Most people do not associate the British Empire with the huge continent of South America. In reality, some of England's very first footsteps into empire building took place along the Northern shore of this Continent. Furthermore, Britain was to play a leading role in challenging Spanish control of the vast continent and provided help and expertise to revolutionaries and nationalists in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. South America was to become a key part of Britain's 'Informal Empire' especially in the Nineteenth but also into the first half of the Twentieth Century. Britain provided investment, expertise and technology throughout most of the continent as she gained much of the value of Empire without the unnecessary costs and burdens of formal control and governance. With two long term exceptions (British Guiana and the Falkland Islands) Britain's relationship to South America was to be very different from her relationships to most of the rest of the World - but no less influential.
After the Portuguese had found a sea route to the all important 'Spice Islands' of Asia, Spain embarked on its own search for a route to the riches of the East. The journeys of Christopher Columbus were to be a part of this search for the Orient but his discovery of the landmass of the Americas was both an unexpected but also a truly world changing event. His subsequent journeys in and around the Caribbean were in a vain attempt to see if he could yet find a route to the Indies. Eventually a southern route around the Cape Horn was discovered, but it was so treacherous and arduous that it was not really a viable option for the frail ships of the Sixteenth Century. Undaunted, the Spanish discovered an alternate if more disjointed route that was developed over time. The narrowness of the Panama Isthmus meant that the Spanish could travel across Central America to the Pacific Coast and build ships and port facilities on that western coast. The portage required combined with the fact that the Pacific Ocean was far larger than original calculations had anticipated meant that it was not a viable alternative route to the Orient, but it did give the Spanish strategic and trading options in the Americas. Fortunately for the Spanish they were able to locate silver and agricultural products that were to help make South and Central America profitable in their own right. The wealth of the New World began filtering back to Spain and helped fund its own naval and political expansion in Europe.
A potential clash with rival Catholic power Portugal was averted by the intervention of the Pope and the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 which effectively assigned Spain control of most of the New World and Portugal the Orient via the African route. There were two important exceptions which were that parts of Brazil protruded further than the Treaty had anticipated and so lay in the Portuguese zone, and the Philippines were assigned to Spain as long as they came via the Pacific route. So each Catholic power had a foothold in the trading territory of their rival.
Other European maritime nations, like England, were becoming increasingly interested in the source of wealth for these Iberian powers and began to send expeditions and reconnaissance voyages of their own to the region.
The Spanish largely had the vast American continent to themselves - although its size dwarfed the resources even of the Spanish to successfully police and defend their settlements and claims in entirety over the forthcoming centuries. However, the Spanish certainly received a healthy head start in exploring, conquering and expropriating the resources of the continent to their own advantage. For much of the Sixteenth Century, they were barely challenged as the only possible rivals, Portugal, were generally content with their own trading opportunities in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and their claim on Brazil.
After exploring the Caribbean extensively enough to confirm that there was no sea route to the Pacific, the principal interest of the Spanish moved to the Spanish Main (as South America was then called). The Spanish Conquistadores were motivated by the quest for money and particularly gold. There were a number of established empires on the mainland that could be confronted and whose possessions and lands could be seized. Additionally, the legend of El Dorado quickly took prominence and repeated fruitless searches for the mythical city of gold were undertaken by Spanish adventurers and noblemen seeking their fame and fortune. However, it was not to be gold that made Spain's fortune in South America but 'silver'. The Spanish seizure of the silver mines of Potosi in the Viceroyalty of Peru (although now in modern day Bolivia) was a truly world changing event. The sheer quantity and quality of silver discovered transformed the Spanish economy and turned the Spanish Main into a veritable cash cow for the Spanish Crown. Its principal drawback was the fact that it was located closer to the Pacific coastline than the Atlantic one. This meant that the extracted silver had to make a journey to La Paz and then on to Lima via Cuzco where it was boarded on a ship. It was then transported to Panama where it had to be unloaded and taken by land across the isthmus to Nombre de Dios where it was reloaded on to ships to take back to Spain on the so-called 'Treasure Fleets' or 'Flota'.
With Portugal's primacy along the African route to the Orient, and the Spanish primacy in the Western Hemisphere, the English searched forlornly for a North-Easterly or a North-Westerly route to the riches of Asia. Both of these foundered in the harsh Arctic seas, but their search for a North-Western route did at least bring them into contact with the Americas if a lot further North than where the Spanish were located. Westcountry fishermen in particular began to undertake voyages across the Atlantic to fish the plentiful fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Slowly English mariners acquired the skills and knowledge to become proficient at long and arduous oceanic voyages.
In fact, it was a West Country mariner who first attempted to muscle his way into the Spanish Caribbean and Main. John Hawkins from Plymouth undertook a series of voyages to take slaves from Africa to the Spanish colonies of the Americas where he hoped to sell them at a profit. His first voyage was indeed relatively successful when isolated Spanish administrators turned a blind eye to the illegal importation of much needed slaves by this English interloper. However, when the Spanish government learned of what had happened they attempted to reassert control and prohibited their officials from trading again with this Protestant English interloper. Three subsequent voyages offered diminishing returns with his last voyage ending in disaster when a Spanish fleet attacked and destroyed much of Hawkins' small fleet at San Juan de Ulua (Veracruz) in 1568. It was clear that the Spanish were determined to defend their monopoly rights to the New World.
All this time, the Treasure Fleets continued their sailings across the Atlantic. The arduous journey injected vast amounts of money into the European economy. Spain was able to use its new found fortune to wage sustained wars against the rising Protestant powers as the Reformation threw up new religious complications on the continent. The sheer quantity of silver also ignited inflation throughout Europe as prices rose due to the infusion of coinage into economies not used to so much high quality precious metal swirling around its population. It also inflamed envy as the Protestant nations in particular sought to disrupt the flow of money to Catholic Spain or better yet to expropriate the silver for their own use. Huguenot French, the Dutch and the English all came into this category as their sailors slowly acquired the skills and technology to match and challenge the Spanish navy. One of the most famous of these sailors, a nephew of John Hawkins, had been present at the San Juan de Ulua debacle and had vowed personal revenge on Catholic Spain. The Spanish referred to him as 'El Draco' but his real name was Francis Drake.
Drake sailed to the Americas a number of times in the 1570s and was the first Englishman to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean whilst attempting to reconnoitre the overland trans-shipment routes for the Spanish treasure ships (which he successfully captured at Nombre de Dios in 1573). Both he and the Spanish appreciated that the isolation of the Pacific from the Caribbean Sea was both a blessing and a curse. For the Spanish, it afforded peace of mind as they regarded the Pacific as their own Spanish lake. They had also established a base in the Philippines which allowed some of the trade of the Orient to also be trans-shipped via Panama. The difficulties and complexity of portaging goods across Central America was perhaps a small cost to pay. For the English, the isolation made it very difficult to get to the Pacific but it had the compensating factor that the Spanish felt safe and secure and did little to protect their ports and ships on the Pacific coastline. Drake was to take advantage of this over-confidence during his 1577 - 1580 circumnavigation of the World when he sailed through the difficult channels of Tierra del Fuego en route for the Pacific. During this journey, Drake did make an interesting claim on an island that could lay claim to England's first ever overseas colony which he named 'Elizabeth Island'. The exact location of this island has been disputed but it was claimed to lie within the Magellan Strait and provided vital respite during an arduous journey. This is probably the reason that he claimed it on behalf of his queen and also with an eye to it providing future help to English mariners who might follow him in his exploits.
Technically, England and Spain were at peace, but the concept of 'No peace beyond the line' meant that the long distances and isolated outposts of the Western Hemisphere were beyond the realms of diplomatic niceties and European agreements. The original phrase derived from the French and Spanish whose imperial arguments were often as great as between the English and Spanish. They agreed on a notional line in the Atlantic Ocean beyond which accepted European treaties would not apply. The English, in treaties in 1604 and 1630 formally recognised this same principle. Whatever events occurred in the colonies and the high seas were regarded as fair game. In this vain, Drake happily raided the Spanish Treasure Ships on the Pacific coast of Panama before making another attempt at finding the North-West Passage and then returning home via the Asian route.
As relations continued to sour between England and Spain, King Philip of Spain ordered that all English ships in Spanish and colonial ports be seized abruptly in 1585. Elizabeth retaliated by issuing 'Letters of Marque' to English captains, including Drake, to gain 'compensation' for the English ships by attacking Spanish possessions. The obvious target for these captains was the Caribbean and the Spanish Main. In that same year, Drake sailed to the Americas with a huge fleet of ships and ransomed the mighty ports of Cartagena and Santa Domingo whilst disrupting Spanish shipping and the Spanish Treasure Ships once more.
Continued English attacks on Spanish colonies was a key factor in the King of Spain launching his ill-fated Armada against England in 1588. Its defeat confirmed the rising maritime status of England and merely emboldened its sailors to continue to challenge the Catholic power. Having said this, the Spanish were slowly learning from their previous mistakes and under-preparedness with regards to its colonies in the Americas. Their towns were becoming fortified and they deployed ever more ships and cannons to their New World outposts. The next English flotilla in 1595/6 led by John Hawkins and Francis Drake came to disaster as the former died of disease at San Juan and the latter dying similarly near Nombre De Dios. Fittingly he was buried at sea near to the scene of one of his greatest exploits off Porto Bello in 1596.
The other notable Tudor sailor to take an interest in the Americas was Walter Raleigh. He had actually attempted to 'plant' a colony in North America at Roanoke in 1585 but war with Spain had disrupted communications and its settlers mysteriously disappeared. Raleigh was inspired also by the tales of El Dorado which had done so much to motivate so many Spanish adventurers. Raleigh personally undertook two expeditions to search for his city of gold in 'Guiana' and funded a third under a trusted lieutenant. On his first expedition he headed to Trinidad to capture Antonio de Berrio whose correspondence claiming to know of the location of the fabled city had been captured by English privateers and brought back to England. Raleigh seized Port of Spain and destroyed its settlement and forced Berrio to explain to him the location of El Dorado. Berrio believed that there was an inland lake with the city at one end. The wide and powerful Orinoco River Delta was the obvious seaborne route into the interior. Raleigh did have the foresight to foster friendly relations with the local indigenous tribes (possibly learning from his experience with the unfortunate Roanoke colony). He announced that he represented Queen Elizabeth who was an enemy of the Spanish. This went down well with tribes whose experience of Spanish colonisation had been wholly negative. There was even an exchange of personnel as two Englishmen were left in Guiana and three Indians were brought back to England. However, for all their searching along the Orinoco River the location of an inland lake and of a city of gold eluded them. They took home various rock samples and the conviction that El Dorado was tantalisingly close to where they had been. The following year, Raleigh sent his trusted Captain Lawrence Keymis to continue the search. Unfortunately, Keymis found that the Spanish had reinforced the Orinoco and fortified Trinidad. Keymis therefore travelled further down the 'Wild Coast' to the Essequibo, Maroni and Waiapoco Rivers. He sent pinnaces further down these river systems but once again failed to find any signs of El Dorado although he claimed to have found a 'rich mine' which only served to continue hopes of the city's existence. Keymis was also able to report that the English still had the friendship and goodwill of various local tribes. Raleigh wrote an account of his search for El Dorado in 1596 entitled The Discovery of Guiana which would inspire explorers and adventurers for many more years to come with its optimistic promise of untold wealth in a seeming 'Garden of Eden'.
It was not just the English who were to be inspired by Raleigh's writings, French and Dutch mariners were also drawn to the 'Wild Coast' in search of their own El Dorado, Eden or at least new trading opportunities. The sheer quantity and size of river systems on South America's Northern and Eastern coastline gave a plethora of exploring and trading opportunities. In addition to tropical fruits and food, tobacco was already becoming a sought after product - especially before the plantations in Virginia and the West Indies were established. A combination of French, Dutch and English traders began to search for new trading relationships as they all benefitted from not being the hated 'Spanish' or 'Portuguese'. The first English attempt to settle in South America was in 1604 along the Waiapoco River. This doomed settlement actually predated the Virginia Colony by three years. It was established by Charles Leigh who arrived with the 'Olive Plant' looking initially to trade but the mariners soon saw an opportunity to settle and grow crops of their own; tobacco, flax and cotton. They sought permission from local Arawak tribesmen to build a settlement and grow crops 40 miles down the Waiapoco River. Clearing the land proved arduous to Leigh's crew and they soon lost heart. Once they had run out of provisions and with no sign of any El Dorado they abandoned their settlement and moved to the mouth of the Waiapoco River and sought shelter with the Arawak tribespeople. Leigh set off once more to search forlornly for Raleigh's fabled city but by the time he had returned he found his remaining crew in a miserable state. Attempts at growing and supplying the settlers were frustrated when a ship sent with further provisions was blown off course ultimately disgorging their unhappy passengers on various Caribbean islands were they came across often less than friendly local Caribs. The combination of hostile Spanish and Portuguese authorities, Dutch commercial rivalry, disease and unpredictable local populations doomed the early settlement.
Another attempt to settle along the Waiapoco was undertaken in 1609 by Robert Harcourt. He arrived with three ships and had brought a Royal Patent from James I to legitimate his claims - at least in English eyes. He was seeking to grow tobacco whose price and value was only increasing back in Europe. Once again, they were greeted by friendly tribespeople and were given permission to build a settlement. In an all too familiar manner, Harcourt undertook an unsuccessful expedition to discover El Dorado whilst the nearly 100 settlers struggled to clear land and plant crops in the harsh environment. Harcourt returned to England to find fresh capital and willing colonists only to find that these were not forthcoming. Further disaster struck when disease ravaged the remaining settlers. By 1614 this second Waiapoco settlement had also been abandoned.
Sir Walter Raleigh was to return to the South American Coast on his last expedition in 1617. He was heartened that local tribes had remembered him fondly but his quest was a last attempt to find El Dorado for his sceptical King who doubted his loyalty in addition to the existence of what was becoming an ever harder to find city of gold. Raleigh set out with a sizeable fleet of 14 ships but bad weather and worse luck soon whittled down his armada. He explored the Waiapoco and Cayenne River systems before heading back to Trinidad to launch another attack on his favoured route to El Dorado along the River Orinoco. The Spanish had built up a fort at San Thome since his last visit, but its garrison had long been allowed to wilt in the equatorial sun. Keymis went ahead with a small force to seize the fort and open the passage up the Orinoco River. His small force did manage to seize and destroy the fort but at the loss of Sir Walter Raleigh's own son, Wat Raleigh. A heartbroken Walter Raleigh blamed Keymis for his son's death. The expedition soon unravelled as Keymis committed suicide partly out of guilt and partly out of losing the confidence of Sir Walter Raleigh. The remaining sailors refused to sail up the Orinoco and much of the fleet melted away leaving Sir Walter Raleigh to return to England both empty-handed and broken-hearted. Raleigh's ultimate failure combined with his attacking of the Spanish fort was used as a pretext to have him executed in 1618. He had already fallen out of favour with James I, but this execution demonstrated that what went on 'beyond the line' was not always forgiven and forgotten when it suited the home government, although it should be noted that his execution was deeply unpopular with many English who still regarded him as a national hero. Raleigh had failed to find his city of gold, but his writings and expeditions would inspire English adventurers and mariners for many years to come. It can be said that he laid the foundations for Britain's interest in and fascination for Guiana.
In the short term it seemed that the islands of the Caribbean were going to provide more manageable opportunities for settlers and planters. Islands could be cleared of hostile native peoples, they were easily accessible by ships due to the trade winds and the island micro-climates were more pleasing to European constitutions with sea breezes taking away much of the harshness of the equatorial sun. Lessons had been learned from the South American settlements and expeditions though and many of these earliest settlers subsequently relocated to the Caribbean Islands to start afresh. For example, a 1620 attempt by Captain North to settle on the Waiapoco once more floundered when he was imprisoned in the Tower of London after petitions from the Spanish Ambassador to England against English trespassing into Spanish territory. The surviving settlers, rather than returning home, set off to the Caribbean and helped establish a new colony on St. Kitt's under the leadership of the Thomas Warner. It was to be the relative success of these Caribbean endeavours that would later underpin the return of settlers to the Wild Coast along the Spanish Main.
One such attempt from Barbados was undertaken in the 1630s under the leadership of Captain Marshall. He took some 60 settlers to grow tobacco along the River Surinam. At its height there were reported to be 300 souls in the settlement and the name Marchallkreek etched itself onto subsequent maps. Unfortunately, this endeavour coincided with a decline in the price of tobacco and with stirred up local resistance which was aimed primarily at nearby French settlers but local tribespeople struggled to differentiate between Europeans. By 1645 the colony had been abandoned.
Events further down the South American coastline would have profound effects throughout the Caribbean and along the Wild Coast as the Dutch succeeded for a time to oust the Portuguese from their Brazilian holdings. This allowed the Dutch to plant and grow sugar cane on a large scale for the first time. When they in turn were ousted from Brazil, they took this knowledge with them to Dutch, English and French colonies. This expertise was vital in kick starting the sugar industry which for the English got underway on Barbados before spilling over into other Caribbean islands and then back to South America.
The 1640s was also a time of political turmoil for the English as their home nation was racked by Civil War. Far from the centre of action, the New World colonies sidestepped much of the political turmoil in the early years of the conflict as distance awarded them a form of neutrality. But as the Parliamentarian forces back in England gradually gained ascendency they sought to impose control on their far flung territories. In the case of the Caribbean, many of the planters had been sympathetic to the Royalists although this was by no means universal. One person who began as a Parliamentarian but switched to the Royalists was Barbados planter Francis Willoughby who, like many others, was indignant by Parliament's execution of King Charles I. A Parliamentarian fleet under Admiral Ayscue was despatched to the Caribbean in 1651 to ensure Parliamentarian control of the increasingly profitable but unruly outposts. This belated Parliamentarian intervention in Caribbean affairs would see the creation of England's first significant and, for a while at least, successful colony in South America as Royalists such as Francis Willoughby sought to escape the clutches of Parliamentarian control.
Two factors allowed for the creation of England's first significant colony in South America; sugar cane and political turmoil at home. The price of sugar would make a colony economically viable along the River Surinam for the first time. Francis Willoughby had anticipated the arrival of a Parliamentarian fleet in the region and so had taken significant steps to prepare to escape Parliamentarian clutches by sending out reconnaissance vessels to find suitable locations for a new settlement. The River Surinam seemed the most promising with good communication links, plenty of land, tribespeople willing to allow them to settle and its proximity to Dutch settlements in Essequibo with whom they could trade and get supplies. Establishing a new colony outside of Parliamentarian control had the added advantage of avoiding the new Navigation Acts that were set up in 1650 specifically to prohibit trade with the Dutch. By circumventing these Navigation Acts, Willoughbyland hoped that they could buy the cheaper slaves provided by Dutch traders, continue to receive Dutch sugar cane expertise and gain access to the Dutch markets back in Europe to sell the all important sugar cane when it finally harvested.
Francis Willoughby himself landed with 300 settlers (mostly Royalists) in his new colony in 1652 to already earmarked locations for plantations, a fort and suitable landing sites. However, the extent of the jungle, the proliferation of insects and dangerous animals and harsh climactic conditions were still intimidating even for those had travelled from the Caribbean island of Barbados. Generous land allocations and subsidised passage meant that the colony saw a steady growth in its European population throughout the 1650s despite the pitfalls. In 1660 there were 1,000 settlers in place but by 1662 this had already grown to some 4,000. There was an important infusion of Jewish settlers after the Dutch were expelled from Brazil by the Portuguese whose hostility to Judaism was widely appreciated. This small emigre community was further augmented a few years later when Jews who had sought sanctuary in Dutch Cayenne saw that colony fall to the French who were also antagonistic to Judaism. Surinam soon built the first synagogue in the Americas. Despite being a Royalist undertaking, Surinam - initially at least - was a very tolerant and welcoming colony. It granted freedom of worship which it kept in place even after the Restoration of the Crown back in England in 1660.
The Crown's Restoration had a significant impact on the colony of Surinam. Firstly, Francis Willoughby saw his disputed legal rights to the land settled on highly generous terms. He was also made governor of the entire 'Caribbees' giving him more influence and power throughout the region. A second and ultimately more harmful influence on Surinam was King Charles' creation of the Royal Company of Adventurers in 1660 and the Royal African Company in 1663. These institutions gave royal sanction to England officially joining the Slave Trade and in competition with the Dutch who had hitherto been friendly and important to the colony's growth and prosperity. It also saw a significant infusion of slaves to Surinam to work the sugar cane fields. Slavery had never been outlawed but the early settlers had relied predominantly on European and indentured labour until the authorities officially encouraged the use of black slaves in order to placate and humour King Charles and to enforce the Royal African Company's monopoly and create revenue for their King. Widespread slavery also changed the nature of the colony as harsh treatment of slaves filtered and helped dehumanise the fragile social system of the colony. Runaways were treated diabolically whilst newly arrived slaves were generally in a terrible state after making their horrific journey across the Atlantic. More worrying for the success of the colony was that by challenging the Dutch monopoly on supplying slaves - by attacking and seizing Dutch slave trading forts in Africa for instance - England would help create the preconditions for outright war between the two nations. This would ultimately be the undoing of the Surinam colony as the isolated colony found itself vulnerable to the powerful Dutch navy.
Ironically, it was Francis Willoughby who set in motion the events in the West Indies that would eventually see his colony in Surinam be destroyed. Acting as the Governor of the Caribbees he was ordered by King Charles II to seize Dutch colonies in the West Indies. One such force sent to seize Tobago had discovered that English privateers had beaten them to the job. They therefore carried on to attack and seize the Dutch forts guarding the colonies of Essequibo and Pomeroon. A further attempt to seize Berbice by English privateers was beaten off. Orders from Willoughby to his governor at Willoughbyland to send a force to seize the small Dutch colony of Aprowaco further down the coastline were carried out reluctantly but with success. The Wild Coast had been drawn fully into the Anglo-Dutch War.
The war escalated further when the French threw in their lot with the Dutch against the English in 1666. They sent a force to relieve Pomeroon whilst the Dutch colony of Berbice marched overland to reileve Essequibo. The isolated colony of Surinam was further imperilled when Francis Willoughby was ordered by the King to gather a fleet together to reassert English naval control in the region only for it to be destroyed by a hurricane in Guadeloupe. Indeed Francis Willoughby disappeared along with his ship. The Dutch sensed an opportunity to seize the valuable Surinam colony and sent a fleet under Admiral Crijjnsen to attack it. He seized Fort Willoughby and took control of the bewildered and isolated colony in 1667.
Within a couple of months a new English fleet had been despatched under John Harman to try and seize back the colony along with the French colony of Cayenne further down the coast. Although this mission was accomplished events in Europe had made the campaign superfluous and the gains redundant. A Dutch fleet had sailed up the Medway and caused havoc on the English fleet and captured the King's flagship. This humiliating defeat had forced the English to negotiate a peace from a position of weakness. Surinam was one of the casualties as it found it had few friends left in government circles. Barbadians were keen to be rid of the colony as it presented serious competition within the English Atlantic trading system. The government itself saw little advantage in keeping a colony with Free Trade rights which meant that it paid little customs and taxes to the Royal treasury. They were also perturbed at the friendliness between some of the settlers and the Dutch government who had become a dangerous commercial and military rival. The face saving formula was that the English would take over the New Netherlands in North America and the Dutch would keep the Surinam River colony for itself. At the time, few doubted that the Dutch had got the far better deal taking the economically valuable sugar producing colony for the cost of marginal farmland that produced little other than sustenance for its settlers in North America. Some English settlers stayed on in Surinam but most moved to Antigua or to Jamaica. Disappointed and fleeing Willoughbyland planters and officials destroyed their own plantations, buildings and machinery whilst turning a blind eye to slaves fleeing into the interior where they formed significant Maroon settlements. Those English settlers who stayed were given significant rights initially, but these were later watered down when the Dutch government effectively privatised its concerns and passed on administration of the colony to the Society of Suriname from 1683 onwards.
Formal English colonisation on the South American colony had come to a sudden and unexpected end. The land of El Dorado had delivered a form of wealth but as sugar cane rather than gold. It would be over a century before the English returned to the continent in a formal manner as the Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese kept and expanded their economic opportunities on the continent.
Dutch and English antagonism with one another came to something of an abrupt end in 1688 when the Protestant William of Orange seized the Crown of England from the Catholic James II. This somewhat cemented English and Dutch respect for one another's possessions and position as far as overseas colonies were concerned. But friendship with Holland was bought with yet further enmity towards France and continued suspicion and hostility with Spain which was still the dominant Imperial force in South America. The after effects of the Glorious Revolution also saw the Royal African Company lose its monopoly to supply slaves (and other goods) from Africa. After 1698 any English merchants were allowed to buy and trade goods, which predominantly meant slaves to the Americas, as long as they paid a 10 percent levy to the company who in turn paid taxes to the English government. This change would see an explosion of slaves being carried across the Atlantic in the coming years as ships from Bristol and Liverpool in particular integrated the slaves into the 'Triangular Trade' patterns whereby they took manufactured goods to Africa where they were exchanged for slaves for the Americas which were then exchanged for sugar to be brought home to Britain. The coming century would provide ruthless opportunities for mariners, slave traders and plantation owners alike.
Eighteenth Century Hopes and Reality
One Central American scheme that had unexpected ramifications back in the British Isles was the attempt by Scotland to create a colony at Darien on the Isthmus of Panama in 1698. This was something of a mercantile response by Scottish traders and politicians who were concerned that they would be frozen out of international trade unless they had their own colonies to trade with. Panama had been identified on hopeful strategic grounds as being perfectly located between the Atlantic and the Pacific but also between North and South America. There were further dreams of cutting a canal between the two tantalisingly close bodies of water - a theme that was returned to in later centuries. Unfortunately, it was not appreciated that the Darien peninsular was little more than a malarial swampland surrounded by hostile Spanish concerns who would have attacked the Scottish settlement had it demonstrated any semblance of success. As it was, this was unnecessary as it became obvious that the under-capitalised and naive Scottish trading company was barely surviving let alone thriving. In 1700, the isolated and bedraggled colony forlornly surrendered to the Spanish. The failure of this scheme caused a major scandal back in Scotland and was one of the prime reasons that Scotland sought a Union with England in 1707. Indeed the Act of Union specifically agreed to repay the Darien creditors any money lost on their imperial scheme. Additionally, Scotland after the Act of Union was no longer barred by the Navigation Acts from trading with English colonies and ports. In an unexpected way Darien's failure was a catalyst for Scottish mercantile success within the British Empire.
The new century had also brought a new war with the old enemies of France and Spain. This 1702 to 1713 war was known as the War of Spanish Succession and once again spilled over into the New World. On this occasion the Dutch were now allies with the English (or British as they had become after 1707). The decade long war saw France and Spain isolated in Europe and weakened in the Caribbean. The resultant Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 saw no change of ownership of colonies in South America but it did grant increased trading privileges to the British for the first time in the enormous South American Spanish Empire. The British were granted what was known as the 'Assiento' from the Spanish which finally, after a century and a half after John Hawkins' attempts to do so, allowed the English to legally supply slaves to the Spanish Main. The optimism created by this event would end up causing one of the great financial bubbles of all time back in Britain. The company given the right to trade slaves with Spain was the British 'South Sea Company.' In fact, this company was granted a monopoly for all trade between the British Empire and the Spanish Empire as mercantile conceptions of international trade continued to hold sway over decision makers. Various traders, merchants and sailors had dreamed of trading with South America for so long and had waxed so lyrically about the opportunities there, along the lines of Walter Raleigh from a century before, that it led to investors greatly over estimating the economic value of these new trading opportunities with South America.
The Spanish Empire was no longer the great power that it had once been. It had been exhausted by years of war and its own merchants and businesses had ossified under stultifying Royal Court control and through lack of investment. It was a shadow of its former glory but this did not stop British investors dreaming of the South America of 'El Dorado' or of the 'Potosi Silver Mines'. The value of the South Sea Company appeared to defy gravity as more and more investors rushed in to buy more shares sending the value of the company ever higher still. The bubble did not burst until 1720 but when it did, the value of its shares fell spectacularly. The vast majority of investors lost their paper fortunes and their original investments also. Interestingly, the French economy was undergoing its own bubble and collapse connected to the New World. John Law, a Scottish adviser to the French Crown, had set up a Mississippi Company with similarly optimistic ideas of trading with the New World through their control of the Mississippi River system despite the fact that the largely nomadic peoples of North America barely having any money or resources to trade with. The collapse of both companies in 1720 provided a reality check on the unbridled economic optimism for the New World. There would be economic opportunities, but these would have to rely on the time honoured practice of hard work, investment and the selling of real produce.
The early years of the Eighteenth Century saw an unexpected and undoubted reluctant colonist come to fame who would have a surprisingly important impact on literary conceptions of imperialism. His name was Alexander Selkirk but is perhaps better known by Daniel Defoe's literary account of his time being marooned for four years as 'Robinson Crusoe'. Alexander Selkirk voluntarily put himself ashore on the Juan Fernández archipelago off the coast of Chile in 1704 and was not rescued until 1709 due to the relative isolation of the islands and the infrequency of ships. He was eventually picked up by a privateering ship captained by Woodes Rogers and piloted by William Dampier. Alexander Selkirk then joined with his liberators and helped them attack Spanish ports and vessels along the coast, as was officially permitted whilst Britain and Spain were at war, for another two years. He eventually returned to Britain in 1711 and his exploits and experiences were the cause of great fascination. Eventually Daniel Defoe wrote his 'Robinson Crusoe' largely based on the account of Alexander Selkirk but with added layers of imperial overtones. The fictional account includes a 'Man Friday' who is clearly portrayed as a savage vis-a-vis the European hero. The savage gradually redeems himself as he acquires aspects of Crusoe's culture but his position is always inferior to his presumed overlord. The book somewhat justified European ideas revolving around the of bringing civilisation to unknowing natives who would only benefit from being 'enlightened' although still making it clear that British forms of imperial rule were infinitely preferable to Spanish ones. It is interesting that two of the earliest literary accounts of imperialism, by Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe, should both be set in South American settings and points to the fluidity of colonial aspirations and conceptions of European proprietorship.
Hostility between the Spanish and British would play itself out in further wars during the Eighteenth Century. In 1727, the Spanish attempted to seize back Gibraltar which she had lost in the War of the Spanish Succession. The British responded by blockading Porto Bello in Panama with the intention of restricting the flow of treasure back to Spain. Unfortunately for the British, the blockade was something of a disaster as disease and malnutrition took a terrible toll on Royal Navy ships sailing out from Kingston, Jamaica. The war lasted until 1729 but achieved little for either side except casualties.
A decade later the British and Spanish were once again at war with one another in the strangely named "War of Jenkins' Ear". The Spanish name for the war of "Guerra del Assiento" might be a more accurate and helpful title. The ear in question had belonged to Robert Jenkins and had been cut off along with his ship being seized by Spanish Customs officials in 1731 as they believed, with good reason, that he was smuggling goods beyond those which the Assiento had granted back in 1713. The 'ear' was actually used as an exhibit in Britain's Parliament to spur outrage against the Spanish and was thought to provide an excuse to attempt to further increase trading opportunities in the Spanish Americas. Tellingly, the rump of investors who still owned shares in the collapsed South Sea Company were at the forefront of lobbying for war in the hope of reviving the fortunes of their company. It was not until 1739, some eight years later, that the British finally sent a fleet to demand compensation for Robert Jenkins. In reality this was little more than a thinly veiled pretext to start war against the Spanish in the New World to advance commercial opportunities. Once again, the British sought to disrupt the treasure ships from Porto Bello but with markedly more success this time as Admiral Vernon seized the port within just 24 hours and with only six ships under his command. This stunning victory was the cause of much celebration back in Britain and provided the inspiration for the patriotic song 'Rule Britannia' which was performed in 1740 for the very first time. Portobello Road in London was also named in honour of this naval victory.
Attempts by Vernon to seize the important Spanish port of Cartagena, in present day Venezuela, were less successful. Three determined attacks, including the largest action of the war, were ultimately unsuccessful. Indeed the failure of the last attack helped bring down the government of Henry Walpole in Britain who had promised an easy victory in a simple war which had gone on far longer and cost far more than anyone was expecting. It also became subsumed into the larger European War of Austrian Succession which would continue until 1748.
One interesting naval expedition that was launched during the war and would have far reaching consequences for the Royal Navy was the Anson Expedition. This set out in the wake of the victory at Porto Bello with orders to sail around the Cape Horn, resupply and recover in the Juan Fernandez Islands (of Alexander Selkirk fame) and go on to intercept the annual Spanish Manila Galleon which was due to head towards Aculpulco. This ambitious and long term plan required the Royal Navy to plan its first ever ship to ship resupply systems to allow the fleet to travel the enormous distances required. It helped turn the Royal Navy into a truly global 'Blue Water' navy for the first time. Anson attacked Spanish possessions in Peru but missed the intended Manila Galleon. Crossing the Pacific, and putting in for repairs in China, he travelled directly to the Philippines in 1743 and set about capturing the subsequent Manila Galleon and netted his expedition over one million gold coins in the process. His three and a half year circumnavigation did little to influence the war but helped build the reputation of the Royal Navy and help professionalise its supply systems and long distance ambitions for itself. It also brought to attention the idea of having bases scattered around the world to facilitate these ambitious expeditions.
Islands in the South Atlantic
Since the Sixteenth Century, mariners had been aware of a group of islands on the approaches to the all important but very dangerous Cape Horn sea route. Dutch and English mariners reported the existence of the islands and they started appearing on maps of South America shortly afterwards. Captain Strong in 1690 bequeathed the name 'Falkland' to the sound between the two main islands in honour of Viscount Falkland who had sponsored his own expedition. Over time, this name would become synonomous with the whole archipelago. At first, they were labelled more as a possible hazard to avoid, but over time countries began to appreciate that they may provide vital re-victualling possibilities before making the journey around the Cape Horn or as a place for ships to recover and refit after making a transit in the opposite direction from the Pacific to the Atlantic. French mariners in the late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Century began searching for their own imperial opportunities and made several circumnavigations which stumbled across these islands for themselves. French cartographers began marking the islands as Malouines in honour of sailors from St. Malo who were credited with making their existence known to the French - this was later translated to 'Malvinas' on Spanish maps. Formal British interest in the islands had been identified by Admiral Anson during his 1740 circumnavigation of the world. He wrote enthusiastically to the Admiralty of the anchorage possibilities in these South Atlantic islands in what he regarded as a strategically useful part of the World.
It was not until the 1760s that both the French and British sought to turn their ideas into reality. In a remarkable coincidence, both European colonies had set up colonies on the island within a year of one another but in total ignorance of one another's presence. The British landed and formed a settlement on the West Island and the French did likewise on the East. The Spanish asserted their own territorial rights when they discovered that rival Europeans were establishing settlements in their own sphere. The French agreed to abandon their settlement in return for a cash settlement, but the British and Spanish were not so diplomatically friendly with one another at this time. These small islands nearly caused a war between the two nations as the Spanish sent five warships and 1400 ships to locate and evict the British. In response, the British admiralty mobilised their fleet and prepared for war. Spain was unsuccessful in convincing the French to join their cause and so a diplomatic solution was hastily put in place. The British were allowed to return although the issue of sovereignty was conveniently side-stepped. As it transpired, events elsewhere in the Americas conspired to force the British to abandon their settlement just four years later in 1774 as the 13 colonies in America began causing problems and forcing the British to reassign her military personnel and attention elsewhere. But Spain could in no way remain complacent as she would soon be challenged by her own revolutions and independence calls.
Continued Antagonism with the Spanish
Anglo-Spanish hostility burst forth once more in 1762 when the Spanish decided to join the Seven Years War with the French against the British and their Portuguese allies. Soon, the British seized Manila and Havana in order to cripple Spain's trade and influence. However, an attempt by English East India ships to sail from their Portuguese ally's port of Rio de Janeiro into the Rio de la Plata to attack the Spanish settlements of Montevideo and Buenos Aires was abandoned as it became clear that the Spanish defenders were alert and ready to repulse them. A fallback plan to take the nearby Colonia do Sacramento, which was assumed to be more lightly defended, failed when the flagship was hit by accurate shore batteries, caught fire and blew up killing the expedition's commander. Despite this setback, Spain and France were on the backfoot throughout most of this war as the Royal Navy once again demonstrated its increased professionalism and reach. In the resulting Treaty of Paris Spain agreed to hand over Florida and Minorca to the British and to withdraw from fully from Portugal and Brazil in exchange for the British agreeing to withdraw from Cuba and Manila. Spain retained its pre-eminent position in South America.
Spain had long divided its South American holdings into two giant viceroyalties, the Viceroyalty of Peru for most of South America and the Viceroyalty of New Spain which covered most of Central and Spanish holdings in North America. The Viceroyalty of Peru's insistence that trade be conducted through the Pacific port of Lima severely dented South America's commercial potential and gave smugglers great potential to evade customs officials and dues throughout the rest of the continent. British and her colonial colonies' ships figures prominently in these illegal activities. An attempt to open up trade by creating a Viceroyalty of New Granada foundered as Spain lost ground in the Caribbean and could not guarantee access to the Atlantic through the myriad of British and French islands. Consequently in 1776, the Spanish decided to reorganise their South American colonial organisation by creating an additional Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. This new Viceroyalty would centre on the River Plate's natural harbours and trading opportunities to refocus Spanish commercial opportunities. The British were somewhat paralysed in responding to these Spanish administrative changes as she sought to deal with her own colonial crisis.
Britain had long been dominant in North America whilst Spain continued its dominance in South America. The American Revolution would test Britain's ability to control its 13 Northern colonies and its control of the seas throughout the Americas. Spain joined with France to aid the Revolutionaries as they sought to undermine the beleaguered British. Spanish ships and soldiers took an active part in the campaign including the financing of the Siege of Yorktown. The conflict spilled into the Caribbean and Central America as the British launched two expeditions against Nicaragua both of which were repulsed and suffered terrible casualties largely from disease. When Britain sued for peace, Spain was the enemy that wanted to keep fighting as she desperately wanted to recapture Gibraltar. Spain was awarded some islands in the Caribbean but was content to see British power in the Americas receive a huge setback with the independence of the 13 colonies. Spain and France's contributions were only to be a pyrrhic victory with the benefit of hindsight as the revolutionary demands would ultimately cost them both dearly within barely a decade of signing the Treaty of Paris.
Yet More Revolutions and Independence
Britain had long dreamed of gaining access to the vast markets of South America. The fact that Spain had appeared to get so rich for so long from its control of the continent only whetted the appetites of Britain's merchants, traders and politicians. They had even been undaunted by the disasters of the South Sea Bubble believing that the constrictions and monopoly rights of the Assiento were somehow responsible for the failure of the South Sea Company. Repeated attempts at opening up the markets in the Eighteenth century did not seem to dim the ardour to gaining full commercial access to one of the largest continents in the world. Few realised that their rose-tinted glasses did not reflect the contemporary economic power of the South American colonies to Spain. This did not stop the British from trying yet again to gain access to the continent's markets. Although Britain's initial attempts at coaxing South America to throw off its Spanish shackles so that they could trade directly with Britain appeared to come to ignominious disaster in 1806 and 1807.
The French Revolution and ensuing Napoleonic Wars had brought Britain considerable alarm and difficulties as it sought to attempt to control the spread of Revolutionary fervour and its accompanying military power. Britain had already been sucked unsuccessfully into intervening in Saint Domingue (Haiti) in the Caribbean as an uprising there saw much of its European population slaughtered by the slaves who had been partly inspired by revolutionary hopes and aspirations flowing out from Europe. British attempts at intervention there foundered in disease and confused political aims although the brutal treatment of Europeans by the revolting slaves left an indelible impression on the owners of the plantations throughout the New World for many more years to come.
The Dutch joined with the French in 1795 and Spain formally joined forces with France in 1796 as the European conflict spilled over into the New World. The British had already seized a number of French and Dutch Caribbean islands but once Spain had declared itself an enemy, her colonies became fair game also. A naval expedition under Admiral Harvey set course for the large Spanish island of Trinidad in 1797. Britain was trying to shore up its position throughout the Caribbean, but Trinidad was different. It was envisioned, much along the lines of Walter Raleigh's thinking, that the island would make a perfect base to coordinate political and military assaults upon South America. Its location near the River Orinoco, its proximity to important Spanish settlements on the North Coast and to the Dutch colony of Surinam and not that far from French interests meant that the island was strategically placed to exert considerable pressure in her enemies' backyard. It was with the opportunities in South America in mind that the British pushed to maintain its control of the island during the negotiations for the Peace of Amiens. Trinidad was formally ceded to the British as a result of these negotiations in 1802 and it would play in important part of the jigsaw of the British Empire to connect her Caribbean interests with her growing South American ones.
It may seem counter-intuitive that the British would support revolutionaries and independence fighters in South America whilst fighting revolutionaries in Europe. To a certain extent there was the thought that the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend'. There was also long standing antipathy to the ultra conservative Catholic Iberian power who had been an adversary for centuries. In contrast, the South American revolutionaries appeared to be models of liberal enlightenment values who found many sympathetic ears in the corridors of power in Britain. But there was also a commercial dimension to Britain's interest in South America at this particular time. As Napoleon seized more and more of the continent, Britain was finding it harder to find raw materials for her factories, food for her workers and markets for her exports. Napoleon would later formalise his 'Continental System' from 1806 prohibiting European countries from trading with Britain in any capacity. British merchants were desperate to find new markets and resources and South America seemed to offer an opportunity to get around the restrictions of Napoleon's blockade.
A number of South American revolutionaries, with the permission of British authorities, used Trinidad as a springboard to try and ignite revolutions on the mainland continent itself. Francisco de Miranda attempted to land a small force in Venezuela in 1806 but soon found his forces outnumbered. A larger force was subsequently planned and was due to be led by no less a person than Arthur Wellesley. However, events in Spain were to lead to the cancellation of this military venture as his services and forces were urgently required in Spain itself as the Peninsular War broke out in earnest in 1808. The Royal Navy also had plans to seize Valparaiso and Lima on the Pacific Coast but these plans were put on halt when an unexpected invasion came from a surprising direction.
The other, largely unplanned, intervention into revolutionary South American politics took place in the Viceroyalty of the River Plate. Sir Home Popham had recently seized the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch early in 1806 and under his own initiative decided to see if he could make a similar seizure of the Spanish colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. Commodore Popham had previously been a close collaborator on behalf of the British military with Francisco de Miranda and was convinced by the revolutionary that there was serious discontent and opposition to Spanish rule throughout the Americas. With this in mind, Popham set sail from the Cape of Good Hope with 1,500 soldiers under the command of General Beresford to try and ignite popular resistance and revolution against the Spanish authorities in Buenos Aires and throughout the region. They arrived in June of 1806 and General Beresford seized the settlement of Buenos Aires with relatively little bloodshed. The local Viceroy fled and his attempts to take the local treasury with him were thwarted by British cavalry who seized it as they fled. The economic imperatives of the operation are revealed by the fact that one of the first decrees issued was that all trade restrictions on foreign (i.e. British) imports would be lifted immediately. The small British force settled into garrison duties and sent word to London to send more forces to help maintain control of the town.
Despite their initial success, the hoped for sympathetic revolution did not occur. Spanish forces reorganised and 47 days later, along with loyal locals, counter-attacked the town and captured the small British force before the relief fleet could arrive. This relief fleet was under the command of General Whitelocke. It had a formidable 11,000 soldiers, ships and a flotilla of seventy London merchant ships eager to take advantage of the new trading opportunities. However, rather than relieving Beresford's force, they found that they would have to make a hostile assault and invasion against an enemy forewarned of their arrival. Initially, they seized Montevideo on the opposite coast to Buenos Aires. They then attacked Buenos Aires in July 1807 with 7,000 troops. The street fighting that unfolded favoured the local knowledge of the defenders. The attack was an unmitigated disaster with 400 killed, 650 wounded and over 1,800 captured. The British capitulated and agreed to vacate Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Although interestingly, many of the merchants remained behind unmolested to conduct the business that they had hoped for. These two invasions had failed largely because of their unplanned nature but also because Spanish power was not completely gone and indeed was most powerful in the few urban areas of South America. In reality, Britain could hardly have chosen a worse place to start an invasion, nor a worse time! Just one year later in 1808 Spain would have its own Dos de Mayo rebellion in Madrid that would see it change sides. Suddenly and almost completely out of the blue, Spain had become a British ally against Napoleon. This was just one more reason for why Arthur Wellesley had landed in Portugal rather than the planned Venezuela in 1808.
This Iberian intervention would have one other fortuitous result for the British. In 1807 the Royal Navy escorted the Portuguese Royal family across the Atlantic to Brazil as they fled Napoleon's armies and advances. Recognising that Portugal now depended on British ships and armies to help defend their colonies, they promptly gave permission for British ships to trade with all their overseas colonies including their most prosperous colony of Brazil. Within a year, over 200 British merchants were established in Rio de Janeiro and British products flooded into her shops and homes. An 1810 Commercial Treaty consolidated Britain's favourable economic access to the Portuguese colony.
In Spanish controlled America, Britain played an important but delicate role. On the one hand, she had been one of the prime backers of South American Independence and revolutionaries during the period that Spain was an active enemy. Once she had become an ally, Britain's role was necessarily more nuanced. A number of revolutions broke out from 1810 onwards and each made it clear that they would allow Britain commercial access to her ports, something which the Spanish government had restricted. Newly declared independent nations sought British recognition as one of their prime diplomatic priorities. One thing that the British could do was ensure that no other European power could intervene in events in South America, especially after victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 gave her command of the world's seas. Spanish focus was fixed more on events in Spain between the years of 1808 and 1814 as she battled against the French and against internal division. Even when she emerged on the victorious side, her economic and military strength along with diplomatic will had been severely curtailed. She would also have to fight alone as France was prostrate after Waterloo and other European powers were busy recovering from decades of war.
One territory the British decided to keep was the colony that would become known as British Guiana. This was made up of the Dutch colonies of Berbice,
Essequibo. As the Dutch had been reconstituted as the Batavian Republic in 1796 and allied herself with Napoleon, Britain regarded her colonies as fair game and quickly hoovered them up with the Royal Navy. Britain quickly seized the Dutch colonies in South America once more after the Peace of Amiens collapsed in 1803. In addition to the three Rivers Colonies she also took back control of her old colony of Surinam. However, Surinam was returned to the Dutch after the Napoleonic Wars whereas the three River's colonies were kept by the British who originally combined Demerara and Essequibo into a single administrative unit but kept Berbice as a separate colony. Demerara underwent one of the most savage slave uprisings in British colonial history in 1823. It was put down brutally but played an important role in further discrediting the institution of slavery and gave valuable ammunition to the anti-slave movements back in Britain. In 1831 all three were combined into the single colony of British Guiana. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1834 although the apprentice system was kept in place until 1838. A dispute with Venezuela over the exact location of the borders between British Guiana and Venezuela rumbled on until 1897 when an international tribunal finally arbitrated a borderline.
Officially, Britain remained neutral in the Spanish wars of independence, but in reality many of its ex-military personnel took a very active part in its events. After Waterloo, Britain's army and navy no longer required so many soldiers and sailors. Many of these released from service headed to South America to join with the many armies being formed across the continent. The most famous example was perhaps Thomas Cochrane who became the Admiral of the Chilean fleet and played a decisive role in destroying the Spanish Pacific Fleet. Later he joined the Brazilian Navy and played an equally important role destroying the Portuguese fleet in their own revolution. Some 6,000 British soldiers saw service in South America and often playing a disproportionately important role due to their expertise and experience after years of warfare. General William Miller fought with San Martin and Bolivar in every major engagement in the liberation of Chile and Peru. He commanded the
cavalry at the decisive battles of Junin and Ayacucho in Peru in 1824 and afterwards
served as Governor of Potosi, in Bolivia. Daniel O'Leary won both military and diplomatic laurels as Bolivar's aide-de-camp throughout the later stages of the revolutionary struggle.
Bernardo O'Higgins became a hero of Chilean independence and worked closely with Admiral Cochrane.
It was not just soldiers and sailors of fortune who helped the revolutionaries. British merchants were keen to arm, clothe and feed these new armies as the new opportunities for Free Trade made themselves obvious to the industrialising British economy and its powerful merchant marine capabilities. Merchants followed the revolutionaries keen to gain access to the hitherto prohibited or at least restricted markets. By 1825, when most of Latin America had achieved their independence from Spanish or Portuguese rule, South America had become one of Britain's most important markets. More than 200 British commercial houses established themselves throughout the colony although with the majority in Brazil or on the River Plate. British goods such as cottons,
woollens, linens, ironware, pottery, glass,
furniture were soon found in all major
coastal cities and some of these goods were even making it into the interior as well.
In response to the Latin American colonies and as a way of helping to prevent the Spanish and Portuguese governments from possibly returning in the future to try and regain their colonies, the American government under President Monroe issued a proclamation in 1823. This 'Monroe Doctrine' basically stated that the United States would not tolerate any European interference in the Western Hemisphere. Although not directly coordinated with Britain, this doctrine actually relied implicitly on the Royal Navy enforcing its provisions. This Monroe Doctrine was very much in accord with Britain's desire to see Latin America left alone. Although Britain and America were not diplomatically close with one another, they could both agree that it was in the interests of both nations that South America remain free and independent and most importantly of all that she be commercially accessible. The Monroe Doctrine was effectively a guarantee of Laissez Faire economics that suited the United States, the British and the newly independent states. As George Canning the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs put it: 'Spanish America is free, and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.'
There was genuine goodwill between these newly independent nations and Britain. Many were thankful to Britain for the role she, her Royal Navy and her citizens had played in their fights for independence. Spain in the 1820s was still undergoing diplomatic and social upheavals of her own as the Carlist wars raged for much of the decade. Latin American colonies required finance, expertise and were also on the hunt for new markets for their products. Britain was moving into its period of Laissez Faire economics and desired cheap food and raw materials for her rapidly expanding urban and industrial centres. There soon occurred a symbiotic relationship between South American states wishing to sell their agricultural and mining products to Britain and using the money to buy British goods to feed their European tastes and help develop and expand their economic abilities. Furthermore, they wished to borrow capital to invest in their own infrastructure and London provided access to cheap money and with the added convenience that the products they wished to purchase to modernise their economies were also to be found in Britain. Trade exploded between Britain and Atlantic Coastline of South America in particular. it helped that the favourable winds made any ocean going journeys to South Africa, India or Australia more viable via South America in ports like Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo or Buenos Aires. In effect, South America was plugged almost directly into Britain's imperial trading system. Her goods had access to growing new colonies and populations whilst she also had access to any and all British and imperial goods and services. Latin American products and places became familiar names and brands to British and Colonial consumers such as Fray Bentos. Advances in shipping, railways, refrigeration and canning throughout the Nineteenth Century made trade and investment even more viable despite the long distances involved.
In an era before passports, British migrants en route to Australia or South Africa were often tempted to remain in the cosmopolitan cities like Buenos Aires or Rio de Janeiro or to take advantage of offers of cheap land in the interior. With their own frontiers expanding, British farmers, miners and engineers were tempted to help tame the Western or Southern frontiers much along the lines of settlers in the United States. With the language barrier, mass migration never really occurred from Britain, but a steady flow of experts, merchants and adventurous souls flowed to Latin and America and often formed distinctive, if small, Anglo communities. These communities would often wield an influence disproportionate to their numbers. They were often found on boards of charities, involved in sports or cultural activities or perhaps being directors of major companies.
Chubut in Argentina witnessed one of the more unusual infusions of British settlers in the 1860s. A group of Welsh settlers sought a settlement for themselves where they could practice their Welsh language and culture uninhibited by the English. The Argentine government facilitated their arrival as they were keen to expand southwards into the harsh lands of Patagonia and wished to forestall any Chilean claims to the lands. The Welsh settlers did not realise just how poor quality the land was that they were heading to nor the dryness of the environment. At first, the settlement struggled to survive but with perseverance and hard work the small community carved out a canal and an irrigation system that allowed them to turn the unlikely land into highly productive farmland. The self-governing collective expanded. They were actually the first community in South America to use the secret ballot in their internal elections a practice that was soon transferred to Argentine elections in general. Their presence in the region played an important role when both Chile and Argentina invited Britain to arbitrate the borders between the two countries. The very fact that both governments were happy to call upon Britain to decide the matter helps illustrate the high regard they held for Britain's impartiality and importance in the region. The Welsh settlers told the visiting British arbitration commission that they were happy to regard themselves as Argentines and so the region was awarded to Argentina.
British sheep farmers would play an important role in developing the wool industry in the very harsh climate of Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in both Argentina and Chile. Using the Falkland Islands as a springboard they introduced hardy breeds and implemented techniques from the barren wastes of the Scottish Highlands and the windswept and exposed Falkland Islands to good effect. The first successful transposition of sheep was to Isabel Island in the Straits of Magellan by a Yorkshire sheep farmer by the name of Henry Reynard in 1877. Soon, other Falkland Island breeds were being supplied to other hardy farmers. Relatively speaking, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego would have the largest proportion of British emigrants than any other part of South America as the cheap land available suited the skills set of emigrants used to living and working on the margins of their own societies. The lure of land and the proximity of hardy breeds from the Falkland Islands made for a tempting combination. The introduction of sheep transformed the economy of an area that had hitherto been regarded as a barren wasteland. Sheep farmers found that their hardy animals could survive the harsh conditions and poor quality land. Hitherto, neither the Chilean nor Argentinian governments had been especially interested in the region regarding it as an economic burden where American Indians had fled from the encroaching European civilisations further north. The establishment in Britain of the Argentine Southern Land Company in 1889 to coordinate the acquisition and distribution of land both undermined the rights of any Indians living in the region and systematised the agricultural development of the sheep industry throughout the region and encouraged yet more investment and settlement. Both Argentina and Chile would develop significant wool industries as a result of the infusion of British expertise and personnel.
Not all British involvement in South America was quite as beneficial to South American colonies. In 1876, Henry Wickham had attempted to settle in Brazil and set up as a sugar and tobacco planter. Disease took its toll on his family and the efforts were unsuccessful. However, whilst there he had been in correspondence with the Royal Botanic Gardens back at Kew in London. Before abandoning his planter dreams he quietly collected some 70,000 samples of rubber seeds and took them back to London. Hitherto, rubber had only been found to grow in the Amazon rain forest but its qualities were already being regarded as valuable to industrialists and scientists back in Europe. Brazil effectively had a monopoly on the production and sale of rubber although the fact that it could only be collected from the wild meant that production levels were low and haphazard. Kew gardens gratefully received the seeds and began to cultivate them both in hothouses in London and in a number of their other botanical gardens scattered around the world. It was eventually discovered that the rubber plants actually grew better in the similar climactic conditions of Malaya, Singapore and South East Asia than they did in the Amazon as there were no local parasites or natural enemies of the plants in this new region. Malaya would soon become synonymous with the rubber industry and Henry Wickham found himself lionised by the rubber industry and knighted back in England whilst being demonised and pilloried in Brazil for whom their rubber industry never recovered.
A similar tale could be told regarding cinchona which provided the raw materials to make quinine which was important in fighting against the widespread tropical disease of malaria. Clements Markham set off to the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes to collect cinchona trees to transplant to Burma and Ceylon in an attempt to see if they could thrive in the hot highlands of Britain's colonies. Once again there was an element of surreptitiousness in smuggling out the saplings by governments keen to protect their own industries although hostility between Peru and Bolivia and the imminence of war meant that he could play off one government against the other to a certain extent. Over time and with selective breeding his saplings provided the basis for much of the world's quinine production as the plants eventually thrived in the Indian sub-continent. The sheer reach and breadth of the British Empire meant that nearly any useful or economically advantageous crop could find a potential new and possibly better home in some British colony somewhere. There were nearly always similar climate zones at appropriate altitudes to experiment, cultivate and hopefully improve upon plants and crops from whereever they were taken from.
The Royal Navy and South America
As previously mentioned, the 1823 Monroe Doctrine depended on the Royal Navy to ensure the preservation of South American independence and to keep European powers at bay. The Royal Navy required bases to station its ships and to keep them supplied with fresh victuals far from the shipyards of Europe. Those patrolling the Northern Coast of South America could be based out of Jamaica. The Eastern coast could be patrolled from the South Atlantic Squadron from Simonstown in South Africa if required to do so. The larger logistical problem was how to patrol the Pacific side of the Americas. The Royal Navy sought to solve this solution by building on the work of Thomas Cochrane within the Chilean Navy. They approached Chile to see if they could station their South America Station (renamed Pacific Station from 1837) at the Chilean port of Valparaiso.
There are surprisingly few deep water anchorages on the West Coast of South America but Valparaiso was one of the finest. The Royal Navy's presence also helped legitimise the fairly new country of Chile and allowed it to feel more secure and to trade confidently. One visitor to the base was Charles Darwin about the Beagle in 1834 as it conducted its famous journey through Tierra del Fuego and on to the Galapagos Islands. Valparaiso also played an important role in protecting Hawaii from French annexation as its ships could respond rapidly to the King of Hawaii's requests for protection.
The Pacific Squadron eventually moved to Vancouver Island as tensions with the United States over the location of the border of Oregon led to a war scare and a requirement for British reinforcements on the West Coast at very short notice. It helped that Esquimalt Harbour had a deep water harbour sufficient for Royal Navy use. The transfer was very gradual and was not completed until as late as 1859 when the facilities at Esquimalt were finally of an adequate standard. The timing was apposite as it came on the eve of the American Civil War which further concerned British sensibilities in the region.
The Falkland Islands
The confused political situation in South America in wake of the revolts and rebellions against Spanish authority played out in the sovereignty of the Malvinas or Falkland Islands. The newly created United Provinces of the River Plate claimed the islands in 1820 but when this state itself descended into civil war after 1826, the political situation became even more confused. The islands were becoming well known to whalers and sealers and so increasingly had an economic value beyond their strategic location. A European settler granted rights to the island in lieu of debts from the United Provinces attempted several times to make viable settlements on the islands. However, when he confronted American sealing ships and arrested their crews he provoked the US navy into sending a warship, USS Lexington, to assert its mariners' rights to exploit the island in 1831. The newly established Argentine government attempted to set up a penal colony on the islands in 1832. However, it collapsed into mutiny and murder. This state of anarchy and uncertainty provoked the British Admiralty into imposing control over the islands. They effectively turned the islands into a naval 'ship' and ruled it with harsh naval codes until 1843 when it was finally turned into a full British colony.
The islands became the headquarters of the South East Coast of America Station for the Royal Navy from 1838 until 1905. The creation of this station was largely to help combat the Brazilian slave trade. Her ships were to intercept slaving vessels travelling from Africa with cargoes of African slaves destined for work in Brazil's mines and plantations. The self-styled 'Brazils and River Plate Station' was also actively used to try and keep the River Plate and Parana Rivers open to navigation and trade during the Uruguayan Civil War between 1839 and 1851 (see below).
Meanwhile, the Falkland islands returned to a period of relative peace and quiet although this was disrupted in the 1850s when Britain and the USA nearly came to blows over American crews being arrested on the grounds of poaching illegally around the islands. There was already great tension between the two nations over an ongoing border dispute between the USA and Canada and the Americans had yet to recognise Britain's claims on the islands. A small Royal Naval ship, HMS Express, had taken the arrested American Captains to Port Stanley for trial. The Americans sent the much larger USS Germantoun to gain their countrymen's release. The Germantoun went so far as to train some of her guns on the courthouse being used for the trial and other guns were trained onto the much smaller British ship. The British captain stood his ground and trained his own, smaller guns, back onto the American ship. He dared the Americans to start an international incident and perhaps ignite a war. The American captain stood down. The trial of the captains of the whalers continued and the danger of a clash subsided.
In addition to whaling and sealing, the islands would provide ideal conditions for sheep farmer as hardy breeds were used to deal with the wet and windy environment of the exposed islands. Furthermore, the The Falkland Islands were to prove a useful jumping off point for Argentine efforts to colonise Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. A number of Falkland Islanders were encouraged to use their skills and livestock to help create a sheep rearing economy in the relatively barren lands to the South of the American Continent. Missionaries also used the islands as a jumping off point to gain converts from the native Indians who had manage to elude European control and influence to date. The Falkland Islands became something of a Protestant hub in a continent largely made up of Catholic christians.
The volume of sea traffic rose but the Cape Horn never became a truly mass transit route due to the hazardous seas. Additionally, with the advent of steam power, ships could travel further and faster without the need for stopping so frequently. Iron hulled ships meant that they did not need to stop for repairs before or after rounding Cape Horn. Ships could also travel longer without having to get fresh victuals with the increasing availability of tin cans and refrigeration. To cap it all off, the Panama Canal was opened in 1914 providing a much faster, safer and more efficient route between the Pacific and the Atlantic. Having said that the strategically useful possession of these islands was still played out in World War One, as the German Pacific Fleet attempted to return to Europe via the Cape Horn route. The British rushed a naval force to the Falkland Islands to intercept the returning fleet and within sight of Port Stanley destroyed the German ships. The islands would once again prove their worth in the Second World War as British cruisers used them as a base to defeat the German pocket battleship the Graf Spee off Montevideo in 1940.
The Creation of Uruguay
Although Britain did not seek colonies for herself in most of South America, she could be a very active advocate for her interests in the region. Britain's role in the creation of Uruguay was a clear example of this. She employed ships from the South East Coast of America Station to help preserve this Uruguayan state from being crushed between the giant and antagonistic Republics of Argentina and Brazil. Britain's goal was to ensure that the River Plate and River Parana stayed open as a means of communication and trade and she believed that an independent buffer state would allow precisely that.
In 1845 British and French troops intervened directly in lifting the siege of Montevideo by blockading Buenos Aires, capturing Argentine ships and landing supplies in the besieged city. This helped keep the Uruguayan cause at a critical juncture and ensured the survival of a pro-trade and friendly nation of Uruguay. British and French forces withdrew from the region in 1850 after they were assured that navigation rights would be respected by all the states involved in the war. This particular war is interesting in that it illustrated how much of a dead letter the Monroe Doctrine was without the active participation of the British. The fact that British ships could stand guard as French and Italian troops landed in South America for the benefit of European trade illustrated the relative weakness of the United States at this stage. The Monroe Doctrine was effectively a Royal Naval Doctrine as long as she held command of the seas.
The first half of the Nineteenth Century had seen instability and strongmen vying for power and influence. Initial hopes for trading opportunities in the 1820s until 1840s yielded less than hoped for as loans made for infrastructure were consumed in war and redrawing boundaries. However, by the 1850s much of the continent had settled on its borders and were comfortable with their parameters and spheres of influence. Furthermore British technology and the industrial revolution had advanced to a state where she could offer higher quality goods at cheaper rates. She also needed cheaper raw materials to feed those factories and workers. She had also entered the period of Laissez Faire economics as Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws and the Liberals became increasingly important in British politics. London's banks were looking for new opportunities to invest profits made in Britain's factories and South America seemed to offer the combination of land, resources and markets that suited that investment. South American governments could also raise money through bonds issued in London and use the money raised there to buy the plant, infrastructure and expertise almost immediately in the great city and bring them back to the ports of South America on the ever faster communication links as steam power supplanted sailing ships.
One of the most tangible British influences on South America was to be the railways. Britain, as the home of the train, was the world leader in the construction of locomotives and in the engineering required for building and laying track. Argentina built its first railway in the 1850s using British money, although only after being forced to repay an 1822 loan that they had defaulted on. These railways played a vital role in stimulating the settlement of the interior. They allowed products to reach the population centres of the coastline and the ports for export. Vast ranches and farms became economically viable as the railways stimulated access to markets. The railways throughout Latin America were largely made using British engineers, trains and standards for the gauge and station design. South America actually used three differing gauges but off all of which had a connection to the British Empire. The most common was George Stephenson's standard gauge (4' 8.5") but other lines did use the Irish gauge (5' 3") and still others the Indian gauge of (5' 6"). Britain's Empire, and indeed Britain herself, had not standardised rail gauges. However the determining factor for South America's railways was often dependent on when engineers, architects and engines became available after building sprees back in Britain, Ireland and India respectively. Britain still produced all the necessary equipment and rolling stock required for all three main gauges (plus several narrow gauges). The railways played an important role in the nation building aspirations of vast nations like Brazil or the long and thin countries such as Chile and Argentina. They also undertook ambitious continental projects like crossing the daunting Andes mountain range through bridges and tunnels. They brought huge swathes of the continent into cultivation or allowed minerals and raw materials to be transported to Britain and Europe's industrial centres.
In fact, advances in agricultural understanding, refrigeration, storage, canning technology, transportation, finance and distribution all came together in a virtuous circle of development that helped make various South American products staples for large swathes of the population of the British Empire. British finance and expertise ensured that a substantial proportion of the profits from these endeavours returned to British and Imperial companies.
Britain, unlike in the first half of the century, refrained from intervening in the wars that plagued the continent in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century: the Paraguayan War of 1865 - 70, the War of the Pacific 1879 - 1881, the Chilean Civil War of 1891 or the Brazilian rebellions of 1892 - 94. By this period, South America had become sufficiently developed that alternative sources of produce could be found elsewhere on the continent due to the improved technology and transportation. Furthermore, even in the places of conflict, few questioned the value of continuing to trade and export produce to Britain so whilst there may have been disruptions, whichever side won was happy to restart contracts and rebuild links to the world's markets. Another possible reason for Britain's reticence to intervene is because of the rise of the United States which was assuredly becoming economically and politically more important than it had hitherto been. The Monroe Doctrine provisions could increasingly be enforced by America herself. This was particularly the case in Mexico where repeated political problems, including seeing the French and Austrians intervene, saw the United States become directly involved with the military situation there. American financiers and traders were also becoming more important in the economy of South America and could offer a real alternative for investment or as an export destination to the British Empire. The fact that the United States and British Empire had similar conceptions in matters of trade, finance and commercial law meant that any transition to New York instead of London was relatively simple for South American companies and governments to implement.
Germany had also achieved significant market penetration into Latin America in the 1890s and early 1900s as her protected industries sought export opportunities in a world that had been heavily sliced up into Empires. This meant that South America was unusually important as it was the one continent that had very little colonisation and therefore trading restrictions forced upon it. Germany had felt left out of the imperial scramble for colonies but it could at least offer German technology and goods in South America in return for her minerals and foodstuffs. Germany also had a significant engineering tradition that put its products at the cutting edge of many technologies of the time. Britain's pre-eminent technological position was also clearly under threat from this direction.
The late Nineteenth Century and first decade of the Twentieth Century also saw calls within Britain for preferential imperial trade. These calls were spearheaded by Joseph Chamberlain who was concerned at the growing economic power of Germany and the United States who protected their own industries whilst selling their products freely overseas and often with government subsidies designed to undercut the British. He had also instigated a Royal Commission examining the declining economies of the Caribbean and of British Guiana. This came to the conclusion that European sugar subsidies were harming the old sugar economies and so he sought ways to protect them whilst requesting that European subsidies be removed. The issue of Cheap Food versus Imperial Preferences was one that fundamentally affected South America's access to British and Imperial markets. The issue split the Conservative party down the middle as it pitted free market conceptions against Imperial advocates. The Liberal party came to power as a result but was firmly on the side of cheap food and free markets which was a relief for the primary producers throughout South America. But the fact that Britain had this debate at all was a sign that Britain's hegemonic open market trading system was under threat.
World War One
The First World provided a real shock to South American economies coming, as it did, hard on the heels of a 1913 depression. German markets and investment evaporated overnight. Shipping rates soared as commerce raiders, blockades and u-boats began to take their toll. Imports dried up as protagonists hoarded their resources for their own war uses. Only the Allies were able to sustain imports but even they turned away from the free market as governments imposed price controls and demanded lower prices in return for diverting precious shipping in South America's direction. South America found that the disruption of war went hand in hand with increased labour disturbances and Union activity as workers sought desperately to protect their jobs and incomes.
The largely Anglophile elites within South America still instinctively sided with the British over the Germans who were regarded as the aggressors and blamed for the disruption in world trade and so South American economic opportunities. Sons of Anglo-South American families made their way to Europe to fight for Britain. Others made their way to fight for her allies of France and Italy. More worryingly in the long term though was that Europe's prestige was being severely dented by the stories of horrific and barbaric warfare on the Western Front. Revolutionary turmoil and social unrest also found receptive adherents in the wake of the slaughter of the First World War. The rise of Communist and Fascist parties in the midst of Europe's travails would play an important role in South America as their ideas travelled back to the continent. Both Communists and Fascists would become increasingly active, if disruptive, forces in South American history for much of the remainder of the Twentieth Century.
The other major problem for British-South American relations was the increased American involvement in the continent especially during its own years of neutrality up until 1917. The American government made no secret of its desire to replace British pre-eminence in South America and sought harsh terms in return for much needed American exports to fight the war against Germany. These included selling British companies and holdings throughout the Americas to raise the cash to pay for these exports. British concerns, including those in South America, were sold at often below market rates to raise the capital to fund the war. American companies also took advantage of the depressed prices to offer contracts to primary product suppliers in South America that were more generous than the British could offer. They also could offer the exports that the British used to provide but which she now needed to hold on to due to her own wartime requirements and the shortage of available shipping. American influence was also greatly increased by the building and opening of the Panama Canal which came into operation in 1914. This brought her interests directly into the centre of Central America and also gave her influence over those wishing to move their products between the West and East coasts of the Americas. It undoubtedly increased regional trade, but it also allowed the US to prioritise and reward those companies and governments it wished to do business with. The US also laid her own cables down to Brazil and Argentina which directly competed with Britain's own cable company's monopoly of tele-communicatons in the continent.
Beyond commercial aggressiveness, the Americans had taken on a more interventionist policy throughout the Americas since the Spanish-American war of 1898. Her 'Manifest Destiny' had spilled over into imperial ambitions of her own which were augmented by the 'Monroe Doctrine' which the United States Navy could begin to enforce without the help of a busy Royal Navy during World War One. Her forces would increasingly be used directly in interventions in the Caribbean and Central America in particular and especially on her doorstep of Mexico which had been undergoing its own revolution since 1910 and had been accused of negotiating with the Germans to invade the United States via the 'Zimmerman Telegram'. America was becoming increasingly aggressive in her commercial and political designs for the Americas as a whole.
The Interwar Years
The 1920s saw a brief upturn in the fortunes of South American economies and their economic relations with Britain. However, Britain was nowhere near as economically powerful as it had once been as it was had become exhausted by years of war and had little prospect of being repaid by its Allied debtors. It no longer could raise money for investment and loans as efficiently as it once had. South American governments turned increasingly to Wall Street rather than to London to fund their infrastructure projects. Britain also was not innovating in the new technologies of motorised transport or air transport on anything like the scale of the Americans and Germans. Britain continued to supply expertise in what were becoming regarded as old fashioned technologies of trains, farms and trams. Needless to say, American and German producers of cars and planes filled the forthcoming demand more effectively than Britain was able to manage.
The interwar years saw a lurch to protectionism and bilateral agreements as competing ideologies and governments turned their backs on ideas of Free Trade and Laissez Faire economics. The United States and Germany signed a number of binding, if preferential, agreements with South American economies designed to freeze British investment out. These became even more important in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which saw commodity prices plummet and protectionist barriers raised throughout the continent. As South America primarily produced primary products the resulting Depression hit her farms and mines particularly hard. Fascist and Communist parties played an ever more active role in South American politics both of whom demanded protectionist measure if for very different reasons. Britain was finding itself frozen out of more and more of South America's markets.
The one exception was Argentina. Argentina produced goods which nicely complemented demand within the British Empire's: beef, grain and linseed. Coincidentally, these all competed with American producers and so fell foul of American bilateral agreements and trade requirements. The Americans much preferred buying coffee, minerals and tropical fruit that it could not produce itself. Britain and Argentina signed their own bilateral act, the Roca-Runciman Pact of 1933 which promised to give Argentina continued access to British Empire markets despite the Depression and despite the Dominions being awarded increased political powers for themselves in the wake of the Westminster Statute of 1931. In return Argentina promised to use British shipping for exporting their meat and to lower tariffs for British exports. In a world of increased protectionism this was something of a triumph for both nations and gave Argentina a vital outlet at a crucial time which also benefitted the British consumer. This was a rare breakthrough on a continent that was turning increasingly to radical politics on the left and on the right or were becoming beholden to the rising economic reach of a United States that was separating itself from events in Europe and focussing on the Americas through its 'Good Neighbour' policy of the 1930s. This was an attempt at a form of hemispheric solidarity in the face of European division and likely drift to war. It was also an attempt to keep Fascists and Communist ideologies at bay. In many ways it was a continental attempt at avoiding the ideological struggles afflicting Europe. Unfortunately for both the US and for Britain, both Communists and Fascists would find supporters and admirers in South America.
The Second World War and Beyond
The years of Depression had seriously hurt many of the economies of South America. As a consequence, many watched the apparent recoveries of Fascist Italy and Germany or the Communist Soviet Union with envy. The old political elites, who had been so important to ensuring Britain's privileged access to markets throughout South America, seemed insipid and at the mercy of punishing markets and unscrupulous foreigners. Populism, from both the left and right, increasingly challenged these elites at a time of worker militancy and as international trading systems buckled under bilateral agreements and Fascist and Communist economic systems that rejected the markets in their entirety. The tendencies tended to be trade unions lurching leftwards and militaries moving rightwards but with significant churnage on both sides of the ideological divide..
Brazil, Chile and Argentina all saw significant pro-fascist actors come to the fore in the 1930s. When war broke out in 1939 many loyalties were tested. However, a combination of the Royal Navy stifling German and Italian international trade and United States neutrality meant that any direct challenges to the status quo were avoided.
The old elite Anglophilia of some elements of South American society was perhaps demonstrated by a number of volunteers from Argentina desiring to travel to the Falkland Islands in 1939 to defend them in case of a German attack on the islands. This force, largely made up of Rugby players, came to be known as the Tabaris Highlanders, rather insalubriously named after a Buenos Aires nightclub with 'something of a reputation.' Although they saw no action, their existence provided useful cover to the Royal Navy to sail into the River Plate area during their hunt for the German Pocket Battleship the Graf Spee.
The apparent successes of the Axis forces in the early wars provided an inspiration to many of the Argentine military who were concerned that their government was considering joining the war on the side of the Allies in order to maintain historic and existing trading and diplomatic links. A military coup in 1943, where a young Colonel Juan Domingo Perón came to the fore for the first time, saw the Argentine government overthrown and replaced by a military government committed to neutrality if not war. Importantly for Britain was the fact that Argentine meat and grain continued to cross the Atlantic and provide much needed food to a beleaguered Britain throughout the war years. However, this military coup began the transition in Argentina away from power lying with the old elites with their strong historic ties to Britain towards a new form of populism that would soon be encapsulated by Peron.
In 1946 Peron was elected in his own right as President of Argentina. His government mixed left wing ideas with nationalistic calls in a form of proto-fascism. Many of the old British dominated industries such as the railways and ports were nationalised. Ex-Nazis with useful skills were given explicit protection by the ex-military leader who still admired their martial prowess and in many ways wished to emulate their economic model of the 1930s. There was increasingly less room for ties to a Britain who herself was exhausted and losing her international status. Changes in the international trading system known as Bretton Woods further diminished the role of Sterling and made the American Dollar more important in international transactions. Consequently, United States companies whose plant had been undamaged by war and which had benefitted enormously from rearmament seized many of the markets vacated by Britain. American policies were also more forgiving of military governments as long as they were anti-Communist and provided defence and military aid tied to trade deals and suppression of Communist activities. Trade between Britain and South America dropped to negligible levels as the old historic ties shrivelled and waned.
Britain formally left the South American landmass in the 1960s during its period of decolonisation. Britain was already in the process of leaving the Caribbean after the collapse of its West Indies Federation. British Guiana, with a more diversified economy than many of the smaller Caribbean, was felt able to be granted its independence in 1966. This just left the small but isolated Falkland Islands off the coast of Argentina as Britain's only other presence in the region. With a population of just 1500 people it was not felt large enough to sustain itself as an independent nation. However, the islanders were deeply hostile to the idea of being subsumed into nearby Argentina which itself had been undergoing years of harsh military rule with little respect to any political opposition as it underwent years of its 'Dirty War'.
1982 saw an unexpected return of the British military to the continent when a military junta in Argentina, mired in economic and political difficulties, sought to galvanise support by invading the Falkland Islands. The British government reacted by sending a Task Force to evict the Argentines in a decisive military action. The Falklands War seemed an echo of the old gunboat diplomacy but in a part of the world in which gunboats had rarely been seen. In reality it was the last gasp of a military dictatorship whose economic model and legitimacy had patently failed. Ironically, the war helped Argentina return to democracy by seeing the overthrow of the 'Junta' who had instigated the ill-advised war. Unfortunately, the number of deaths caused as a result of the war have harmed relations between the two countries who had historically long been so close to one another.