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Adventurers, Emissaries and Settlers: Ireland and Latin America
27-30 June 2007, National University of Ireland, Galway

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Adapting to conditions: W. R. Grace & Co. in Latin America

Lawrence Clayton (University of Alabama)

“For myself,” William wrote, “I like the Peruvians I always enjoyed their society & I never looked upon them as more deceitful than [other] people….The English in foreign lands, I never liked; they are, in my experience, presumptuous & self-opinionated;…yet in England, I have met very many pleasant good fellows, but I confess I think the Peruvians are pleasanter company & more kindly & benevolent in their character.”[1]

This paper is about how W. R. Grace & Co. adapted so well to its host environment in Latin America for over a century of successful business enterprise, especially Peru.

The company was founded by an Irish immigrant to Peru, William Russell Grace (183?-1904) in the 1850s. He went to Peru in 1854 with his father and a number of other Irish immigrants who had been contracted to work in the country. William soon branched out in his own endeavors, joining an English firm in Peru, Bryce Brothers, in serving the growing guano fleet as ship’s purveyors. From this start, William laid the basis for the development of the most successful trading company in Peru, W. R. Grace & Co., that dominated trade and economic relations for a hundred years until the late 1960s when the Peruvian Revolution of 1968 and its own divestment policy brought the company’s presence in Peru to an end.

In the meantime, the legacy of “Casa Grace,” as it became known among many generations of modern Peruvians, was quite remarkable, based on policies established by its founders who included a number of brothers, cousins, nephews and other relatives William brought in to work with him in the second half of the nineteenth century. William’s business philosophy is summarized in part by the epigraph above. He cultivated among his family and “foreign” employees—largely Irish relatives in the beginning but expanding to include other Europeans and Americans as the company evolved—an attitude of respect for and immersion in the culture and language of Peru. As the company grew, first along other West Coast countries of South America, then into other parts of Latin America to include virtually all of the region by commerce and trade, by investments in industries (mining, textiles, sugar, paper, etc.) by the steamers of the Grace Line, or the graceful airliners of Pan American Grace Airways (Panagra) founded as a joint venture with Pan American in the late 1920s, so did the tone for the company’s “cultural” presence in Latin America. 

This was not an enclave economy, nor was W. R. Grace & Co. targeted by nationalists in the twentieth century for the sins long associated with aggressive European and North American imperialism in the region. It developed a distinct beat, and this paper will explore that theme. There is no denying that it was, in fact, a very aggressive competitor with sharp business acumen and a nose for profits and expanding economies. In the same breathe, in Peru it was “Casa Grace,” and by the middle of the twentieth century most Peruvians thought of it as a Peruvian company, whose headquarters happened to be located on Hanover Square in downtown New York City. 

How this somewhat anomaly came into being will be the subject of this presentation of an “Irish” house in Peru, whose founder, William Russell Grace, also was elected as the first foreign born mayor of New York City in 1880!

[1] Marquis James, Merchant Adventurer: The Story of W. R. Grace, with an introduction by Lawrence A. Clayton (Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, 1993), p. 137.

Online published: 24 April 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

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