Tuesday, April 17, 2007


A politically-minded Canadian posed a question a while back : if Canada and Argentina have similar natural resources, and are both former European colonies, why is one now a G8-powerhouse, and the other struggling to keep its head above water?

I´ve returned to Felipe Pigna´s excellent The Myths of Argentinian History this week. Pigna is keen, as a popular historian, to return people and politics in his country´s history, and to rid Argentina of what he calls an "historical anaesthesia. As in the UK (and, as I found out while chatting to three Californian girls recently, it is far worse in the US), Argentinians are taught a very watered-down version of their history. Anything cutesy is left in, anything that might challenge the existing order, or make people think that the demands of 18th century rebels are still prescient today, is swept under the carpet. So perhaps the chapter of early 19th history in which the British became involved in Argentina is one we should be aware of, especially since there are frightening parallels with geopolitics today.

But first, back to my Canadian friend´s question. The answer that Pigna offers is this :

The key to the development of the U.S., Canada and Australia does not lie in English colonization – which in all three countries was brutal, cruel and bent on genocide – but in the development in each of these countries of a bourgeoisie, selfish and abusive as they are wont to be, but which nonetheless had the sense to link the fate of their fortunes to the economic growth of their respective countries, something that never happened in Argentina.

Instinctively, this makes sense. After all, British involvement in Argentina was a product of the two great revolutions of the bourgeoisie : the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain had seen off the feudal order through economic necessity. The development of industry created markets, rather than simply responding to existing ones. Combined with an expansionist foreign policy, rapid economic growth via a capitalist model was inevitable. The nobility had no choice but to make way.

In France, the bourgeois socio-economic Revolution happened the other way around. The old system of Absolute Monarchy and nobility, which tried to assert itself with zeal in the face of the new meritocratic capitalists, had to be destroyed if France was to have any chance of competing with Britain. Between 1689 and 1812, France and Britain fought five wars, four of which Britain won. The need to establish capitalism in France, along with an alliance with the USA, made revolution inevitable.

The values of “liberty, equality, fraternity” (which, of course, were something of a front for bourgeois capitalist values) had not yet reached Spain, where Absolute Monarchy prevailed. The administration of Latin American colonies was bungled and chaotic, and popular movements (such as that of Tupac Amaru, descendant of the last Inca King, in 1781) were springing up, calling for an end to Spanish rule. The British saw that, by supporting independence, they might open the door to new markets on the continent. For, as we well know, absolute rule in resource-rich states is objectionable only when we are barred from trading in them.

As early as 1741, a plan was circulated in British circles regarding the liberation of Latin America :

It is convenient for a free people such as the English to place other countries under the same condition, for English trade would benefit from the existence of free nations in South America, and thus England would gain positive friends and allies.

The way that Britain acted in trying to expand and protect its markets reflects the policies of the US today, as Pigna notes :

Like every hegemonic power in history, from (the Industrial Revolution) on the English state would set a double standard, manifested in the duplicity of its commercial policy : at the national level, the State would implement tight protectionist policies in order to protect industrial development, but at the foreign level, it would promote and impose free trade for its products to compete freely and to purchase raw materials in peripheral countries at a menial price : “Do as I say, not as I do.”

In 1796, Spain joined the Alliance with Napoleon against Britain, a tactic on Napoleon´s part to take control of the seas as well as the European mainland. As the junior member of the Alliance, the Spanish King Charles IV financed Napoleon with silver and gold from Peru (at this time, two thirds of the wealth extracted from South America went direct to France). In 1804, Britain decided to intercept a two million pound shipment of treasure outside Cadiz. It was a successful expedition, no doubt, but it was evident to Britain that Napoleon would eventually set his sights on conquering the New World, in order to profit from the remaining third of the riches that Spain was keeping for itself.


To prevent such an invasion, the policy favoured by the British was the liberation of the continent, and the consequent exploitation of its markets, its raw materials and its slave-labour. The impasse between the Spanish and the French on one side, and Pitt´s Britain on the other, made a war inevitable. In October 1805, after very heavy losses on both sides, the Battle of Trafalgar was concluded in Britain´s favour.

The British had gained control of the sea, a victory which at once exposed the mutual dependence of war and capital. The Battle of Trafalgar should not be celebrated as a victory for democracy over absolutism (as Hobsbawm has noted, by 1815 most Englishmen were probably poorer than they had been at the turn of the century, while most Frenchmen were richer), but merely as the defeat of one imperialist power by another. For the people of Latin America or the West Indies, the result was immaterial. Slavery and exploitation were guaranteed for many years to come.

The interests of British industry made the commercial potential of the Spanish colonies in America irresistable and in April 1806, a 1500-strong fleet entered Buenos Aires and occupied it. The response of the Spanish summed up their dwindling position : Viceroy Sobremonte sent instructions to "Retreat to the fort to obtain an honourable capitulation." His thoroughly dishonourable surrender, supported by porteño property-owners, included the handover of over a million silver pesos to the British, which were swiftly deposited into the Bank of England. Manuel Belgrano, who would become Argentina´s first General after independence, summed up the submission as succinctly as anyone : "Merchants don´t know of any homeland, king or religion other than their own interest."

The old guard in Buenos Aires welcomed the British occupiers with open arms - they too saw the potential gains of the world´s leading capitalist power being based in their city. Some black slaves also initially welcomed the British, believing that they had come to free them. Such a notion was, naturally, swiftly and violently quashed by the British General, the Viscount of Beresford. The rest of the city´s middle-class was rather more muted in its support, believing that the British would leave as soon as the situation became disadvantageous to their European interests.

And as for the majority of the city, they proposed a pox on the houses of both the invading British and the incompetent and corrupt Spanish. Plans were signed by motley groups of guerrillas to blow up British positions. But the British were eventually kicked out in August 1806, after the French Commander Santiago de Liniers led a fleet from Montevideo to Buenos Aires and ordered the British commander to surrender. Men, women and children joined the fight, killing English soldiers with whatever came to hand, and Beresford surrendered.


So the British were no longer in charge ; but really, nor were the French or the Spanish. The insecurity engendered by this power vacuum was a factor in paving the way for independence. Urban militias were created to protect the city, and members of the militias began to get political, discussing the future of their home, and democratically electing leaders and officers. The conservative elite - who, after all, had armed the people to resist British invasion in the first place - became concerned at the people´s new found, and increasingly vocal, confidence. They were worried that those very same arms could be used against themselves - a fear which, just four years later, would be entirely justified.


Blogger Kirsten said...

It is hard to compare two countries that are so different in culture, history and traditions. I believe Canadians had a more developed civilization that was more productive.
When I travelled to Argentina, I rented one of those furnished apartments in buenos aires so that gave me the opportunity to talk to natives. They do not regret what they did, so we should assume they don´t feel they are in a bad situation.

2:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home