The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 3

By William Roger Louis; Andrew Porter et al. | Go to book overview

7
Britain and Latin America

ALAN KNIGHT

'Spanish America is free,' George Canning, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, exulted in 1824, 'and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.'1 Now almost a cliché, the quote has regularly served to justify including Latin America within Britain's notional informal empire. Historians of empire, protagonists of dependency theory, and Marxist theorists from Lenin onwards, have all in their different ways seen the fall of formal Iberian imperialism in the New World as the prelude to British informal imperialism.2

How valid is this view? First, British formal imperialism, characterized by territorial possession, was not unknown in the Americas south of the 49th parallel. Bits of Central and South America were painted red, but almost by definition these were not bits of Latin America.3 Tiny though they were compared to the great expanses of the continent or the British Empire, they generated local concerns, relating to security, frontiers, contraband, and they occasionally excited local ambitions, mild versions of the 'sub-imperialism' which powered British expansion elsewhere. Trinidad and British Guiana provoked conflicts with Venezuela and, indirectly, with the United States; British Honduras, whose existence galled Guatemala, was seen by visionary British officials as a pivot for naval and commercial power oil the Central American isthmus.4 In contrast, the Falkland Islands, seized by Britain in 1833, remained a diplomatic dead letter for nearly a century.5

____________________
1
Wendy Hinde, George Canning ( London, 1973), p. 368.
2
John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, "'The Imperialism of Free Trade'", Economic History Review, VI, ( 1953), pp. 1-14; Philip J. O'Brien, "'Dependency Revisited'", in Christopher Abel and Colin M. Lewis, eds., Latin America, Economic Imperialism and the State ( London, 1985), pp. 40-69; Anthony Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism ( London, 1980), chap. 7.
3
British Honduras and British Guiana, while part of the Central and South American mainland, were never effectively controlled by the Iberian empires; lacking the historical and cultural prerequisites of Latin America, They are conventionally bracketed with the Anglophone Caribbean.
4
G. E. Carl, First Among Equals: Great Britain and Venezuela, 1810-1910 ( Syracuse, NY, 1980), pp. 93-97, 108; Joseph Smith, Illusions of Conflict, Anglo-American Diplomacy toward Latin America, 1865-1896 ( Pittsburg, (Pa., 1979), pp. 205-08.
5
H. S. Ferns, Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century ( Oxford, 1960), pp. 227-33.

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