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Scottish pioneers in Argentina

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From the 1860’s onwards Argentina experienced dramatic development. The fertile lands of the pampas became geared to the massive export of products to Britain and Europe. A second brutal campaign against the Indians finally subjugated and dispossessed them, territories were re-occupied and secure settlement extended as far as the frontier with Patagonia.

Immigrants, especially from southern Europe, arrived in growing numbers, some moving on into rural areas while others swelled the populations of Buenos Aires, Rosario and other urban centres. The introduction of railways revolutionised internal conununications, stimulating the movement of exports and imports, and helping to weld together the widely separated provinces and communities.

Similarly, expanding steamship services and the advent of refrigeration promoted trade with Europe and the United States, so that by 1900 some twenty five percent of foreign commerce was with Great Britain. And, with many of the old constitutional conflicts resolved and Buenos Aires formally established as the federal capital, greater political stability coupled with great prospects of profitable investment in land and services, stimulated huge capital investment from Britain and France in particular.

Meanwhile, the settlement of Patagonia Austral was under way, administrations were established and immigrants encouraged to establish or work on sheep stations, so that by the turn of the century a major export trade had been created.

Scottish Merchants In the 16th century, when the River Plate provinces were part of the Spanish Empire, some British merchants had established trade links. Thus, a 1734 census of foreigners in Buenos Aires recorded over sixty Britons, and to judge from the names alone, some were probably all Scots – Robert Barclay, William Stuart, William Dickie, John Gibson and Thomas Maccadam.

Hume Palace was built for a Scottish Railway Magnate in Alvear Avenue Buenos Aires

Still, the uncertainties of relations between Britain and Spain and the restrictions on foreigners owning property and operating commercial houses impeded development.However, with the beginnings of the revolution against Spanish rule in the early 1800’s, when the new authorities lifted some restrictions, merchants were better placed to trade and to become permanent features in the expanding commercial and social society of Buenos Aires.

In these years before and after independence in 1816, several Scots established merchant houses in Buenos Aires, among them John and William Parish Robertson, Thomas Fair, John Miller, John Orr, George MacFarlane, Alexander MacKinnon, David Spalding and John McNeile.

They came from various parts of Scotland and it seems probable that many if not all of them already had experience in trade and associations with the wealthy merchant community in their homeland. Also, they had sufficient personal wealth or the financial support of others in Scotland to enable them to establish themselves in the existing commercial world of Buenos Aires, where they had to develop contacts with Argentine merchants and landowners.

Most of them seem to have adapted successfully to their new environment, laying the foundations of an increasingly prosperous business community.Their success, based upon offering new services, providing superior products at low cost, opening up new markets and taking risks in anticipating demands for goods and services, encouraged others to follow them.

Lists of Scottish merchant houses in the 1820’s include, Brown, Buchanan and Co., Dickson, Montgomery and Co., Anderson, Weir and Co., John Gibson and Co., Stewart and McCall, and Duguid and McKerrall, as well as long established names like Daniel MacKinlay and William Parish Robertson.

Later they were joined by others, among them Duncan McNab, David Methven, Juan Smith, James Dodds and Thomas Drysdale. According to a British visitor to Buenos Aires in the 1820’s, “The majority of British merchants are natives of Scotland, proverbial for their talent and activity in trade” [An Englishman (George Thomas Love)].

Perhaps the writer’s enthusiasm led him to exaggerate the role of Scots in the larger community of British merchants; nevertheless, their achievements were very significant, especially when set against the uncertain background of political and military conflict that bedevilled the country in the first half of the 19th century.

However, their prosperity rested not only upon business acumen but also on their relationships with one another and, importantly, with the Argentine community. This latter relationship was strengthened by acquiring knowledge of the culture and language of their hosts, forging common commercial, property and political interests and, for some, through inter-marriage. Several of these early merchants married into Argentine families, for example, John McNeile whose marriage in 1813 was reported in the “Greenock Advertiser”: ‘Married: July 1, at Buenos Aires, Mr. John McNeile, merchant, to Donna Pasquala de las Talegas, with a fortune of 400,000 dollars”, and Dr. David Reid, a Catholic convert, who married a sister of Bernardino Rivadavia, first president of the independent Republic.

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  • 25/07/2020

    This book is the story of some of their forebears, gleaned from the archives, by tracing descendants and, finally, a trip to Patagonia. This surprising collection of stories finally brings their family histories to an audience on this side of the Atlantic’. Their extraordinary and little-known story of this largely uncharted aspect of the Scottish diaspora is told in the book above providing a picture of the lives and conditions they faced and mastered in the early days of sheep farming on the other side of the globe.` Tales of adventure, hardship, determination and success provides the origins and backgrounds, successes and failures of those pioneers who created a new life far away from their homes and families and contains stories of endurance and determination against the odds; accounts of death and disaster, but most of all tales of how the Caithnessians conquered Patagonia and built successful businesses to the extent that today their descendants are integral to many aspects of Patagonian and Argentine society’.

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