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Maritime Heritage in
Nineteenth-Century Chile

Between 1830 and 1914, Valparaíso was a compulsory port of call for ships crossing the Atlantic and Pacific via Cape Horn and the Strait of Magellan. As one of the world’s most famous 19th-century ports, its rich maritime heritage has been the subject of many studies.

After Chile’s independence, immigrants and temporary residents coming from Great Britain, Germany, Britain, and France joined Chileans in contributing to the rapid development of the country; foreigners founded banks, churches, schools hospitals, charities, and a very influential foreign-language press.

Let’s explore this port’s maritime history.

  1. Until 1818, when Chile won its independence from the Spanish crown, Valparaíso was not much more than a settlement supplying the capital city, Santiago, with goods and trade from Europe. When British naturalist Charles Darwin arrived during the survey expedition of the HMS Beagle, in 1834, he described Valparaíso in this way:

When morning came, everything appeared delightful. After Tierra del Fuego, the climate felt quite delicious—the atmosphere so dry, and the heavens so clear and blue, with the sun shining brightly, that all nature seemed sparkling with life. The view from the anchorage is very pretty. The town is built at the very foot of a range of hills, about 1600 feet high, and rather steep. From its position, it consists of one long, straggling street, which runs parallel to the beach, and wherever a ravine comes down, the houses are piled up on each side of it. The rounded hills, being only partially protected by very scanty vegetation, are worn into numberless little gullies, which expose a singularly bright red soil. (Charles Darwin, Narrative of the Beagle. London: Henry Colburn, 1839. 3 v.; Biblioteca Nacional Digital)

By the time Darwin visited its coast, Chile had long been open to foreign trade. From 1830 onwards, it became the Pacific Ocean’s commercial emporium, as merchants’ vessels found its location a safe place to store goods bound for other Pacific ports or for Europe.

The country’s political stability was very favorable for the settlement of foreigners. Historian Juan Ricardo Couyoumdjian explains the factors that made Chile particularly attractive to European mercantile firms:

When British businessmen started entering the Spanish Americas during the first decade of the 19th century, the natural center of operations was Buenos Aires . . . . With time, the logic of geography was imposed: with the difficulties given to entering by land–the trip to Chile in wagon and mule was about a month–it was more efficient to set up base in the western coast of South America. With the facilities given by the government of the Republic of Chile, Valparaíso became the call port for the South Pacific, in competition with Callao, the main port of the old Viceroyalty of Peru. (Couyoumdjian, “Alto comercio de Valparaíso y las grandes casas extranjeras, 1880-1930: una aproximación.” Santiago: Universitaria, tomo 13 (2000), 63-99. Biblioteca Nacional Digital.)

Chile’s privileged location led German, French, and Italian nationals to settle for business purposes–but British merchants, engineers, and miners would dominate trade with Chile throughout the nineteenth century.

The British population in Valparaíso numbered over 1,000 in 1865 and rose to 1,600 by 1895. And these figures represent only a fraction of the total number of British immigrants across Chile during this period, as can be seen on the Immigration page.

According to Biblioteca Nacional Digital, by 1819, six British trade houses had settled in Valparaíso: James Powditch, O. Bunster, Andrew Blest, John Callon, William Taylor, and William Forbes. The mercantile colony later diversified to cover a wide spectrum of trade activities such as the import and export of groceries, machinery, fruit, and chemical products, including these firms:

  1. Huth & Co. (1824)
  2. Gibbs & Co. (1826)
  3. Duncan, Fox & Co. (1834)
  4. Graham, Rowe & Co. (1842)

  5. Williamson Balfour & Co. (1851)

  6. Weir, Scott & Co. (1852)

Due in part to this influx of powerful trading interests, as the century progressed, Valparaíso became a strategic node of communications between Great Britain, the Pacific, and Asia. William Wheelwright, a businessman born in Massachusetts, founded the Pacific Steam Navigation Company in 1838. The PSNC became the first company to use steamships for trade in the Pacific Ocean, serving ports such as Valparaíso, Coquimbo, Huasco, Copiapó, Cobija, Iquique, Arica, Islay, Pisco and Callao, and later expanding to Huanchaco, Lambayeque, Paita, Guayaquil, Buenaventura, and Panama City. In 1840, the PSNC’s innovative steamers Chile and Peru started the first steamship route between Callao and Valparaiso; later, the PSNC added routes between Liverpool and South America via Panamá.

Valparaíso’s role as an important port in the global maritime network came to an end with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914; after this date, trade between Europe and the West Coast of North America would move through the isthmus of Panama, a much shorter and safer–if less adventurous–journey

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