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Cheviot Sheep, Red Coats and Argentina's DesertsEddie Zawaski Salem-News.com
Recalling the irreversible damage from Britain's third invasion of Argentina.
(PATAGONIA, Argentina) - While enjoying an afternoon of World Cup Football with some of my neighbors here in northwestern Patagonia, I thought halftime would be a great opportunity to ask the folks next door just what their opinions were on the Islas Malvinas/Falklands Islands controversy that seems to be heating up again.
Our hostess for the game gathering had trouble saying the word “Falklands” as the word got stuck in her mouth and just couldn’t come out.
Everyone else laughed easily, commenting that there were just too many consonants jammed together in the word to make it pronounceable and that the correct Spanish name was Malvinas. After all, someone chimed in, if we invaded and occupied Hawaii and renamed the islands “Islas de Peron”, you wouldn’t use that name, would you?
As we batted around the issue of the significance of a name, another member of our group got a small smug smile on his face, the kind of look he always gets when he has something pithy to say and is just waiting for the opportunity to unleash his wisdom.
“The problem with the British,” He began slowly to be sure all, even the foreigners present, would understand him, “is that they run around the world leaving their waste on everyone’s doorstep and then they ridicule us for complaining about having to clean up their mess.”
Everyone else laughed, but I wasn’t quite sure what he meant and so asked for clarification.
“I’m talking about the big desert here east of the mountains. It was all those sheep they brought over here from their colony in the Malvinas that turned the land into desert.”
It was the third British invasion of Argentina. The neighbor sitting next to him held up three fingers, nodded and winked. “Those were the first three,” he chuckled as he opened his hand to expose more fingers, “There were more, but only a few were done with Armies. Banks are a much more efficient way to control a population.”
The first two British invasions took place in 1806 and 1807.
In 1806, Buenos Aires was not technically Argentina but a territory of Spain. Since Spain was an ally of Napoleon in his war with Britain, the English figured that raiding and occupying Spanish colonial territory was fair game. The Seventy-First Highland Regiment that disembarked from a British man-o-war made a strong impression on the merchant community in the city. The upper classes welcomed the handsome young soldiers, certain that neither Spanish authorities nor their scruffy gaucho neighbors would lift a finger against British presence. While the Spanish slept, a local defense militia quickly formed and drove the British troops back into the sea.
A year later, Britain sent a force to capture and occupy Montevideo across the river mouth from Buenos Aires and then use Montevideo as a base from which to launch a second invasion. Despite the larger force, the result was the same. A ragged crew of local common folk put the British army to flight again.
“We have to be very thankful to the British for those invasions,” one of the other neighbors chimed in. “After beating the British twice, we had all the confidence we needed to successfully revolt against Spain a few years later.”
“But what about the the invasion of sheep? How did that connect with the Malvinas?” I was eager to get an answer before half-time ended because I knew no one would discuss history or politics during the game.
“You can find the answer in history books. It’s a story that’s well-known here, but largely ignored by England and the rest of the world. Look up the facts and you can put the pieces together for yourself.” With that, the teams were back on the field and I was left with my historical sources, most of them British, to put my neighbors’ comments into historical perspective.
The current continuous British settlement of the Islands dates back to December of 1832 when the Royal Navy arrived to take control of a struggling Argentine colony and reestablish an earlier British claim. The First real colonists from Britain came in 1841 to try their hand at cattle ranching and boiling down the native rockhopper penguins for oil. It wasn’t long, however, before the native cattle on the islands were hunted down close to extinction and the penguins had nearly run out too. So they turned to sheep.
In 1852, the first boat load of cheviot sheep arrived and the colonists became sheep ranchers, producing wool for English mills. The cheviots proved well-adapted to the Islands’ harsh climate and within two decades, the islands were a major wool exporter. Sheepherders from small holdings in Scotland were lured to the islands by promoters who promised hundreds of acres each for those willing to make the long voyage and endure the Scotland-like climate in the far South Atlantic. But how did the sheep manage to enlist the islander’s help to launch an invasion of Patagonia itself?
Bruce Chatwin tells us:
Certainly, no one considered this an invasion at the time, but by the time the sheep were done, they had spread completely through Tierra Del Fuego and what are now the Patagonian provinces of Santa Cruz, Chubut and Rio Negro. The Scottish sheep ranchers, who called themselves Malvineros, had reached their limit on the islands and saw the vast steppe in Patagonia as the fulfillment of their colonial dreams. While a 600 acre spread on the islands could provide only a modest living, the mainland held the promise of riches that come from running huge spreads of thousands of acres with hundreds of thousands of sheep. This colonization of the southern cone of South America was made easy by the cooperation of weak Argentine authorities and the legal maneuverings of a small group of European immigrants in Punta Arenas, Chile, who called themselves “La Anonima.”
Right up until the 1920’s Patagonia was a vast wilderness. European style civil authority stopped at the Rio Negro on the Argentine side of the Andes and at the city of Valdivia on the Chilean side. The native Mapuche and Tehuelche tribes were few but had fiercely resisted any incursion by the “civilized” people of the north. Entry into this area, however dangerous, was made easier by the fact that ownership of the land was still up for grabs.
Claiming possession of some old Spanish land grants (possibly forged), the three recent immigrants in Punta Arenas proceeded to parcel off huge chunks of property to peddle to the newly arrived Englishmen in search of good pasture.
At the outset, the sheep ranchers mostly didn’t have cash to buy the land outright, but their signature on a joint deed with La Anonima was good enough for Menendez, Braun and Nogeira to take to Barings Brothers or any other big British bank to secure a loan to be used in building their own commercial empire. At one time, Mauricio Braun, himself, controlled over a million and a half hectares (4.5 million acres). British banks were making big investments in Argentina, so much so that by 1930, Argentina was the destination of 9% of the Empire’s overseas capital and 39% of the money flowing into Argentina was coming from British banks.
Argentina was the capital of the “unofficial” British Empire and Patagonia was the most thoroughly British part of South America.
A colonist from the Malvinas could show up in Punta Arenas with some sheep and, with the help of the crew at La Anonima, soon be on his way to own or manage a huge estancia of anywhere from 70,000 to 250,000 acres. Where there was no traceable title to the land, Menendez, Braun and Nogiera made it up. If the assent of Argentine authorities in Buenos Aires was needed, it could be secured with a small donation and the Argentine government of that era could usually be satisfied with a modest loan from a British bank on friendly terms. Corrupt Argentine government officials were no impediment to incoming British colonists; they were their principal asset.
Land held by British citizens was more often than not held in the name of a British Corporation like the Southern Argentinean Land Company, Ltd. In this way, the individual owners could retain some anonymity and exercise political pressure on both the Argentine and British governments through their corporate representatives in London. When the Southern Argentinean Land Company sold off the 90,000 hectare (235,000 acres) Estancia Leleque to the Italian Benneton family in 1990, there were rumors in Argentina, never substantiated, that the British Royal Family was the actual recipient of the sale price. Whoever these investors were, they had provided the cash for the land that the colonists would use to provide the wool that was raw material for English manufacturing.
For a while, things went well for the Scottish Malvineros on their new estates in the deep deep south. Wool was in high demand and their sheep were reproducing prodigiously. The hundreds and thousands of sheep they had brought over from the Malvinas became millions and they became millionaires. Some of the great haciendas they built still stand today, many now converted into upscale resorts that reflect the opulent lifestyle of their original owners. At the end of the First World War, however, this corner of the Great British Empire began to unravel.
With the end of the great war, the price of wool plummeted to less than a third of its pre-war price. The Malvineros were forced to store wool rather than ship it and they had big labor problems to boot. During good times, they had imported labor for the fields and shipping terminals and now that they were strapped for cash, paying the help was a luxury they thought they couldn’t afford. Many of these new laborers were immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who were veterans of revolutionary struggles in Russia, Germany, Italy and Spain. The workers responded to their new working conditions by forming themselves into syndicates dedicated to united action in support of worker’s rights. They boycotted, occupied and struck leaving the already crippled wool empire totally paralyzed. The owners had to do something.
The Patagonian sheep magnates appealed to the Argentine authorities in far off Buenos Aires for help. President Hipólito Yrigoyen sent a small military delegation to clean out the worst of the so-called rebels and effect some sort of peaceful solution to the impasse. A few European revolutionaries were sequestered and deported, but most melted away into the vast stretches of the Patagonian steppe to show up later at some port or sheep ranch 500 miles further south. The Argentines also brokered an agreement between the owners and workers whereby the workers would be paid a small monthly sum and receive some candles and a few other small comforts. When winter came in mid 1921, the Argentines returned to Buenos Aires and the situation returned to what it had been before. The owners paid nothing and the workers returned to strikes, boycotts and occupations. The only difference now was that the workers began raiding company stores in a desperate attempt to ward off starvation.
In early spring of that year, the owners called for help again, but this time they appealed directly to London and not to Buenos Aires. The British government contacted the Argentine president directly and told him in no uncertain terms that he was to send a force down to Patagonia to rid the estancias of rebel workers and if Argentina was unwilling or unable to do so, there were two ship loads of British troops that would be sent to Patagonia to pacify the ranches. The Argentine president Yrigoyen at once sent a Colonel Varela to the south with a license to kill and kill he did. By the time Varela was through, over 1500 striking workers had been slaughtered, 500 of them in one day at the big round barn at Estancia Anita just 28 km from the town of El Calafate. This ended the big anarchist uprising in Patagonia, but it did not restore the fortunes of the ovine empire of the south.
In the decade that followed the slaughter of the workers in Patagonia, the sheep reached their peak. By the early 1930’s the effects of running 30 to 50 million sheep year after year over the land had become apparent. The delicate Patagonian steppe grasses could not withstand the onslaught of so many sheep and most of the land had turned to desert. The eight or nine million sheep remaining there today are confined to the estancias close to the Andes where there is sufficient water and pasture to support them still. However, in dry years, the situation even in these less arid zones is not good for these animals. In the winter of 2006 a half-million sheep perished in Chubut Province alone from hunger and thirst.
As the steppe turned to desert and the sheep population crashed, so, too, did the British colonists in Patagonia begin to disappear. Some of the lucky early settlers did manage to scoop up their fortunes and return to Britain for a comfortable retirement while most of the rest of the early sheep magnates are buried in the British cemetery in Buenos Aires. The next generation who stayed on in the wool business in Patagonia became Argentines. As successive Argentine governments extended increasing control over Patagonia in the 1930 to 1960, the descendants of the Malvineros managed to hang onto much of the land, but were never able to make it pay like it did in the first decades of the twentieth century. Despite surnames like Jameson and Jones, most of them today identify as Argentines and few retain the ability to speak English. Ironically, a number of the great grandchildren of the original Malvineros were among the Argentine soldiers who fought in the Malvinas in 1982 when the British military forcibly took the islands for the second time.
I was beginning to see what my neighbor was getting at about being left with somebody else’s mess to deal with. The land titles are one thing and the desert another. Much of this mess is quite apparent in the controversy that today circulates around the disposition of the lands included in Leleque.
Up until 1884, Leleque and much of the surrounding area, about 1.5 million acres of steppe grassland, had been the home of the Mapuche, one of the native peoples of Patagonia. An Argentine military campaign in that year, put an end to Mapuche sovereignty, leaving the land available for purchase by foreign investors. In 1896, Leleque, the surrounding lands and some large tracts further south were bound together in a bulk sale to the notorious Southern Argentinean Land Company Ltd.. According to the Mapuches, this is how it was done:
In 1896, President José Evaristo Uriburu (1895-1898) gave away 900,000 hectares, divided among ten farmsteads of about 90,000 hectares each — some of them 86,000, others 91,000, others 92,000, and others 96,000. He handed over the land deeds to ten English citizens in the presence of a public notary from the state capital, who despite being a public notary did not have the authority to do this.
If it’s not enough that the title to Leleque was mixed in with these so-called deeds awarded to ten unidentified British citizens who, in turn, entrusted their deeds to an anonymous land company, there is more to come. In the 1970’s, Argentina attempted to nullify the holdings of the land corporation claiming that non-resident foreigners could not own land in Argentina. Since the SALC was not a legally registered corporation in Argentina, neither could it hold title for anyone else. This threat of expropriation of British-owned land in Argentina prompted the creation Compañía de Tierras Sud Argentina SA, an Argentine shell company which continued to hold titles to the entire 900,000 hectares until they were sold in 1991 to Edizione Holding International, a division of the Benneton empire for 50 million dollars.
The Benneton clothing empire is the largest consumer of virgin wool in the world today and the 280,000 sheep they raise at Leleque provides them with 10% of their annual wool consumption. Unlike the former British owners in the twentieth century, however, the road for Benneton has not been so easy. Challenges to their right to exclusive use of this land for sheep have arisen from Mapuches who wish to re-occupy their former territory.
Mapuches who have attempted to resettle parts of Leleque have been thwarted by the new owners in various ways. Access to water for the Mapuche settlements has been cut off and eviction notices were served. In the case of the Mapuches at Leleque itself, they were made to move out to make way for a museum. This museum would present the history of Leleque for visitors, a history that omits the claim of the Mapuche to their ancestral land. The dispute, however, remains exclusively between the Bennetons and the Mapuches as the local Argentine authorities are fully aware of the murky history of the title to the land and characteristically do nothing when called upon to arbitrate by either side.
The ongoing dispute between the Santa Rosa band of Mapuche and the Bennetons is clearly a mess that has its origins in British land grabs in Patagonia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
What about the desert? Anyone driving from the Andes east to the Atlantic coast quickly notes how soon the green grasslands in the shadow of the mountains give way to arid sandy scrub land stretching all the way to the sea. On a recent trip across the desert, we stopped at Tecka, a settlement that surrounds the old headquarters of the great sheep farm that covered almost 200,000 hectares (500,000 acres). This place was once grassland like the area around Leleque, but today it is desert. The rocky, sandy soil is only occasionally broken by some struggling acantholippa that mostly line the roadside with cream-colored flowers. Beyond the tiny settlement and the road are large vistas of distant barren buttes and an endless sky. The road east out of Tecka is flanked on the north by the Tecka river, a tiny rivulet bordered by a canopy of hungry willows that simply disappears a few miles from the town. The next three hundred miles is desert and not much else, all the way to the coast.
At 260,000 square miles, the Patagonian Desert is the largest cold winter desert in the world, about 30% larger than the Great Basin Desert in the western United States. While the desert has been there for tens of thousands of years, its current size is 50% larger than it was a century ago. Geologists maintain that this rapid desertification of the western half of Patagonia is a product of human activity, principally mining and sheep grazing. Practically nothing can be done about this because humans have learned how to make a desert grow, but have not yet discovered any way to cause it to retreat.
By the time I was through looking up all the information I needed on the effects of British colonization of Patagonia, the world cup football game we were watching had long been over. The Argentine team had been eliminated by Germany and the neighbors had all vowed to root for another team from South America to take the cup. At least, one of the neighbors suggested, we didn’t have to play England. That would have been far too intense. If they beat us, they say it’s because we are lazy and corrupt and if we beat them, they will accuse us of cheating. Somehow, whenever England and Argentina get together, Argentina always comes out holding the bag.
“But what about the Malvinas?” I wanted my friends to tell me what they thought the prospects were for Argentina to wrest the islands from the grip of the British. “For the British, it’s all about oil now,” one of them opined. “They will give the islands back once they’ve drained every last drop of petroleum out of the sea bed and not a minute sooner. We learned a big lesson in 1982 and will never go to war again over the islands so all we can do is talk about it to whomever will listen. The UN listens and our neighboring countries in South America listen, but the British are deaf as they are to any of our complaints about anything they have done here.”
Eddie Zawaski is a contributing Salem-News.com writer based in Patagonia, Argentina.
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