Glaswegians in Buenos Aires: British Informal Imperialism in Latin America

By Jordan Buchanan.

In 1924, the Member of Parliament for Swansea West, Walter Runciman, claimed that ‘there are more Scotsmen in Argentina than there are in Glasgow, and our trading in Argentina is of the greatest importance.’[1] His address to parliament was directed at soliciting its support for British traders in Argentina as Britain’s dominant position there was declining. Why was the Latin American republic of such importance? and why were so many Scotsmen there? Popular knowledge of Britain’s relationship with Latin America has diminished over the years. However, between 1870-1914 Britain was firmly connected to the region’s development. Simultaneous with the infamous activities of British imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes was the emergence of British capitalists’ supremacy in Latin America. This blog-post elaborates on how British informal imperialism functioned in the region in order to explain why the presence of Glaswegians was prominent in Buenos Aires.

Export-led economic development in Latin America facilitated the rise of Britain’s leading role in the region. The liberal economic order of the late nineteenth century created a new system of global capitalism that Europeans dominated.[2] After Europe’s industrialisation, it traded its capital-intensive goods for the land-intensive goods of the world’s non-industrialised economies. To take advantage of Europe’s growing need for agricultural products, the Latin American republics exported the raw materials for which they held a comparative advantage such as wheat, beef, guano, coffee, minerals and nitrates.[3] As Britain was the major consumer of the region’s export-products and the largest importer of industrial goods into Latin America, it was the central protagonist in Latin America’s export-led development. Consequently, the concept of “informal imperialism” surfaced.

The trade relationship between Britain and the Latin American republics was the major feature of British informal imperialism in the region. Because British traders significantly contributed to Latin American economic development between 1870-1914, they exercised great influence over the decision-making of the region’s governments. The outcome was that British capitalists profited from free trade in the region and secured markets for their industrial products – Scotland’s industrial output included.[4] Therefore, historians such as P.J. Cain and A.G. Hopkins argue that this relationship equates to an informal imperial dynamic.[5] British commercial actors coerced local Latin American governors and exporters’ actions, which made this an imperialist paradigm. It was informal because it did not require official imperial administration.

The case study of Argentina’s foreign trade exemplifies how British informal imperialism functioned. During Argentina’s economic advance between 1870-1914, the republic orientated its economy to export agricultural products to fuel economic growth. Roberto Conde claims that ‘without any doubt, the crucial factor in the growth of the Argentine economy in this period was the existence of foreign demand.’[6] Britain’s requirement for foodstuff made it the key market for Argentina’s exports. Accordingly, Argentina’s dependency on British economic activity emerged. It was dependent on British economic demands and decision-making in order to maintain its economic growth. Argentine merchants relied on British trade, while the Argentine statesmen relied on the custom taxes from this activity to finance development projects.

Corresponding with the exports of Argentine foodstuffs, primarily wheat and beef, was the importation of British industrial goods to Argentina. Coal, iron, steel and textile products were the main industrial goods that Argentina imported from Britain by 1914.[7] This trade was lucrative for British capitalists as Argentina provided a secure market for their products. Britain optimised its exportation of industrial goods to Argentina with export values growing from £2,346,000 in 1870 to £19,120,000 in 1910 – a vast increase of 715%.[8] Evidently, Britain and its financial stakeholders gained substantially from the relationship with Argentina. Coinciding with the high-point of Britain’s imperial expansion, capitalists and tax collectors in the island kingdom could confidently expect financial reward from this relationship.

Scottish traders and settlers also enjoyed the fruits of this informal imperial paradigm. Access to Britain’s imperial networks facilitated their activity in Argentina. As David Rock highlights, Scottish migrants went as farmers and missionaries to the republic to take advantage of the opportunities there.[9] Moreover, many Scots who travelled to Argentina went to sell British commodities.[10] Scottish merchants arrived with the durable goods that the Argentine consumers desired. Scotland’s contribution to Britain’s industrial surplus was a key influence on why British goods appeared in such high numbers on the import pages of Argentina’s trading accounts.[11] By producing capital-intensive goods, Scottish capitalists supported Britain’s commercial connection with Argentina. Glasgow was the major industrial city of Scotland, and consequently traders from the city’s enterprises went as agents of empire to sell British goods in Buenos Aires.[12]

In conclusion, Britain’s informal imperial relationship with the Latin American republics was based on economic exploitation. Industrialisation and capital accumulation provided the economic power for Britain to wield commanding influence over Latin America’s economic trajectory. British traders across the country benefited substantially from the relationship. Hence, the Member of Parliament for Swansea West had strong incentives to advocate for Scottish merchants in Argentina as they took advantage of the commercial prospects that the British-Latin American connection had to offer them.

Author’s Bio:

Jordan is one of our coordinators and editors at the Scottish Centre for Global History. He completed his MA in History and Politics at the University of Dundee before obtaining his MPhil in World History at the University of Cambridge. His current research focuses on the consequences of the Panama Canal in Latin America between 1914-29.


[1] U.K. Parliamentary Papers. “Commons Sittings of Wednesday, 17 December, 1924.” Accessed from:

[2] Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. (London: Abacus, 2004).

[3] Skidmore, Thomas; Smith, Peter & Green, James. Modern Latin America, Seventh Edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 353-357.

[4] Bulmer-Thomas, Victor. The Economic History of Latin America Since Independence, Third Edition. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). p. 50-63.

[5] Cain, P.J. & Hopkins, A.G. British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914. (Essex: Longman Group, 1994) p. 265-273.

[6] Conde. ““The Growth of the Argentine Economy, c. 1870-1914.” In: Bethell, Leslie (Editor). The Cambridge History of Latin America, Volume V: c. 1870 to 1930. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) p. 356.

[7] Tornquist & Co. The Economic Development of the Argentine Republic in the Last Fifty Years. (Buenos Aires: Tornquist & Co., 1919) p. 150-166.

[8] Ferns, H.S. Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century. (New York: Arno Press, 1977) p. 492-493.

[9] Rock, David. “The British of Argentina.” In: Bickers, Robert (Editor). Settlers and Expatriates: Britons over the Seas. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[10] Rock, David. The British in Argentina: Commerce, Settlers and Power, 1800-2000. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) p. 1-42.

[11] Tornquist & Co. The Economic Development of the Argentine Republic in the Last Fifty Years. p. 150-166.

[12] Devine, T.M. and MacKenzie, John M., “Scots in the Imperial Economy.” In: Devine, T.M. and MacKenzie, John M. (Editors). Scotland and the British Empire. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) p. 230-235.

Select Further Reading

  • Abel, Christopher & Lewis, Colin (Editors). Latin America, Economic Imperialism and the State: The Political Economy of the External Connection from Independence to the Present. (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, 1985).
  • Bethell, Leslie (Editor). The Cambridge History of Latin America IV: c. 1870 to 1930. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
    • The Cambridge History of Latin America V: c. 1870 to 1930. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  • Brown, Matthew (Editor). Informal Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce and Capital. (Oxford: Blackwell; Society for Latin American Studies, 2008).
  • Devine, T.M. and MacKenzie, John M. (Editors). Scotland and the British Empire. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • Edmundson, William. A History of the British Presence in Chile: From Bloody Mary to Charles Darwin and the Decline of British Influence. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
  • Ferns, Henry S. Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century. (New York: Arno Press, 1977).
  • Gallagher, John & Robinson, Ronald. “The Imperialism of Free Trade.” Economic History Review, 6, No. 1 (1953), p. 1-15.
  • Miller, Rory. Britain and Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. (New York: Longman Publishing, 1993).
  • Platt, D.C.M. Latin America and British Trade, 1806-1914. (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1972).
  • Rock, David. The British in Argentina: Commerce, Settlers and Power, 1800-2000. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
  • Thompson, Andrew. “Informal Empire? An Exploration in the History of Anglo-Argentine Relations, 1810-1914.” Journal of Latin American Studies, 24 (1992) p. 419-36.