british immigration into argentina: policy & settlement          a tale of pampas past  

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Short extract from the "Forgotten Colony" by Andrew Graham-Yooll. Published 1981. Click on a book to purchase.

The main sections of the extract are:

The need for more immigrants, the fear of failure (as in the mid 19th century Welsh settlements of Chubut: see also Welsh immigrants in Patagonia: Mimosa, the old ship that sailed into history), a fear born with the colony, as well as the desire for a greater colonization effort had prompted the Argentine Government to send immigration agents to Europe. They went to Britain and Germany, principally, to find more families to put on the land and populate the frontier territories. While disenchantment and euphoria alternated in Chubut, immigration agents managed to attract settlers to other parts of the country.


The Immigration Agent

The agents' job was not an easy one and they often ran into trouble. In Germany they had been harassed repeatedly as it was not considered desirable that men fit for the army should be lured away. In Britain emigration had been successfully organized by the government but there were objections voiced from certain quarters over letting members of the working class go to places outside the Empire, where they were thought to be of better use to British interests. Reports from Argentine consuls in Liverpool, Glasgow and London published in La Tribuna as from January 1864 showed that efforts to promote Argentina as a land which offered the best prospects were facing the problem of unfavourable comparison with the opportunities offered by Canada and Australia.

Obstacles & competition for immigrants

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British officials advised prospective emigrants, that they should go to the (British) colonies. The British emigration commission had issued a warning in February 1870 against going to Argentina where, it said, several Britons as well as other foreigners had been murdered.

The warning brought a reply from the Argentine minister in Paris, in March 1870, refuting the accusation and claiming that such statements were morally damaging to Argentina. The minister declared that there had been 40,000 immigrants in 1869 who had entered the country voluntarily and were working there in peace. The minister's letter was carried in full, with remarks of approval, in La Tribune and the paper later reported that the British Government had ordered an end to publication of the warning notice, which put the Argentine Republic on a level with the semi-barbarian peoples of the interior of Africa'.

The newspaper El Nacional, far from taking such an accommodating line, reported on 12 April 1870, under a headline that read `125 murders', that the British Press was concerned about the fate of Britons travelling to Argentina. El Nacional argued that `instead of being offended [by the murders] they should be grateful if they [the Press specifically, but the public in general] knew the motives'. The victims were apparently drunken sailors, ruffians and vagrants caught in riverside brawls, a burden to society, which was best rid of them.

But immigration promotion was in fashion. In November 1875, R. Stephens & Co., of Glasgow, proposed the emigration of 140 Scottish families in four years to set up a colony at Port Desire, in Patagonia. Scots colonists were recommended on the grounds that all over the world they had proved to be `the most useful'. Although that plan failed, the Scots went on almost to `own' Patagonia, just as the Irish spread over Buenos Aires and the Welsh inhabited Chubut, holding vast farming concerns. In Patagonian folklore there is the story of a Scot who took three years to drive a flock of several thousand sheep from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, crossing two big rivers and stopping for the lambing seasons and shearing at the homes of other Scots.
Copies of Mulhall's Handbook of the River Plate were distributed in British working men's clubs to attract immigrants.

Ontario, in Canada, however, offered settlers free passages and 200 acres of land free to a family man and 100 acres to any man over the age of eighteen. The only conditions were that three acres should be cleared and sown each year, that a house of at least 20 ft by 10 ft should be built, and that the settler should live there at least six months of the year. By comparison the Argentine Government in 1878 offered meagre concessions to immigrants: `They are landed at the expense of the Government, boarded and lodged free for five days, assisted to pass the Customs House, afforded every information to enable them to find employment and finally sent free to wherever they elect to settle.' The result of this policy was the opening of `immigrants' hotels' and cheap fares for immigrants and the performance of the government in the matter fell considerably short of expectations. An official notice said, `The wages during the harvest, which lasts four months, are from thirty to forty-five hard dollars [£6 to £8] per month, with board and lodging.' European emigrants were advised to arrive between October and January; but those with a capital of between £80 and £120 `may come at any season of the year'. Land sold at 2s 6d per acre, payable over ten years, in many parts of the country.

Although this publicity did not win northern European immigrants in any great number, there was nevertheless an avalanche of easily assimilable Latin nationalities from Southern Europe, and they altered the genetic and cultural character of the Criollo population of Argentina, which had been around the one million mark in the mid-nineteenth century. The effects on Argentina of such a large number of immigrants would have been greater had not nearly half of all immigrants left the country again. This arrival and departure was due mainly to the fact that the promise of big land stakes in the provinces proved largely an illusion. During two decades up to 1890 immigrant peasants found that their dream of owning land was blocked by a ruling landed class which was in control of much of the farming and grazing land and was expanding the vast estancias to the exclusion of newcomers. Towards the end of the century an economic crisis caused the selling of some land and the opening of the country, in previously unexploited regions, to smallholders.1


1. Newton, Ronald C.: German Buenos Aires, 1900-1933. Social change and cultural crisis, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1977.



The emigration 'business'

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The difficulties for the regular and comfortable flow of immigrants arose not only from government attitudes and press coverage, but also from the promoters and operators of the emigration business, who aroused suspicion and fear in prospective emigrants. The business had several stages of profit.

There was, in the first instance, the arrangement for the transport of a number of people for a fee; there was the sale of a colonization plan, charged for as a fee for the promotion of the area to be colonized and the recruitment of colonists; and there was a land deal, where promoters acquired land cheaply or by government grant, the land was populated with immigrants as tenants and the organizers waited for the time when the sale of the land could be made at a profit. This latter method also included the purchase by the promoters of land surrounding the colony as the neighbouring area also rose in value.

A society named the Emigrant and Colonists Aid Corporation Ltd wrote to Argentina's President Sarmiento in April 1870 offering to send thousands of Britons to Argentina. The first offer was for one thousand families at a cover charge of £175,000. To get -the immigrants, the government had to allocate a plot of fiscal or expropriated land, preferably near the rich eastern flank on Parana river, put it in the Corporation's trust for the first year while the immigrants were settled, and then float a bond issue to cover the total estimated cost of the colonization. But it never came off. On 24 May, La Tribune carried a reader's letter which stated that the proposal had been made to several British colonies and had been rejected because it was too expensive and the people to be installed as colonists were undesirable.

Soon after, on 3 June, La Tribune, which took a keen interest in immigrant promotion as a patriotic campaign, reported that eighty immigrants, including a minister and a physician, had sailed from Southampton to set up a colony in Santa Fe. The group was to settle on a piece of land of 27,000 acres and the venture was supported by `some officers of the English army'. Each colonist had subscribed £150. On 22 January 1873 a report in La Nacion said that there were 486 Britons, among several other nationalities, in colonies in Entre Rios, Santa Fe and Cordoba.



Arrival & Settlement

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Not all immigrants arrived with adequate financing and the promise of work on the land. A report from the officer in charge of immigration in Rosario advised the Central Immigration Commission in December 1873 that 107 Britons and Germans had arrived from Paraguay and all were so impoverished that a public subscription had to be raised to help them. Some Britons arrived from Paraguay - where one colonization programme had failed owing to extremely unsettled political circumstances and war - in better conditions: between 21 June and 4 December 1873 there arrived in Rosario 370 Britons with money in their pockets and, many of the men being skilled workers, they found work immediately.

The luck of immigrant colonists varied. La Nacion on 18 January 1874, carried a translation from the French-language Courrier de La Plata which reported severe ill-treatment and rotten accommodation on for 1000 passengers who arrived in the ship La France. Thirty people died within twenty-four hours of disembarkation.

Britons arriving in Argentina between 1857 and 1915 to make a new life amounted to only one per cent of the approximately six million immigrants in that period. The 1869 census showed that there were 10,637 Britons resident in Argentina, while the census for 1895 saw the figure rise to 21,788. There were 29,772 in 1910 and 27,692 in the 1914 census. In the latter year the total population stood at 7,885,237 and three-quarters of the adult male population in Buenos Aires was foreign-born.

In spite of the difficulties for organized colonization, many colonies were successful. One of these, in the district known as the English Colony of Sauce Grande, on the Sauce Grande River, near Bahia Blanca, was established in 1868 by a group of families who, in turn, settled others. At one time the colony totalled 150 people.

In many colonies, the Justice of the Peace was a foreigner, of the nationality predominating in the colony, which could lead to favouritism and squabbles in their local population. Assimilation was not easy. Disputes that led to battles and looting at times brought diplomatic representatives to the defence of the colonists and, on some occasions, even the gunboats were sent. In 1876, Santa Fe saw an Italian gunboat sail up the Parana because of an uprising of Italian colonists who were protesting over the unfair treatment and arrest of one of their number. British gunboats were also seen off Santa Fe during another dispute in 1876, between the Bank of London and the River Plate, and the Santa Fe Government, which had fallen behind with its repayment of a loan from the bank. As a result of these two interventions, antagonism between locally born people and foreigners grew. For example, when a policeman once threatened a British consul with a pistol, the officer was publicly congratulated by his senior.



The 'indian' question

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Frequent attacks by native indians caused losses in cattle, property and lives, which forced several families to leave, thereby further weakening the colony. The settlement, and the fighting against the native indians, produced two famous personalities in the history of southern Buenos Aires colonization. Their renown came from their courage fighting indians and success as trackers. One was John Walker, known as Facón Chico (Small Knife), and the other was his cousin, Henry Edwards, called Facón Grande (Big Knife) because of their dexterity with knives in both work and battle. The reference to the size in each case was to their physical appearance and not to their blades. The cousins were later to be used as characters in Scottish writer Robert B. Cunninghame Graham's book Mirages (1936).2

Military censorship stopped information about attacks by native Indians from reaching Buenos Aires newspapers, because the government believed that such news would frighten away potential commerce opportunities and immigrants. The correspondence of the colonists at Sauce Grande, to their agent in Bahia Blanca, named Edmund Goodhall, is therefore a valuable witness to the period. 3

Letters from Walker and Edwards to Goodhall about the attacks by the `darkies' and the `brutes', as well as comment on the incompetence of the local army garrisons in protecting colonists eventually were to bring about, not just stronger censorship, but the decimation of the southern Buenos Aires and the Patagonian native indians by the Argentine army. The organized assault, defeat and near annihilation of the native tribes was called the `Conquest of the Desert' - the desert being the name given to the flat open southern Pampas and northern Patagonia - an event which is still looked upon with pride in Argentina.

One study of the Argentine Government's policy at that time says:

The evidence suggests that much of the impetus behind the formulation of the aggressive policy against the native Americans stemmed from the pressure exerted on the Argentine Governments by several European nations. This pressure derived from the complaints received by several of the European embassies and consulates in the Argentine from the numerous European subjects who resided in the various frontier settlements to the effect that their lives and property were threatened by native American raids. The European nations maintained that the protection of these settlements was the responsibility of the Argentine Government. Thus the British Government made several such protests following the raids on the Bahia Blanca settlement and those on the property of the Central Argentine Land Company at the end of 1872.

The `aggressive policy' referred to was, of course, the Conquest of the Desert, headed by General Julio Roca, later president of Argentina for two six-year terms.4

The drive to kill, imprison, humiliate and terrorize was first directed against the men in the indian camps, but later extended to the women and the children. The previously mentioned study also says:

While the Conquest of the Desert was seen by the Argentine authorities as a `praiseworthy and necessary accomplishment', it caused considerable grief among the Welsh settlers. Several neutral sources attest to the Welsh regrets about what they regarded as an entirely unnecessary tragedy and it did nothing to improve the relationships between Welsh settlers and the Argentine officials.

The decision to pacify the native indians by force took on many aspects. There was the raid and slaughter, mass arrests, enslavement, and also a kind of blood sport in which a prize was paid for every indian killed. In a book called Twentieth century impressions of Argentina, published in 1911 to mark Argentina's centenary, a chapter on Patagonian natives says:

In the earlier days of white settlement in Tierra del Fuego the indians gave trouble killing the settlers' live stock - probably impelled by hunger resulting from the growing scarcity of the guanaco and other indigenous fauna on which the aboriginal was wont to feed. These depredations naturally gave rise to the organisation of punitive expeditions, in which short shrift was granted the marauders ... With shame it must be confessed that these outrages were committed not by the Latin races - for it is only in recent years that the Chilean and Argentine have come into the country - but by men of British stock and extraction . . . After a while the havoc among stock wrought by the indians grew so great that the estancieros paid £1 a head for every macho, or male indian, killed. At first the bow had to be brought in before the money was paid; but later on an ear had to be cut off and shown ...

2. In 1876 Edwards went to Buenos Aires to get married. While he was away his farm was burned to the ground by the indians, in revenge for some of his raids against them.

3. The letters ranged through domestic issues, to elementary political comment, remarks on the weather and orders for equipment required on the farms; and usually all was told in long breathless paragraphs. Here is one sample, a letter from one Arthur Mildred, a settler, to Edmund Goodhall, dated 17 January 1873: `.. . You will have heard accidentally of the indians down here. I will tell you as well as I can what is really true. There were a gang of fifteen of them in the Sierras robbing. An alferez [junior army officer] came across them and killed three, also losing a soldier I believe. They attacked Pavon [a farmer] and lost another. They came for Edwards' trot horse and Walker shot one in the back and the natives [the farmhands] finished him [the indian shot by Walker]. On their way back Heralde [a farmer] met them on the other side of the Sierra, and killed six, and yesterday I heard that some of them came back with some more and that they killed four. This I give you for what it is worth. I know it is the truth. We spent a very pleasant Xmas day. The three Cobbolds were here and one or two others and we got up some races. I was very successful I have lately made $700 in racing ...' These letters have never been published and the owner, Miss E. M. Brackenbury, allowed the author, among other researchers, to take copies. She had kept them after Goodhall's death. Among the more special souvenirs in this correspondence is a letter dated in New York, 15 July 1888 and addressed to the British Consulate in Bahia Blanca - Goodhall was the Consul. `I venture to trouble you with this note to ask you if you could inform me if it would be feasible to engage a hand of say twenty Patagonian or Pampa indians and some I doz or doz Gauchos to join Colonel Cody's (Buffalo Bill's) show and if Bahia Blanca would be a good place to make my starting point to get them from ... would engage them on a two-years contract giving first class guarantees for their good treatment and return at end of contract .. . I would be obliged if you would find out for me amongst some of the old time estancieros such as Facon Grande if the scheme is feasible
. .' Unfortunately the file did not contain a reply or the story of what happened.

4. Williams, Glyn: Welsh settlers and native Americans in Patagonia. Journal of Latin American Studies, London, 1979.

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There were many adventures as arduous as those of the Welsh in Chubut and the English in Sauce Grande, although there were also many more peaceful. There was a Boer and British South African colony called the Colonia Escalante, near Comodoro Rivadavia, in Patagonia, as from December 1902. They were sheep farmers working with very little capital and were plagued by financial difficulties. In 1938 two-thirds of the colony was repatriated. And there were also some Australians. They settled in Rosario and Buenos Aires for a time at the end of the century. Most were deserters from another colony, the New Australia, set up in Paraguay in -1893 by two boatloads of bushworkers and tradesmen. The colony was led by a journalist, William Lane, who had set out on the Royal Tar in July 1893 to find his own Utopia outside Asuncion.5

There were still colonies being set up after the First World War, such as that of the San Javier Land and Forest Company, which started colonization at Puerto Rosario, Misiones, populated by English ex-servicemen, who soon became disenchanted and returned to Britain. Another Misiones province colony, at Puerto Victoria, was a fraud. Settlers were lured with photographs of a site that had never existed. The pictures showed women in fur coats entering glittering stores and well-dressed men at dance halls across the floor of which was strung the name of the colony. Only when the potential colonists had paid their contributions and had travelled to Argentina did they learn that they had been cheated.

The failures, though distressing, make no more than anecdotes now. The overwhelming impression is of success. The Welsh in Chubut, as the Scots on their farms further south, made Patagonia accessible to Argentina. In the rest of the country the small farming colonies provided the foundation for a communications and trade network which was to be built and operated by the British for many years. Many colonies have ceased to exist, of course, as ownership of the land changed hands and succeeding generations emigrated to other parts of the country. But in every corner of Argentina, in buildings, land developments or just in the name of a hamlet, the colonists' influence and work is still there to be seen.


5. Souter, Gavin: A peculiar people, the Australians in Paraguay, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1968.

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Immigration from Britain & British Empire Extensive site which includes many links to all aspects of 19th century Irish emigration to Argentina.
Welsh immigrants in Patagonia: Mimosa, the old ship that sailed into history Useful outline history of the voyage by Susan Wilkinson
Welsh settlers to Argentina: Gaiman, an unforgettable people Short article by Joe Schneider about the Welsh settlement
Irish immigration to Argentina: Land, lambs, churches Outline of the key events in early Irish settlement in Argentina

Immigrants to Argentina from Eastern Europe

Argentina, 1852-1942: Economics Links to the background context of the period

You might also like to visit one of these related topic sites on the history of Argentina:


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Read the rest of the book in Spanish! " La colonia olvidada " traza la historia compleja e interesante de las comunidades de habla inglesa en la Argentina. A pesar de su escaso número, han tenido un presencia nada desdeñable y mantienen su presencia distintiva en la vida y cultura argentinas.

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Read the rest of the book! The Forgotten Colony by the well known journalist and writer, Andrew Graham Yooll, is a classic reference to the life and institutions of the community in Argentina. The book was first published in London in 1981, and was reprinted ten years later which incorporates new material and corrections.

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