Argentina, that vast expanse of lost opportunities, is not what commonly springs to mind as a very anglophile country. Luckily, the dislike is mutual, since that botched attempt of La Reconquista de las Malvinas (or the invasion of the Falklands as the event is generally known) under the leadership of a cruel and mindless dictatorship went miserably wrong for the Argies.
It hasn’t always been like this. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, several individuals from the British Isles (English, Welsh, Scottish and maybe even some Irish) found their way to that far-flung corner of the world between the South Atlantic and the Andes. They were no “refugees” and certainly not members of what today would be termed the fashionable victim groups. They were out to make a buck and they could smell the chance to become very rich very quickly when they saw it. And they could see it anywhere – so why not in Argentina.
Argentina in the 1850s was a sparsely populated group of provinces along the Rio Uruguay, Rio Paraná and the Andes, where it bordered Bolivia and Chile. Hardly a million people lived there. The South had not yet been conquered, it had hardly even explored. The nation was still in the process of nation building, of settling its own internal and external scores, and by force if need be. The blatant international power grab of Juan Manuel de Rosas, who regarded Paraguay a runaway Argentine province that he needed to bring to heel, had led to the Anglo-French blockade of the Rio de la Plata, which the Argentine dictator navigated quite successfully and in his favour.
But Rosas lost the peace when Justo José de Urquiza, the ambitious Governor of Entre Ríos, rebelled against him. This rebellion set the country on the course towards a more successful future: Urquiza’s administration improved foreign relations, public education and the development of the vast Argentine hinterland, el interior. The nation started investing in infrastructure, namely: railroads. They were to make the country’s mainly agrarian produce available for exportation.
Now, we don’t need to go into it too deeply at this point but experience shows that improving infrastructure, particularly the building of railroads, is a very costly endeavour. It needs a lot of capital to build a railway system and it takes even more dosh to maintain it in good running order.
But it still isn’t as straight forward as all that because you can’t only make success happen from inside a bureaucracy, without the people on the ground. So this is the moment where our first Anglo-Argentine enters the scene: voilà, a business man.
In August 1861, Edward Lamb, a British entrepreneur, suggested building a railroad line from Buenos Aires to Chascomús, a small town 75 miles south of the Argentine capital. His railroad proposal got approved by the Argentine Congress. He even got a concession for a tram line in Buenos Aires thrown in for free on his deal as a sign of goodwill from the Argentine government. Now, Mr Lamb had to raise the required capital.
Mr Lamb, lacking the projected funds of 1 Million pesos d’oro (5 pesos = £1) and unable to raise them anywhere in Argentina, turned to Baring’s in London to ask them to make the capital available, now some £665,000 in total, for all required works and rolling stock. Which goes to show that Mr Lamb’s initial cost estimate was off by a factor of more than three, by the way.
Nevertheless, Mr Lamb had learned one important lesson: that it was quite impossible to get the characteristically risk-averse rent-seekers of Argentina to invest his (or her) fortune into anything that was not inherently related to his (or her) real estate. Not even a thing like railroads, which would obviously make it a lot easier to service national and international markets and grow the nation’s export business by a few orders of magnitude.
Building a railroad in Argentina was not the straightforward enterprise one would perhaps take it to be. At the same time as Mr Lamb, William Wheelwright was about to start construction of his Central Argentine Railroad. It was to become one of the “Big Four” broad gauge companies (5 ft 6 in, or 1,676 mm if you must) and would, after its merger with the Buenos Aires-Rosario railway (another broad-gauge company, operating 1,200 miles of track), own and operate over 3,600 miles of railroad, by 1908.
The beginnings of Mr Wheelwright’s company were shrouded in scandal. He had proposed to build a railroad from Córdoba, the country’s second city, to Rosario, an important port on the Rio Paraná which, at this height, could be navigated with sea-faring vessels.
Construction began at the Rosario end of the line, in 1863. Four years later, work stopped abruptly. And crucially, just 85 miles short of Córdoba. Meanwhile, the railroad ministry received an increasing number of complaints about poor service. Apparently, neither Rosario Central nor the intermediate stations had been built while trains were already operating, transporting passengers who had no convenient, let alone safe way of getting on and off those trains.
Things could only get better, but the situation would need to be improved by the government making more monies available. At least, that’s what Mr Wheelwright said: about £300,000, or 1.5 Million pesos d’oro, would do nicely. Obviously, the wannabe railroad baron had learned a new trick: how to spread his risk around and get the government to underwrite it on behalf of the nation.
Works promptly resumed and only three years later, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, then the Argentine President, could celebrate the opening of 246 miles of track, the first to link two provincial capitals.
Also Mr Wheelwright had learned an important lesson: that it was preferable for a private investor if the government took the risk. Socialising some, most or even all of the downside was preferable to owning it all as long as one was still left with a considerable upside. Happy days indeed!
It would be tedious and frankly boring to list all milestones of the flourishing Argentine railroad industry of the next fifty years. Suffice it to say that at its apogee, by 1920, the Argentine network consisted of 29,000 miles of track – enough for getting around the globe once, and then some. It was considered to be one of the most extensive and prosperous networks of its time and transported 145 million passengers and 45.5 million tons of cargo annually; Argentina then had 8.9 million citizens.
Not only this: at the turn of the century, things of great beauty were built, such as the Retiro terminus of the Mitre lines, then considered one of the most elegant railroad stations in the world. It is the work of Anglo-Argentine architects Conder, Conder, Sidney & Follett, and the engineer Reginald Reynold, all established in the country.
The station concourse was clad with over 215,000 square feet of maiolica imported from Royal Doulton. Its 251-yard-long and 147-foot-high departure hall was manufactured in Liverpool by Francis P. Morton & Co. Whence the whole 8,000 tons were shipped to Buenos Aries, there to be assembled. One of its crowning engineering achievements were the strongest hydraulic buffers then available which would withstand the impact of a 750-ton-train at 10 mph, it was rumoured. Of course, the station was also integrated to the underground network, in 1936.
Being the technologically most advanced industry of its time, it was only natural for the railroad to become the motor, emblem or, as it were, locomotive of modern civilisation. In 1914, the Argentine railroad network was the 10th largest in the world, while the country had the 10th highest per-capita GDP in the world; in today’s money, that would put Argentina on the same step as Norway (according to World Bank methodology), and one ahead of the USA.
Apparently, for the ambitious and aspirational nation along the Rio de la Plata, things could only get worse now – and they did. With the Great War not being over by Christmas, British banks didn’t make any new capitals available to keep the Argentine railroad industry expanding. This in itself was not a huge problem because the war would surely be over at some point, capitals would flow again and anyway, didn’t it look like the railroad companies had run out of places to lay tracks anyhow, at least profitably? Things got a bit rough though for the Argies when banks called in their loans and made existing credits more expensive to finance the war effort. Clearly, much like the British Empire, the Argentine railway was at a crossroads.
Temperley, Banfield, Hurlingham, Wilde. Gath y Chaves and Harrods of Buenos Aires. In the next chapter, we shall look at the daily life of the Anglo-Argentines in the Buenos Aires suburbs. What were their cultural, sportive and political ambitions in the interwar years? We will then consider in the last chapter the sacrifice of 4,000 Anglo-Argentines who served in either of the British military’s three branches for the victory over Nazi-Germany.
© Guardian Council 2018
Sources and further reading: