage of takers for the rifles, shot and gunpowder that young Barnard could offer, and he had much else in the holds.

Apart from Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, a good number of English and European naval officers were to help Chile and other South American republics in their fight for freedom from the colonial masters in Madrid. And it was, in part, foreign navies that shaped Chilean social life too. Whether it was the songs and dance music belted out by sailors in the portside bars or the protestant churches that sprang up, the food or the local sports, much had the flavour and tradition of England. Vicuña Mackenna recalls a Captain Hickey of the Blossom who umpired the first cricket match that took place on Cerro Alegre, the hillside that was to be home from home for the British for many decades. There was even a hunt. The gringos[1] were in Valparaiso to stay.

Within ten years of the first arrival of Fly, large English trading houses were setting up shop in Valparaiso. Among them, Anthony Gibbs & Sons of London and Liverpool established a Valparaiso branch in 1822. Joshua Waddington had arrived in 1818. Others followed. Not that the Chileans themselves were unable to establish their own businesses and to trade successfully. Some did so, but they needed the experience, ships and established markets of the Europeans. By the same token the British needed entrees into the money, contacts and administration of old Spain in Chile. Two habits quickly emerged to meet those needs: either the wealthy Spanish American families set up partnerships with newly arrived foreigners, or they married their daughters to them.

From the first decades of the nineteenth century there was intermarriage between enterprising English immigrants and the best Chilean families. Among them, George Edwards, a British doctor and businessman, married Isabel Ossandón. From their coupling came a dynasty of some of the most powerful figures in Chilean history; their son Augustín built railways, exploited copper, silver and nitrates, founded the Bank of Valparaiso (Banco Edwards still exists as part of Citibank), was elected to congress and became the richest man in the nation. Joshua Waddington married Rosario de Urriata and established a mining empire. By 1827, Waddington Templeman y Cía was also the primary trading and financing house on the Pacific Coast. At one point, Waddington owned almost all the land and hills that now comprise the UNESCO protected areas of Valparaiso. Andrew Blest, one of the founders of British commercial activity in Valparaiso, was an Irish doctor who spliced himself with another important Chilean family by wedding Concepción Prats. Other significant families of British origin include the Budge, Eastman and Ross clans. Indeed, today many British names can be seen hyphenated with their Spanish pairing in the principal cemetery of Valparaiso: and not merely those in the so-called “dissidents’ cemetery”, supposedly the resting place of true gringos.

However the links evolved, the Anglo-Chilean community was highly organized to maximize benefits from commerce and to develop Valparaiso socially, economically and culturally. The Bolsa Comercial brought all interests together and was the location for deal-making among miners, merchants, bankers and shippers. From that also developed the Chamber of Commerce in the 1830s. At the same time, a strictly British community emerged which established itself - some would have said, isolated itself - in various quarters, but especially on Cerro Alegre, from where the residents could look down on their offices and stores around the port and on the maritime activity out in the bay. To help them maintain their Britishness, construction of a protestant church was funded by locals, the Mackay School was founded and, later, the Lawn Tennis Club and the Valparaiso Sporting Club grew to allow the natives to indulge in gentlemen’s pastimes. Much later, football clubs with names like Everton and Santiago Wanderers (who played, and still play, in Valparaiso) were set up to cope with more popular demands.

The ties with England were reinforced by the need for government finance, in part to pay for Chile’s wars. In 1822, Bernardo O’Higgins raised one million pounds sterling in London in a major loan, though repayment terms caused a domestic political crisis shortly afterwards. O’Higgins also had little alternative but to raise revenues from the nation’s burgeoning commerce. So, by the early 1820s, the comparatively low customs tariffs were hiked back up and remained high for a decade.

By 1820, around 200 ships were dropping anchor in Valparaiso Bay each year. That was four times as many as in 1810. Forty years on – with trade barriers again lowered - a little less than 3000 merchant ships were arriving and departing Chilean ports every year – and most of them moved through Valparaiso. Those vessels brought into the country merchandise worth 19 million pesos, almost one-half from England and less than one-quarter from France. The products imported were part luxury – wines, spirits and perfumes from France, for instance – and part necessities for survival in Chile’s hostile climates as well as supplies for the construction and running of new mining installations. So, in 1865, 400,000 kilos of British wool clothing arrived in Chile. In the years 1861-65, cotton items worth £3.19 million, steel to the tune of £650,000 and tools valued at £251,000 were shipped from England and unloaded in Valparaiso or ports serving the mines of Norte Chico.

These were the golden years of the Anglo-Chilean economic relationship. As the nineteenth century wore on, the commercial challenges and capacities of other European nations – Germany, France, Italy, Croatia and so on – generated more diverse relationships between Chile and the Old Continent. Still, the English stayed and made an indelible mark on Chile’s development over many decades.

[1] Vicuña Mackenna had some firm ideas about the origin of the word “gringo”, a term used for visitors from the US and Europe in Chile even today. He insisted that it was not, as sometimes suggested, a contraction derived from the first words of the traditional Scottish folksong “Green grow the rushes O”. Nor was it an abbreviated form of “greenhorn”, a word used by English sailors for less mature and expert mariners. Instead, he supported an academic view that it comes from the Spanish phrase “esto es hablar en griegio” (“that sounds like Greek to me”) born of frustration with foreign languages.

(Extracted from “The Bombardment of Paradise”, by David Woods, available on Kindle or as a paperback direct from the author: He has written a book on European pioneers in Chile (Valparaiso Bound!) and Meteor, on the life of Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna. This latter volume was launched at a meeting of the Anglo-Chilean Society in March of this year.)

The busy port of Valparaiso, around 1910. (Library of Congress, Washington)


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