has no official records of a ‘scramble’ for Latin America.
However, together with Geography, Economics, and, more
recently, Cultural Studies, it has attempted to provide
us with both authorised and alternative approaches to
disentangling the knot of venturesome ambitions and rational
projects which unmistakably linked Great Britain and Latin
America in the nineteenth century. Around the mid-twentieth
century that intricate connection started to be described
as an informal empire. The complex discussion ensuing
from the use of such an umbrella phrase constitutes the
firm and rigorous core of Informal Empire in Latin
America: Culture, Commerce and Capital.
title, belonging in a new series recently launched by
the Bulletin of Latin American Research (BLAR)
and following from the conference on informal empire held
at the University of Bristol, UK, in January 2007, invites
readers to explore the issue through interdisciplinary
paths which take them from the study of the real presence
of British capital in the Argentine Pampas to the secret
representational desires of a masculine Britain over a
virginal feminised Brazil, from the awe-inspiring experience
of Patagonia to the abandonment of any possibility of
empire in Colombia whatsoever. Thus Matthew Brown, the
highly accomplished editor of the book, and a cadre of
renowned British and American professors embark on a voyage
of rediscovery and redefinition not of Latin America or
of the British Empire per se but of the veiled, perhaps
even imaginary, details of the twisted relationship between
both and of the reasons for the absence of the former
in the historiographies of the latter. In other words,
they skilfully weave unofficial records and concealed
representations in order to produce the fabrics of a fairer
description of the roles than culture, commerce, and capital
played in the complex bond under scrutiny than the ones
Initiated by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson (1953), the discussion on informal empire, brilliantly conceptualised and succinctly historicised by Brown in the introduction to the volume, acts as the compass that guides readers along the journey of British and Latin American liaisons from the beginning of the Independence Wars around 1810 into the mid-twentieth century. Informal empire, though, is not an uncontested definition. Mary Louise Pratt (1992) argued for the weakness of the concept and suggested that even colonialism was a better term to define the situation of Latin America in the period under scrutiny. Later on, Ann Laura Stoler (2006) sparked renewed interest in informal empire by overtly declaring that it was just another euphemism for blunt imperialism.
book sets out to explore the differing versions of informal
empire as applied in Latin America and to assess the ways
in which the already problematic concepts of culture,
commerce and capital coalesced to shape the British influence
in the region. In response to the convergent thematic
interests of British Imperial History and Latin American
Studies and drawing on their dissimilar historiographies,
this is subsequently carried out on a comparative and
interdisciplinary basis and with the aim of ‘reformulating
“informal empire” with a cultural bent and a postcolonial
eye whilst keeping it anchored in its political economy
roots’ (20). Thus Informal Empire in Latin America:
Culture, Commerce and Capital casts off to search
for new illuminating havens for the mutual desires and
representations of both the British and the Latin American,
in Brown’s words, well established ‘on the ground and
in the mind’ (21).
Contrary to what may be expected from a glance at the illustration on the cover of the book, a photomontage exploring the convergence of the aboriginal, the black and the British in and around the Caribbean, five out of ten chapters of the work under analysis in fact address the presence of the British in Argentina, further down in the Southern Cone. For the somewhat static system of categories of empire suggested by Alan Knight (23-48), that presence and the long presence of the British in Argentina is explained only by ‘the pursuit of profit through plunder’ (33), that is, by Britain’s interest in ‘gold,’ the third G in the list encompassing the intentions which drive human beings to empires: God, glory, gold, and geopolitics. In this context, however, informal empire may not be the best analytical tool to elucidate Anglo-Argentine relationships. For Knight, even though the asymmetry of power between the two nations was evident, there existed a ‘perceived mutual self interest’ (44) which made the collaboration with the metropolis by the local liberals largely consensual and utterly rational.
a similar vein and after a carefully detailed review of
the developments of the historiography of informal empire,
David Rock concludes that informal empire ‘remains an
ambiguous and elusive category’ (76) when applied to the
Argentine case, mostly due to the fact that it was only
British capital and commerce that comprised empire there.
Nevertheless, Rock pursues an extensive, stimulating,
and highly valuable postcolonial analysis of the cultural
relationships between the British and the Argentines only
to find strong evidence that there might have been ‘British
imperialist aspirations in Argentina rather than
a consummated imperialist hegemony’ (76), a point very
much like the only made by Karen Racine in her appropriate
and modest examination of the early interests and procedures
of the Foreign Bible Society in Latin America between
1805 and 1830 (78-98). Whereas for Rock the French and
the Italians culturally allured the Argentines in far
more powerful ways than the British did, for Colin M.
Lewis and Fernanda Peñaloza the latter did have a strong
social and cultural influence first in the formation of
the South American nation and then in its modernising
policies and its cosmopolitan aspirations.
(99-123) articulates a decidedly cogent account of the
not only commercial but also cultural ‘Anglo-criollo’
juncture around railways in Argentina. His pertinent rethinking
of the role of the railway companies reveals that there
was ‘considerable agency on the part of national interests’
(120) and that those intentions were attempted to be realised
not only by the rich landowners but also by the state
and the people as well. Furthermore, the Argentines and
their state, according to Peñaloza’s rich intertextual
exploration (149-186), can be posited to have framed their
plan for political and economic expansion in Patagonia
based on the travel experiences of prominent Englishmen
and their literary representation of the ‘unattainable’
Argentine landscape usually founded on the aesthetic sublime.
Thus Anglo-Argentine relationships cannot be reduced to
capital and commerce as is initially suggested. The Argentine
social and cultural appropriation of the British railways
and of British representations may weaken the hypothesis
of informal empire but adds to the establishment of a
whole new space for analysis of imperialistic intentions
and tangential contestations.
Ordinary Argentineans usually tend to explain their supposedly anti-British feelings by recourse to the rather formulaic reasoning that, in most of the historical events in which they have come together, the British and the Argentine have had to face each other in noticeably antagonistic terms. This appears to be the stance also adopted by Charles Jones is his study of the opposing roles played by the Britishman Robert Thurburn and the Argentinean Vicente Fidel López on the stage of the River Plate by the end of the nineteenth century (124-148). Profuse in historical and biographical detail, the highly stylised description of the divergent ambitions funnelling their actions, however, is far from simplistic, as it dives deeply into the personal interstices of Anglo-Argentine ties. Moreover, Jones even ‘regrets’ (144) having discarded the possibility of informal empire in his earlier work, a brave move which places him in a position paradoxically conflicting with those of most of the other authors in the volume.
from secure binarisms, safely founded on postcolonial
and subaltern studies and along trends akin those already
settled by Jones and Peñaloza, Jennifer L. French (187-207)
plunges into Benito Lynch’s El Inglés de los Güesos
(1924), and offers an innovative reading of the tragic
romance not as an allegory for informal empire, but as
an ‘allegory for thinking about informal empire’ (197).
Here, the novel is used to show the ways in which Lynch
chooses to linguistically and visually destabilise the
metropolitan traveller by the incorporation and empowerment
of the local voice and the local gaze, which in turn,
French proposes, can also be achieved by our experiences
of disruptive reading. Literature, then, can be our teacher,
but, ‘metropolitan sources cannot be the only or the final
word on the subject’ (207). We, as readers, have the possibility
of not falling into the snares of binary opposites, and,
like Caliban in the Shakespearean play, steal the books
and run off the island.
Then the compass takes us to the North, though never reaching Central America, Mexico, or the Caribbean. Colombia, the nation invoked in the cover of the book, and Brazil, the country with which Britain set trade and investment bonds not unlike those it established with Argentina, are the other two cases considered in the volume. The former is put forward as an instance in which the British lack of interest and the Colombian lack of significance, both seen mainly in terms of commerce and capital, grew into an absence of informal empire in that Latin American territory. Thus, in a brief essay laden with lengthy quotes from historical sources, Malcolm Deas (173-186) destroys any hypothesis of the Colombian example being one in which the weapons of the weak triumphed over imperialistic advances, as he removes agency from both the British and the Colombians due to their mutual lack of intent.
The opposite seems to be the case with Brazil. Brazil has always had a perturbing influence in British desire and imagination, but what has commonly been emphasised is the active role of the British ‘males’ over the passive, virginal, ‘female’ Brazilian, and, by extension, the Latin American realm. This Louise Guenther deems rather restricted, and so she goes on to offer a brilliant playfully deconstructive counter-reading not only of the metaphorically sexualised ‘bed’ of the market (211) but also of hilarious cultural products like a Brazilian version of an old but still virginal Sherlock Holmes, in both of which the artful seductions of the locals have a powerful position in the overall framework of the Anglo-Brazilian relationship (208-228). But that role, Guenther convincingly argues, has usually been translated by the metropolis into cultural stereotypes that strengthen the initial sense of difference and ironically displace the taboo regions of sex and desire into an external feminised other. This distorted ambiguous version is what eventually becomes one of the most potent motivating factors in the actual enactment of informal empire.
majority of the scholars contributing to Informal
Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce and Capital
are therefore reluctant to confirm the possibility that
informal empire was actually enacted by Great Britain
upon Latin America in the nineteenth century. As Andrew
Thompson remarks in his firm final exploration, most of
them show a tendency ‘to construct informal empire as
a category (analytically distinct from the formal
empire) rather than as a continuum (along which
regions of both formal and informal rule can be positioned...)’
(231), which may also explain the very noticeable drive
in most of the essays to either justify or deny the covert
agenda of informal empire in Latin America. Read as whole,
though, the volume offers a remarkable search for informal
empire as a useful interdisciplinary working hypothesis.
As such, it works at its best when the roles played by
the presence of British capital in Latin America (especially
Argentina) are emphasised, and it shows a proclivity to
weaken when the cultural and social aspects of Anglo-Latin
American relationships are studied. In explanations taking
into account the latter issues, the local peoples of the
Americas occasionally retain their agency and sometimes
share the helm with the British in the voyage of mutual
in many of the articles these peoples are generally regarded
as classes such as the estancieros in the text
by Rock, and, even when they are examined as subjects,
they are usually taken as metonyms for the classes for
which they stand. As Peñaloza seriously observes, little
is said in the book about ‘those groups who did not benefit
from the elites’ partnership. How do such groups fit within
these seemingly balanced dynamics of power?’ (151). An
answer to this question would entail further exploration,
Thompson suggests, into ‘the ways in which class relations
have been embedded in capitalist structures’ (236). Seldom
are other regions of Latin America surveyed in which empire
seems to have vehemently worked in the nineteenth century.
Though such cases have generally involved disputes over
actual territory more than over the less tangible matters
of capital and commerce, they are worth considering as
well. Think, for example, of the Zona de Reclamación
ascertained by the Venezuelans or the Argentine sovereignty
claim over the Malvinas/Falkland Islands, both of which
took shape around the 1850s. Though of relatively minor
relevance, these cases may direct our gaze towards the
improvement of our knowledge about the British who actually
settled in the Americas and of the factual relationships
they established with the peoples and the places as subjects
and agents of their own histories, a proposal also encouraged
by Thompson. It may also have helped to have broadened
the scope of the book which, for the most part, focuses
on Argentina, and for which, therefore, the intention
of the title of rethinking informal empire in Latin
America appears to some extent unattainable.
the propensity to cast off informal empire as a pertinent
description of the British presence in Latin America seems
to work together with the inclination of some authors
to advance the idea that the hypothesis does work to describe
US interests in Latin America in the twentieth century.
Both Knight and Deas, for instance, finish their papers
suggesting such a possibility. This, on the one hand,
may be read as persistence in shedding the British from
any genuine intent in enacting empire on the Latin American
stage. On the other hand, if Latin America has always
existed in the shadows of several empires, it would also
be worth analysing the ways in which, perhaps not only
through capital and commerce, Britain has often had a
strong hold on the region even in the twentieth century.
Consider, for example, the potent presence of British
English Language Teaching (ELT) in Argentina and Brazil,
the significant growth of British capital in the circum-Caribbean
region, even in embargoed Cuba, or the privileged diplomatic
relationships of Great Britain and, say, Chile. In order
to avoid unintentionally excusing the powerful from the
definite enterprises they embark upon and of involuntarily
excluding issues which really cry out to be considered,
in times of a growing Knowledge society, the voice of
Latin American specialists – noticeably underrepresented
in Informal Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce
and Capital – should also be fostered so that the
metropolitan sources do not become the only or the final
word on informal empire and so that we do not run the
risk of potentially promoting a new concealed type of
Gallagher, John and Robinson, Ronald with Denny, Alice,
‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’ in Economic History
Review (Glasgow) 6:1 (1953), pp. 1-15.
Pratt, Mary Louise, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing
and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).
Stoler, Ann Laura, ‘On Degrees of Imperial Sovereignty’
in Public Culture (Durham, NC, USA) 18:1 (2006),
Enrique Alejandro Basabe, Southern Illinois University,
Carbondale, USA, and National University of La Pampa,
I am very grateful to Enrique Alejandro Basabe for such a thorough, balanced and kind review. His article contains many astute and stimulating observations on the wider research agenda of which the book forms part. I agree wholeheartedly that scholarly precision about exactly which type of actions could have constituted imperialism can often degenerate into terminological naval-gazing. I hope that the book avoids this – though a certain degree of historiographical contextualisation was inevitable – in its attempt to uncover and explain the effects of the foreign presence in Latin America in the (very) long nineteenth-century. Basabe observes that the agency of subaltern groups and individuals can sometimes be neglected in the historical chapters that attempt grand analyses. It should be clear from both my Introduction and Andrew Thompson’s Afterword that the future research project that we advocate puts this question at the heart of its analysis.
The book does tilt rather towards Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, as the reviewer observes. As I explain in the Introduction, this was a conscious editorial decision aimed at providing a degree of coherence for a selection of chapters that, as Basabe correctly notes, take very diverse methodological approaches, and often disagree quite sharply on matters of interpretation. Cuba and Mexico, for example, were both discussed at some length at the original conference. I am planning a follow-up conference and volume which will widen the analysis to the regions omitted from Informal Empire in Latin America, and onwards into the twentieth century, while maintaining the broad inter-disciplinary approach which I think is one of the book’s main strengths.
At the end of the review, Basabe observes that ‘the voice of Latin American specialists [is] noticeably underrepresented’. I understand this to mean that there should be more chapters by scholars born in or working in Latin America. There were many such individuals at the Bristol conference who presented excellent papers and who contributed fully to the discussions and dialogues which shaped the published chapters. The choice to include papers in the published volume was taken on editorial grounds in which methodological diversity and thematic coherence were privileged, rather than the origins or affiliations of the authors. The suggestion that such decisions ‘run the risk of potentially promoting a new concealed type of informal empire’ is interesting and provocative. I make a similar point myself in the Introduction (p.4).
One aspect of the book that Basabe does not mention but which seems relevant to bring up in this forum is the stark absence of the Irish as an analytical category, or even as a group worthy of special mention, throughout Informal Empire in Latin America. Though I was aware of this as I edited the book in 2007, the importance of the Irish in the informal empire has become especially clear to me through my current research project on the Battle of El Santuario, which I hope to publish within the next eighteen months. Once again I gratefully acknowledge the SILAS grant which allowed me to travel to El Santuario in 2007. Was it just a coincidence that so many of the principal figures of British informal empire in Latin America in the nineteenth century were of Irish origin? This is another area where the study of British imperialism in Latin America lags far behind work on, say, Australia or Southern Africa, where scholars have worked to fragment the supposedly homogenous ‘British’ into the multiple and often internally conflictive national and regional groups serving the empire. In the next stage of this collaborative research project I hope that we will be able to fully bring out the extent to which ‘British informal empire’ was an umbrella under which many different peoples from across the globe sought opportunities in Latin America, be they Irish, Cornish, German, Indian or Chinese, and to analyse and explain their many as yet untold encounters with the full spectrum of social groups across the region.
Matthew Brown - Asturias
30 April 2009