King's College London
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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Early emigrants to Chile

Coloured lithograph depicting a Chilean silver and copper works. A man is laying the sediment containing silver onto hides, while women and boys can be seen on the right washing the silver.A Chilean silver and copper works from Peter Schmidtmeyer's account, Travels into Chile, over the Andes, in the years 1820 and 1821.The collapse of Spain's American empire and the birth of independent nation states - rich in natural resources but largely unindustrialised and often short of capital and labour - opened up a vast new arena for foreign trade, investment and emigration.

In the years following independence British banks lent heavily to the new countries, British investors ploughed funds into mining concerns and industrial infrastructure projects and British exporters were quick to seize the opportunities offered by the opening up of the sub-continent to free trade, flooding the larger Latin American nations with British manufactured goods.

Emigration followed, though on a small scale compared with the huge flow of Britons to the settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. By 1824 there were around a hundred British firms established in Argentina and the British population of Buenos Aires was nearly 3,000. In Chile the port of Valparaiso, opened to trade in 1811 following the country‟s first bid for independence, became the centre of the British trading and immigrant community.

Peter Schmidtmeyer's published account of a trip made to Argentina and Chile shortly after those countries had gained independence (and while Chile was still in the throes of war) suggests a growing interest among British readers in this distant part of the world. Its remoteness, its inhabitants' struggle for freedom from the Spanish yoke and the prospects it might offer potential investors or emigrants all help to explain this interest. Describing the outward Atlantic crossing, Schmidtmeyer writes:

Several of our fellow passengers were dissatisfied with their own country, and in search of a better.

Some were attracted by the possibilities of the region's mineral wealth, this book's publication coinciding with a period of frenzied British speculation in gold and silver mining. Chile's silver production boomed but was later overtaken by its production of copper, of which the country was the world's leading exporter by 1860. The plate on display shows a Chilean silver and copper works. A man is laying the sediment containing silver onto hides, while women and boys can be seen on the right washing the silver.

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