John North: The Nitrate King

The Indians of Chile and Peru were the first to discover that nitrates improved crop yield when mixed thinly with the soil. But an Englishman, John North, who went to Chile in 1869 to sell nitrate extraction machinery to the fledgling industry, was the first to exploit nitrates commercially on a large scale. Backed by British capital, he was so successful that he became known as the "Nitrate King."

In 1889, angered by false accusations in England that his business was an inefficient shoe-string operation which would never be able to repay the money invested by the public, North took The Times correspondent, W.H. Russell, to Chile to report the true situation. Russell published his account of the trip in A visit to Chile and the nitrate fields illustrated by Melton Prior, artist to the Illustrated London News.

Russell discovered first of all that the railway linking the workings to the port of Iquique was not, as had been reported, "a tramway ending in a marsh." On the contrary, he wrote that the "stations, the sidings, platforms, locomotive ... sheds [were] worthy of any city in Europe."

He was convinced, too, of the huge extent and productive capacity of the nitrate industry itself. He describes his first night in Primitiva, centre of the Tarapaca nitrate fields. "There was Primitiva thundering and clanking away, for the work goes on incessantly, gang following gang, crushers grinding caliche, boilers dissolving it to stew in its own juice, and nitrates of soda yielding itself up ... night and day, to be sent all over the world." North's crown was secure and remained so until he sold up in the 1890s.

South America

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by Stephen Luscombe