British trading companies in South America after 1914

Robert Greenhill and Rory Miller

Since 1960 the British trading companies in Latin America have attracted a fair amount of scholarly attention, taking the analysis beyond the largely narrative histories of individual firms which had appeared before then. 1 Until the 1980s the normal context for this research was the debate over informal imperialism and dependency. The principal sources were merchant archives which had become available in London and, to a lesser extent, Latin American documents such as notarial registers and tax schedules. Historians published studies of particular houses (Mathew 1981), the British merchant community in a particular country or port (Reber 1979; Mayo 1987; Cavieres 1988), and the overall influence and impact of British firms (Greenhill 1977a). Analysis of the merchants from this perspective culminated in a short but sharp exchange over the extent to which their influence on Latin American economic development had been positive or malign (Ridings 1985; Marichal 1986; Platt 1986).

At just this point the subject was transformed by the injection of more orthodox business history perspectives. In their preoccupation with questions of power and influence, Latin American specialists had paid relatively little attention to other central questions. True, they had identified the 1870s, when the transatlantic cable was inaugurated, as a crucial turning point which had forced the major British trading houses to reorganise and take advantage of their specialist skills, knowledge, and access to the City of London (Miller 1993:97-105). However, very few historians had ventured beyond 1914, the traditional terminal date for studies of economic imperialism, and issues such as business strategy, management and organisation had remained marginal.

The impetus to the change of focus came from three directions. First, Stanley Chapman’s concept of investment groups based upon trading houses encouraged a better understanding of the relationships between British merchants in Latin America and the extensive array of companies floated on the London Stock Exchange (Chapman 1985). Second, Mira Wilkins’ idea of the free-standing company as the primary conduit for British overseas investment took Chapman’s formulations further. Wilkins identified merchants as one possible core for clusters of free-standing firms, and, like Chapman, drew attention specifically to the British houses operating in South America


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