Mar
11
2013

The English Octopus and Argentina

Argentine animosity towards the United Kingdom is neither a recent trend nor solely attributable to competing claims for islands in the South Atlantic. The roots of Anglo-Argentine friction go back to the mid-nineteenth century. Argentina was then at the heart of Britain’s informal economic empire, a shadowy counterpart to the more overt imperial power seen in places such as India and throughout Africa.

Opponents labelled it ‘el pulpo inglés’, the English Octopus, with British-financed railways spreading tentacles of influence over the pampas and an oversized, bulbous head representing the debt, finance and banking obligations that tied, some say shackled, Buenos Aires to London.

Few sights present as quintessentially English a scene as admiring the immaculately trimmed polo fields of the Hurlingham Club, window shopping under the famous green canopies of Harrods department store or watching a football match between the St Andrews School and Balmoral College. The Anglophile can attain a pinnacle of perfection by taking afternoon tea, leisurely browsing through the local news in the Herald.

Harrods, Buenos Aires By http://www.flickr.com/photos/bkm_br/ [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This English dream would soon be shattered by walking along the wide boulevards, listening to the animated, strangely Italianate Rioplatense Spanish of the porteños and struggling in a heat that can reach above 40°C (104°F) and rarely sinks below 10°C (50°F). At almost 7,000 miles from London this is no Engaland; this is Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The institutions and traditions listed above show that British influence in Argentina is still noticeable. The influence was historically so strong as to be akin to suffocation for nationalists. British control was not exercised by setting up fancy sports grounds, department stores or schools or even by importing a love of afternoon tea – these were simply the affluent by-products of commerce. British power in Argentina was real and it was forged in iron and gold.

Argentina was a favourite location for British investment. At one stage during the nineteenth century fully 10% of Britain’s overseas investment was concentrated in the country – English gold flowed into the land of silver. By the end of the 1930s, some 40% of investment in Argentina was British. London’s merchant banks and investors had long had considerable heft in the country and Argentina’s elites had been inducted into the Anglosphere with English educations, sports and manners.

The English Octopus - an American cartoonist of 1888 depicts John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism, grabbing land on every continent - see page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But whilst Britain built up great influence and power across Latin America, it also stoked resentment and nationalistic opposition. This was especially the case in Argentina, where the concentration of British interests produced the most concentrated responses. Murmurs of discontent developed into full fledged opposition; the voice of the streets was effectively channelled by the Peronist organisation and satiated only by economic nationalism.

Argentine angst over British power was centred on its control of the railways. The British Empire was the principal source of finance for the burgeoning Argentinean railway network after 1870. Thousands of miles of track were laid with loans from London and, to a lesser extent, Paris, Berlin and domestic financiers. By 1914, the network would constitute the world’s tenth largest system, and would extend far into the newly productive pampas stimulating Argentina’s export-orientated agricultural sector.

It was almost universally regarded as the ‘British system’; loans to build the railways were repaid at solid interest rates and the railway companies then paid regular and handsome dividends. The whole worked well whilst this was seen as investment and advancement of mutual interests.  But the Great Depression hit Argentina especially hard and fostered a particularly zealous form of quasi-fascist and nationalistic rule.

Against this backdrop, the sinister spectacle of el pulpo inglés (the English Octopus) was an easy target for politicians and soon Argentineans would be encouraged to drive out foreign and, in particular, British capital. In 1948, during the first term of office of President Juan Perón, seven British-owned and three French-owned railway companies were nationalised.

The Patio Parada, base of operations of the railway system in Rosario, Argentina by Pablo D. Flores

This beautifully crafted piece likens the Anglo-Argentine relationship to a love story, with Britain as the rich but ultimately jilted lover and Argentina as the high maintenance girlfriend. The end of the affair is inevitable:

“… by the time the war had ended, Peron had simply changed the names of many of the buildings and streets throughout the country to erase any vestiges of British presence. Thousands of miles of railroads became the property of the government, and many British-owned businesses were handed over to Argentines, many of whom were personal friends and family of the President.

It was as if Argentina had simply changed the locks.”

Signs of the extensive British influence can still be seen if you look. Older porteños may still refer to the Torre de los Ingleses on Plaza Británica instead of the Torre Monumental on Air Force Square. It stands loftily over the main Retiro railway station, a nod to the heart and hub of the English Octopus’s iron tentacles.

Torre Monumental (or the Torre Ingleses) Buenos Aires By Jorge Gobbi from Buenos Aires, Argentina (Torre Monumental) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are still plenty of place names, institutions and people that have an undeniably British origin: Banfield, Munro, Ranelagh and Hurlingham. There were estimated to be 100,000 English Argentines in the 1980s, plenty of Argentineans with Scottish ancestors and a large and distinct Welsh community exists on the Pampas. If you close your eyes, lie of the grass and listen to the thwack of a polo mallet against a ball you could be at either the Hurlingham; on the Thames or La Plata.

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