Contrary to the impression sometimes given, Britain’s relationship with Argentina is as complex and multi-faceted as that with any other country. Military conflicts in 1806/07 and, more importantly for the modern memory, in 1982, and a football match in 1986, colour the picture but, when the bigger view is taken, it is clear that mutual enmity has not been the predominant emotion.
Britain was quick to recognise the newly independent Argentina in 1825. It did so because it recognised its own interests, both the opportunities for trade and the strategic need to pre-empt the United States in South America. British capital and goods flooded in and British communities developed, for instance in Buenos Aires (which was already 3,000-strong in the 1820s). Throughout the nineteenth century, Britain’s so-called informal empire – the regions where the country held economic sway – was at least as important as its actual empire.
British directors and investors effectively ran, and engineers and other technicians built, most of the large enterprises in Argentina, such as the railway, in the mid-19th Century. At the same time, Argentinean beef, mutton and grain were exported to Britain. The result was that by 1880 the Argentine Republic was “more important to the British economy than Egypt or China, or even Canada” (Ronald Hyam, Britain’s Imperial Century, 1815-1914).
This began to tail off in the Edwardian era but even as late as the eve of the First World War in 1914 British investment in Argentina (£319 million) was the same as that in South Africa, not far short of that in Australia (£350 million) and very significantly more than in New Zealand (£62 million) (Nigel Dalziel, Historical Atlas of the British Empire).
When World War One came in 1914, significant numbers of British in Argentina volunteered. The attached page of the passenger list of the Royal Steam Packet Co’s Meteor’s voyage to Argentina in July 1919 shows British officers and families repatriated at British government expense.
The BT27 passenger lists show a wide range of people travelling to and from Argentina. Many of the occupations given are related to the exploitation of the pampas – sheep farmer, ranch owner, wool buyer, estanciero – or to technical expertise – Cable & Wireless, railway official, civil engineer, accountant.
Some of the forenames of people travelling out to Argentina indicate earlier connections with the country – for instance, Carlos, Eduardo, Florencia, Orlando, Santiago. This is particularly true of the Welsh – see the Welsh in Patagonia blog for more information on the Welsh community. But don’t be surprised if, when looking at passenger lists for ships bound for Argentina, your search picks up a Francisco Smith, a Carlos Evans, a Juan MacDonald or a Catalina Murphy.