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IMMIGRATION

British Immigration to
Nineteenth-Century Chile

Valparaíso’s position as a hub of early globalization made it particularly attractive to immigrants, including British merchants who saw the advantages of establishing local branches of their trading firms. Thus Chile’s privileged location led German, French, and Italian nationals to settle for business purposes. However, British merchants, engineers, and miners dominated 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 in this chart:

British Immigration to Chile by Location and Occupation, 1865-95

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Source: Census data, Office of Statistics, Chile (1865-1875-1885 and 1895).
Full data is available here through Memoria Chilena, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

Maritime Heritage

Chilean historian Eduardo Cavieres accounts for the dominance of British merchants in this way: “Early British influence in Chile can be explained from different perspectives. One is the fact that by the time of independence, local businessmen invested less in trade than in other types of economic or social activities such as agriculture and mining (…) Apparently, the British quickly replaced the prominent Spaniards who had dominated the limited colonial market  before independence and who now (for obvious political reasons) had more urgent areas of focus.” Due to the diversity of their trading interests, the British settled throughout Chile: in the north, where there him they mined for copper and nitrates for fertilizer; in the south, where they mined for coal; in far southern Patagonia, where they raised sheep; and in other locations throughout this long thin country. The GIS maps below help us to visualize patterns in British settlement in Chile across the 19th century.

GIS maps showing immigration patterns across Chile, 1865-1907

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Source: Census data, Office of Statistics, Chile (1865-1875-1885 and 1895).
Full data is available here through Memoria Chilena, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile.

According to Memoria Chilena, 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:

Huth & Co. (1824)
Gibbs & Co. (1826)
Duncan, Fox & Co. (1834)
Graham, Rowe & Co. (1842)
Williamson Balfour & Co. (1851)
Weir, Scott & Co. (1852)

From the second half of the 19th century through the First World War, Valparaíso was the commercial and financial capital of Chile. Therefore most companies, such as banks, railways, and mining corporations, established an office in the port.

 

The heyday of Valparaíso as a melting pot for anglophone companies would end with a series of events, including:

  • ​The creation of synthetic sodium nitrate, which replaced natural nitrate (saltpeter)  of northern Chile as a commodity as a fertilizer and the production of munitions.
  • The massive earthquake in 1906, prompting people to move to nearby Viña del Mar.

  • The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, leading trade between Europe and San Francisco to move through the isthmus of Panama.