Short extract from Lost Cowboys: From Patagonia to the Alamo by Hank Wangford, 1996. Click on the book to purchase.
The Anglo Plant at Fray Bentos in 1921.
In this extract the author and his fellow traveller, Joe Tambien arrive in Fray Bentos to be given a tour of the meat processing plant, El Anglo, by Eduardo Irigoyen.
We had arrived in Fray Bentos. The Intendencia, the Town Hall, is on Fray Bentos' small town plaza. In the centre is a filigree iron bandstand like the one in Kensington Gardens. We go in and find Eduardo Irigoyen who is to take us to the plant.
Eduardo has jet-black hair and a nearly trimmed beard vaguely of the French student type: He is wearing a white short-sleeved shirt under a blue V-neck pullover. Behind his glasses his dark eyes get very inter when he talks in a soft but precise voice about Fray Bentos and the Anglo Plant. He loves the Anglo plant and all its gory history and I want to hear every word.
We drive down past old tree-lined terraces of low workers houses, part of the original Anglo workers' ghetto round the plant. We turn a corner, come out of the trees and suddenly we are on the edge of a wide river and underneath a gigantic building. We walk out on to a rickety jetty and right there on the shore is a towering concrete monolith of a building, a hangar, a massive, brutish stone box sticking right out into the bright-blue Uruguayan sky beside the wide, slow-flowing, yellow-ochre river.
Across the top of this huge block, in gigantic faded black letters roaring across the Río Uruguay, the beautiful River of Birds, is `ANGLO'. This monstrous box is the cold-storage building for the plant, the end of this particular line for carcases waiting to be shipped directly from the shores of this muddy yellow river across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.
It needed to be this big. The Anglo plant was the biggest meat-processing plant in the world. "It’s gargantuan fridge used to hold enough meat to feed the whole of Britain and free Europe during the Second World War.
I wanted to know more.
The origins: Fraille Bento, José Hargain & Liebig
Legend has it that centuries ago a monk called Fraille Bento, Brother Bento, lived here as a hermit in a cave near the river for a hundred years. He built his own bed and table, spoke to no one, never lit a fire and called his hideout Caracoles, `snails', either as a tribute to his neighbours of the pace of life. His name appears on sixteenth-century Jesuit maps as Fray Bento.
The area was wooded - monte - and wood-cutters moved in and set up as charcoal-burners servicing the river traffic. The spot was ideal and was called Puntas de Fray Bentos after the two natural deep-water moorings where even the biggest ships could tie up.An Argentine trader of French-Basque origin called José Hargain crossed over the great river and opened an inn and a general store, to be nearer the busy charcoal-burners who owed him increasingly large sums of money. With heavy and regular river traffic, business boomed. It expanded so much that very soon, excited by the intercontinental possibilities of the deep-water moorings so high upriver, deep in the heart of cattle country, a group of hardnosed entrepreneurs moved in on Hargain. Disenchanted, and usurped as the town's founder, the Basque moved out.
Despite some whining pamphlets from Hargain, who was presumably looking for a piece of the action, the big guys stayed put. In 1862, five years after the town was officially founded a German company called Liebig started to set up a meat-processing plant. They had developed a meat-extract process and Uruguay had a lot of beef on the hoof out on the pampa.
El Frigorifico Liebig de Fray Bentos
As if by magic, up in the very heart of beef and gaucho country, was a river deep enough to take the biggest ocean-going cargo ships. Sometimes God is good.
In his wisdom, god (as he is known in Uruguay) decided that the world's
greatest slaughterhouse should blossom on the oriental shore of the sedate River
For more than one hundred years afterwards, cattle were slaughtered,
butchered, packed and processed round the clock and shipped around the world. A
lot of Uruguayan beef was rendered down to `Liebig Extract', a cheap beef spread
sold primarily to the British working class. Corned beef, the canned trimmings,
followed. As early as the 1880’s 150,000 head of Uruguayan cattle were
slaughtered in a year at Fray Bentos. That way the name and that stocky bull's
head appeared on kitchen tables everywhere.
We thought Fray Bentos was Spanish for corned beef.
Jorge Luis Borges's mother was Uruguayan. He claimed to have been conceived at Fray Bentos and thus had a special affection for the place. The community that gathered here to work the plant was unique. Gringos and criollos flocked to the town. Here, gringo meant any foreigner. It had to because they came from everywhere: Russians, Basques, Poles, Germans, Bulgarians, Italians, Ukrainians, French, Czechs, Spanish, Austro-Hungarians. Greeks, Slavs, Peruvians, Bolivians, Argentines, Paraguayans, Japanese, even Mongolians. There were Chinese too. They were the cooks. But there were no English workers.
`It was a completely unplanned social experiment - the United Nations.' Eduardo's black eyes sparkle as he beats the table and harangues Tambien and me. We are sitting in the Wolves' Club, the old workers' club, eating gnocchi and looking out over the river at the green shores of Argentina on the other.
And the experiment worked. Everyone got on with everyone else. They all intermarried, French with Bulgarians, Germans with Slavs, criollos with Poles. All except a group of Manchurians who arrived much later, in 1966. They were conscientious objectors, were persecuted and came here because they didn't want to fight. They lived outside town and have no contact with the outside world except when they come in to buy sugar and noodles. But they are the exception!
Eduardo has more than warmed to his subject and is ready to autocombust. Certainly his eyes are aflame. `It was the first cooperative in Uruguay. There was no management class, no bourgeoisie. They had no class structure - the doctor would dance with the daughter of a labourer. There was no unemployment - seven thousand people lived in Fray Bentos, men, women and children, and three thousand five hundred worked at the Anglo. There was a peculiar harmony.'
That was in the 1920s. After Germany's defeat in the First World War, Liebig had money problems and sold out to the Vestey family interest in BA. The plant became El Anglo.
El Anglo & the Vesteys
For more than forty years the Vesteys, a Liverpool family, had been big in beef: In 1876, the same year the first refrigerated ship, Le Frigorifique, brought an `edible' shipment of beef from Argentina, the eldest Vestey son, William, was despatched to the USA to buy and ship home anything the family could sell. He was seventeen.
He made a fortune canning the massive trimmings from the Chicago stockyards -'Corned Beef'. He went to Argentina and was once again shocked by the enormous waste. The Argentines, it seemed, were still more interested in hides and tallow than in flesh. "They still had the old gaucho attitude and left the meat to rot. Why shouldn't they? When young Vestey arrived, there was thirteen million head of cattle on the Argentine pampas alone. As well as beef, William found an abundant stock of partridges, which the locals ignored. So he set up a trial shipment of frozen partridges and business boomed. Union Cold Storage, now Union International, was born.
By the turn of the century, two hundred and eighty refrigerated ships were regularly crossing the Atlantic taking Uruguayan and Argentinian beef and extract to Liverpool and Europe.
The Vestey family began the Great War with cold stores in Britain, Russia and China and four large refrigerated ships. In 1915 the British Government introduced draconian tax laws. To finance the war effort they were going to tax companies which made profits abroad. The Vesteys, fiercely protective of their money, packed up and left Britain, setting up the heart of their operation in Buenos Aires. At the same time they began converting a large meat plant at Las Palmas on the Río Parana. The total slaughter of cattle for export in the Argentine doubled between 1914 and 1918.
By the last year of the war, the Vesteys had built cold-storage facilities at Boulogne, Dunkirk and Le Havre. Allied troops were consuming one million pounds of beef a day. The gauchos were working overtime. A year after the war, as well as their previous holdings, the family had ranches, plants and cold stores in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Madagascar, France. Spain and Portugal. They now had nine refrigerated ships. Bigger in beef.
Once they had bought the Liebig plant at Fray Bentos they became the biggest. William Vestey bought himself a peerage from Lloyd George and got a nasty, truculent letter from George V.
The Vesteys had undoubtedly helped the war effort but had helped themselves even more. The Inland Revenue was furious. They were investigating the family, in one of many frustrating attempts at wresting money from them.
The Vesteys had woven an ingenious web of holding companies that made it very difficult for anyone, especially the taxman, to get near their money. Their empire by now was built on meat, wood mills, property development, grocery wholesaling, insurance, shipping and travel. And more meat.
I began to understand why the cold store at El Anglo was so huge. I began to grasp the scale of this operation and to see why they needed to control the wild gauchos to get them working on the big ranches and driving those steers to slaughter.
It had been inevitable that the Vesteys should wrest control of Fray Bentos from Liebig. Everything else was British-run. They had improved the livestock with heavy imports of British animals, moved the stock on railroads built and owned by the British to plants equipped and financed by the British. The products from these plants were shipped on British ships to England, the monopoly export market for many decades.
The Strike of 1929
For fifty years, Eduardo Irigoyen's `unplanned social experiment' was a resounding social and spiritual success. People lived in extraordinary harmony.
Only once did relations sour in this carnivorous utopia. Unions had never been allowed, and any sign of union activity was snuffed out by instant dismissal. The one and only strike came in 1929. There had been a wage demand which the management were ignoring. Communist militants picketed the gates, waving flags and urging the workers to strike. One morning, as the night shift was coming off, the incoming shift gathered at the gates and an instant strike meeting took place. The communists founded a strike committee in their offices in Fray Bentos.
The management called the Vestey offices in BA who agreed to settle the workers demands immediately. It looked as if it would all be resolved in the usual easy-going Fray Bentos way, but the deal broke down when the communists insisted that the agreement should be signed in their headquarters under the Party banner. The management refused and wanted to sign it in a neutral place - a bar in town. The deal was never signed, the strike dragged on and the peaceful mood in the town disintegrated.
There were ugly scenes. One day stones were thrown at a carnero - a blackleg - going into a plant, but it turned out to be the blackleg's brother. They'd got the wrong man. A lone policeman rode up to his assistance, but also got stoned. He went to get help and police returned in force to ride down the strikers. A major battle followed, the police chief was knifed in the lungs, many strikers were beaten and injured and the strike was crushed.
Eduardos soft eyes cloud over as he tells us this story, the one stain on his tale of an industrial paradise on the peaceful shores of a lazy river. He brightens up again when he tells us of the only other time in over a century when El Anglo shut down.
'The whole community had great sympathy for the Allies in the Second World War. The people had their feet in Uruguay but them hearts were always in Europe. They had always worked round the-clock shifts but stepped up production during the war. El Anglo was feeding all of Britain and the Allies.'
He is warming again, closing his copybook on its solitary blot. 'When the news reached Fray Bentos in August 1944 that Paris had been liberated, there was a huge fiesta. The whole town celebrated hard for three days solid while El Anglo stayed silent. Bulgarians, French, Russians, Chinese and Czechs, they all danced tangos and Paso dobles and waltzes in the streets, they were so overcome with joy: They still talk of it today.'
The End of El Anglo
El Anglo was finally closed in 1979: The military government that ruled Uruguay in the sixties had nationalized the plant with disastrous results. A combination of reasons - lack of investment, outdated equipment and increasingly stringent EEC regulations - meant that El Anglo could not operate in the world of the late twentieth century. It was an industrial dinosaur and collapsed under its own weight.
Now it stands rotting and glowering over the empty river where the big boats used to come. A monument to the time the Industrial Revolution sailed right up the Río Uruguay, it is still and silent apart from the wind off the river whistling through the broken windows and whipping under loose sheets of corrugated iron which flap and crash mournfully. Vesteys went into receivership early in 1995.
Touring El Anglo: the processes
Eduardo wants to turn El Anglo into an industrial museum but there are no funds to repair the acres of broken windows, roofs and walkways. He pushes his chair back.
'Come and see: Come back to the nineteenth century.’
He takes us first into the office: It smells of warm dry wood. Rows of broad desks and old typewriters sit in the typing pool. On the wooden walls, painted pale green, cream and brown, are pictures of the plant at the end of the last century.
The records room is a gold mine; packed with inventory ledgers, pristine bound copies of the local newspaper El Litoral, 'The Shore', and pamphlets from suppliers of machinery from Bolton, Sheffield, Manchester, Rugby, Glasgow and Liverpool. The plant's whole history is documented in this room, ready for Eduardo's would-be reconstruction: phonographs, accounts, posters and labels, original artwork for the tins we all saw on our tables some time in our lives, in many different languages and perfectly preserved.
Dust hangs still in the shafts of sunlight that stream in through the office windows. The dust motes stampede after us as we walk through shafts of light and break the thick, silent stillness. Behind the enormous entrepreneurial desk is an old Chubb wall safe.
At the door is a punch-card machine. I clock in and its bell rings. Just before we go out I notice a round-topped display jar catching the sunlight, glinting at me, calling me from a desktop. Something green and murky is inside. When I get clue I realize it is the two heads of a double-headed calf, a young Siamese steer. Welcome to paradise in a pickling jar.
The sloping alleyways between the warehouses, offices, slaughterhouse, cold-storage and engine rooms shine and sparkle in the afternoon sun. They are floored with five-foot-long, two-inch thick iron plates with stamps like `Glasgow 1866'. This colossal weight of iron pavement was brought over as ballast by the big ships that came far the meat.
Eduardo guides us through the plant, following the route taken by the cattle, from freedom to fridge, from corrals to cases. We walk up a narrowing channel and tiptoe gingerly along rotting planks by the side of a concrete chute, hanging out over a forty-foot drop.
Each steer was isolated by a door and killed by a blow to the head from a man called the Hammerer. The side wall opened and the dead animal fell out into the beginning of the slaughterhouse hall, the plaza de la faena or matadero. Its throat was cut and it was hooked up on to a conveyor belt that runs along the ceiling, twisting and turning through the abattoir. It runs slightly downwards all the time, so the carcases were simply pushed along by the workers, helped by gravity.
On their journey through this killing room, the animals were skinned, dismembered and gutted, each part of the process carried out by a separate worker. There were specialists for each organ- heart, kidneys, liver, guts, lungs and glands such as panes and thyroid. The organs were tossed separately down chutes and holes in the floor to be processed below while the stripped carcases swung along, snaking though the slaughterhouse in their last dance, a final bizarre conga on their way to the cold storage.
The desolation in this murderous hall is palpable. It is a cold light grey, all metal and stone, clinical and industrial at the same time. There are broad butchering counters and huge weighing machines from Avery of Birmingham and Toledo of Ohio. The metal is rusting and redundant. The only softness in this bleak room is the spiders' webs which drape every corner and beam, anchoring machines to the ground and shrouding piles of chains that lie on the floor. The webs shake as the corrugated-iron sheets flap and crash over the bridge to the cold storage, reverberating through this cold, deathly place.
This dilapidated abattoir is where hundreds of thousands of animals were slaughtered and butchered, hung, drawn and quartered twenty-four hours a day without stopping. It is hard not to imagine the noise, the blood, the heat and, worst of all, the smell.
Nothing was thrown away. William Vestey would have been proud. Horns and hoofs were boiled down for glue. Even gall-stones were exported to Japan where they were used as aphrodisiacs. The bits, the trimmings and some organs were rendered down for beef extract in enormous vats.
Worst of all, the smell.
The refrigeration block - the concrete monolith with `Anglo' along its gable that it seemed I had first seen a lifetime ago - had five floors of cold storage and seventy kilometres of refrigerant piping.
`Welcome to the nineteenth century - after the apocalypse; says Eduardo as he opens the door to the machine room. `My dream is that they will come and make Alien 4 here one day.
'We go in, out of the bright Uruguayan sunlight, and peer through the gloom. As our eyes accommodate to the brown half-light, we see enormous rusting driving wheels, chains, steam engines and pistons, rotting in pools of oil and muck. It is a Victorian vision of the future, post-apocalyptic indeed, something from Jules Verne via Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I shudder. The matadero is still with me and these gigantic driving wheels gave muscle to the killing floor above. The boilers have long since stopped working and the lagging sags from unused cylinders. This was the powerhouse of El Anglo. The big wheels are generators for electricity, the first one a steam generator which drove the first electric lights in the whole River Plate area early in the 1860s. It was the mast advanced technology of its time.
`Now from the Brave New World,' says Eduardo, 'to Frankenstein.' His gentle black eyes are gleaming, a child showing us his toy fort and soldiers.
We slip out of the shadows, blinking, and into the control room. High, grey and metallic, its wall is covered with switches, dials and the kind of levers the good Baron F. would slap down as the lightning flashed above and his monster started to twitch. On the dials and plaques on the walls are written:
ERSKINE HEAP & CO: Ltd Lancashire Switchgear Works, Manchester EVERETT EDGCOMBE, London The BRITISH THOMSON-HOUSTON Co. Ltd Rugby, England
They are real dials, these, big bulky things that stick right out of the wall, dials you can tap and believe in. Under them are written 'Office', `Cold Store', ‘Slaughterhouse'.
We haven't finished. Eduardo takes us breathlessly down to a circular brick structure built into the edge of the river with a walkway across to it. He unlocks the padlock, opens the door and motions us in with a shining grin of anticipation lighting up his whole face. He is getting younger and younger through the afternoon and now is about five years old. As soon as we go in we see why.
Perched on blocks, every little boy's dream, shining brass and steel and red-tinted metal, is a Merryweather Holt steam fire-engine. Now stripped of its wheels and the horses that used to pull it through the streets for the London Fire Brigade, it sits placidly and contentedly, ready to draw up river water and pump it out to any part of El Anglo that might burst into flame. It is perfectly restored and a thing of gleaming beauty. More than thirty plaques round it lay claim to its excellence: 'London First Grand Prize Patent Steam Fire Engine', says one.
Down a short way from the Merryweather 'Holt' is the jetty. Very rickety its gnarled and twisted planks have more gaps than substance. A narrow-gauge rail track runs out of the bottom of the gigantic cold store, through a little wooden shed and on to the jetty.
Like a backdrop from Cannery Row, it looks far too insubstantial to have carried millions of frozen carcases brought out of the cold store, smoking cold in the Uruguayan sun, to be loaded on to the great cargo ships parked slap bang against it: Two cranes stand forlornly like broken-necked storks. The ends of this matchstick jetty are frayed and slipping into the swirling ochre waters. It seems inconceivable that this frail little dock could have handled everything the monster killing-machine behind it belched out, but it did.
Over the years, drawn by stories of a high-cholesterol El Dorado, the immigrants kept on coming for a chance to work in El Anglo. In the mid-twenties, a large group of Georgians arrived from the Caucasus. In 1929, three hundred illiterate Bulgarian peasant boys turned up in one day. A colony of Germans came in the fifties . And, of course, there were the inscrutable Manchurians in 1966. They are still there, holed up in the country outside Fray Bennos, and still only know the Spanish for 'sugar' and noodles'. Two German colonies, one Russian and one Bulgarian are still intact in the town.
Among all these different peoples working and playing together, intermarrying and living in carnivorous harmony, one nationality remained aloof. They built their own mansion, their own garden, their own tennis courts and made do with just a nine-hole golf course. They were the managers of El Anglo.
They were, of course, the English.
Their mansion, grand colonial style, stands imperiously alone, above and behind the plant. The garden is more of an arboretum, with rare trees from all around the world. A sign says `Absolutely No Dogs Allowed In This Garden'. The word for `Absolutely' is Terminamente.
The clubhouse at the golf course is as English as the Hurlingham in Buenos Aires. In El Anglo's ghetto an old man told us how to find the golf club, stroking his fat belly with a gnarled brown hand and scratching his dark tanned Uruguayan neck. He looked typically criollo until, that is, he turned to took at me.
His eyes were a very pale, limpid blue. United Nations.
You might also like to visit one of these related topic sites on the history of Uruguay, Argentina:
All images except where stated are those of the website, taken on a visit in 2001 with a digital camera of the time (ie low definition!!). Most can be clicked through for bigger image/further information/resources.