The British Empire Library

Britain and the Making of Argentina

by Gordon Bridger

Much has been written about Britain's Empire and its vast array of colonies spread all over the four corners of the world. Less has been written about Britain's 'Informal Empire' which is where Gordon Bridger's book plays an invaluable role. Born and raised in Argentina to Anglo-Argentine families of Scottish and English descent spanning nearly two centuries, his own background epitomises the long cultural and economic connections between Britain and Argentina and allows him to write with confidence and knowledge about the relations between the two nations.

It may be surprising that a colony with such a strong imperial Catholic Spanish connection should have forged such close links with a rival Protestant seafaring empire. Indeed, the first significant connections between Britain and what was then the Vice Royalty of the River Plate were in the dying days of Spanish control of the continent. In two spectacularly mis-timed and ultimately disastrous British invasions of Buenos Aires in 1806 and 1807, the British were to unwittingly lay the foundations for a century and more of Anglo-Argentine cooperation and development. The timing was atrocious as Spain was about to switch sides in the Napoleonic Wars in 1808 and so become an ally of Britain in the very near future. Nevertheless, the foundations took the form of the first significant infusion of British immigrants through capture or desertion of the invading soldiers in what seemed such a promising land of milk and honey at least compared to what was on offer back in Europe. Secondly, and more consequentially, a significant fleet of 70 merchant ships had joined the second invasion fleet in anticipation of a quick and easy victory and the opportunity for plunder, barter and trade. The defeat of this second invasion fleet did not deter all of those merchants. In fact, a good majority of these traders appear to have remained in Buenos Aires where they were cultivated by the rising liberal classes who were soon to overthrow the Spanish and set up a fledgeling state of their own. So at the very birth of what, after considerably shifting borders and names would ultimately become Argentina, was a professional merchant class of Britons who helped coordinate and facilitate trade in and out of the River Plate delta and particularly to find markets and products back in Britain.

This was not to say that Argentina's development was a Whiggish march to richness and prosperity over the course of the Nineteenth Century. Gordon Bridger recounts the many pitfalls, difficulties and institutional weaknesses that hampered the country's development, but time and again the role of British investors, experts and businessmen seem to have provided solutions and opportunities that helped overcome many of these hurdles and to turn this former underpopulated and isolated outpost of the Spanish Empire into the richest country in South America and one of the richest in the world by the outbreak of World War One.

British expertise and finance helped in starting many of the critical industries and infrastructure of Argentina; mining, maritime trade, beef, wool, trains, telecommunications, port facilities, sewage systems, basically all the building blocks of a modern economy. In fact, the author's own background as a United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America shines through in his very clear explanations for the underlying reasons for success and failure of the various industries. It is clear that he understands the concepts of development very well and he communicates them with considerable clarity and skill - with statistics and evidence to back up his statements, but not too many to make the text dry and difficult to read. In fact, the organisation of the book should be thoroughly applauded and complimented. There are very clear chapters with manageable sections which themselves are clearly signposted. There are plenty of supporting images, tables, maps and very clear summaries at the end of each chapter which nicely recap the main points made through the previous chapter. I also like the way the author brings in little pen portraits of various Anglo-Argentines and summarises their successes, challenges and failures. What I particularly like is the range of pen portraits - it is not just those who were rich and powerful who are covered, but they are taken from a variety of social strata and achieved varying degrees of success. Some, but by no means all, come from his own family tree but all the portraits have a purpose and none of them are too long that they detract from the text.

The author makes it clear that the absolute numbers of British were always a tiny minority of the population, but their influence went well beyond their numerical situation. They tended to direct the formation of institutions, systems or companies and provided key technical and/or financial skill for what was effectively a developing nation. Britain, having had a head start in industrialisation, modernisation and urbanisation had the necessary expertise to help Argentina maximise its own potential. It should be noted that the small British community tended to live a relatively privileged life as their skills, expertise and finance was inclined to be appreciated by the variety of competing rulers, politicians and strongmen who sought to rule the often politically chaotic emerging country. Most British emigrants tried, wisely, to remain out of politics preferring to invest their time and energy into their professions and businesses - but their social impact is not ignored in the book by any means.

It should be said that these connections were rarely examples of charity, paternalism or for the greater good of humanity. The one theme that definitely runs through the book is the concept of 'self-interest' in that the vast majority of these actors were trying to provide better lives for themselves and their own families, but in doing so often brought about changes which helped establish and occasionally revolutionise various industries, infrastructure and institutions to the benefit of the wider community. Whether it was farmers importing livestock from Britain to improve breeding lines, entrepreneurs building meat packing or refrigeration facilities, engineers building sewage systems or investors providing money to invest in infrastructure projects these were often done for selfish reasons but had a positive effect on the society that they were helping to develop. There was a convergence of skills and products between the two nations as Britain's industrial revolution provided the technology and finance to invest elsewhere whilst Argentina had the land to create the foodstuffs that Britain's growing cities required. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, Britain was overwhelmingly the largest market for Argentina's produce and in return the British provided the largest amount of investment in Argentina.

Of course, the author makes it clear that it was not merely economic activities that forged these two nations together. The British had a love of sport which they happily brought with them; horse riding, football, rugby, polo, rowing and hockey which all made a successful transition to Argentina (only cricket seems to have escaped the Argentines). Of course, the British were great ones for codifying these sports, setting up leagues and competitions and establishing clubs many of which are still in operation all these years later. I did not realise that the first football league in the world outside of Britain was to be found in Argentina - and interestingly not just played by railway engineers as many suppose - the author helps explain the love of the sport by Anglo bankers and financial workers also!

Much of the small but generally successful British community also felt obliged to use some of their wealth for philanthropic purposes - charities, libraries, schools, various well meaning societies (including many of the sports clubs already mentioned), hospitals and missionary work were all undertaken to a greater or lesser extent often under a board of trustees, donors or with volunteers from the Anglo-Argentine community. This was an era when earning wealth was regarded as bequeathing obligations to help those less fortunate and not just to use the wealth for your own purposes. These charities and voluntary associations were particularly required in a state that often went through periods of political and social unrest and undoubtedly helped curb some of the excesses of the otherwise ruthless capitalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ultimately, the Anglo-Argentine community's wish to remain out of politics was to be one of the reasons for their undoing. When Argentina, in the Twentieth Century, adopted universal suffrage, it became all too easy for populist politicians to blame the privileged liberal elite of Argentina, which the Anglo-Argentine community had become identified with (but had little influence over), for any woes and difficulties. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 presaged a collapse in commodity prices that helped start Argentina's chaotic oscillation between military government and populism. The author makes it clear that the economic opportunities presented by the Second World War were squandered by the post-war politics of Peronism which broke many of the mutually beneficial ties between Argentina and Britain as nationalisation, protectionism and industrialisation undermined Argentina's natural comparative advantages in agriculture and trade. It is perhaps no coincidence that the economic success of Argentina was connected to the policies of free trade, openness and investment that characterised the long period of cooperation between Britain and Argentina. Whilst Britain, and her former Dominions like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, retained this commitment to free trade and internationalism and have retained reasonable standards of living and growth, Argentina has unfortunately very much fallen by the economic wayside. If Argentina can perhaps reach back into its own history and rediscover the ingredients to success that it once held, it could perhaps return itself to the relative economic position it once held. Gordon Bridger's book plays an important role in reminding Britons and Argentines alike just how closely their histories were once entwined. In Argentina, Britain discovered the full advantages of 'informal empire' where she had all the benefits of trade, economic opportunity and investment with none of the obligations and costs of governance and defence.

The Bulletin, February 2014
By 1914, Argentina had become one of the world's largest trading nations and, according to some, the tenth most prosperous country in the world. She exported more than all the South American countries together. Argentina was the agricultural EI Dorado" of the world.

It was principally British technology, British capital, British management, combined with massive immigration from southern Europe, which converted Argentina from an economic backwater into the wealthiest country in South America. Buenos Aires became the richest, most European city in the southern hemisphere.

This sadly neglected history needs retelling as it is not without relevance today. While it is a history of development, it has been personalized to bring alive the pioneering achievements of the many thousands of British people who contributed to its transformation.

Gordon Bridger, the author, traces his family's involvement with Argentina to its earliest days of independence. Born and bought up in the Argentine, his ancestors were settlers in the Scottish colony in Monte Grande in 1825. Gordon schooled at St. Alban's College and later at the London School of Economics where he obtained degrees in economics.

brought up in the Argentine, his ancestors were settlers in the Scottish colony in Monte Grande in 1825. Gordon schooled at St. Alban's College and later at the London School of Economics where he obtained degrees in economics.

His work as a development economist took him to many parts of the world to analyse and advise on country problems and on investment proposals, working for the UN Economic Commissions for Africa and for Latin America, the British Ministry of Overseas Development. He latterly joined the Crown Agents in London as a Director of Economics.

The author of various books, Gordon has always taken an interest in the country of his birth and, upon retirement, has turned to recording the contribution made by British immigration to its development.

British Empire Book
Gordon Bridger
WIT Press
The full Spanish translation of this book has been made available:
Gran BretaƱa Y El Desarrollo De La Argentina
Also by the Author
How I Failed To Save The World, Or Forty Years Of Foreign Aid


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe