Some books are so exhaustive in research, so meticulous in documentation, and so careful in exposition that they are taken for granted and not read. I hope that this does not happen to Professor Rodríguez ’ fine study of Frederick Chatfield. It is true that gaps in the historical record have forced the author occasionally to resort to tedious explanation of the evidence, and that scarcity of personal correspondence has dictated a heavy reliance on official papers. Despite these minor hindrances to reading enjoyment, however, the book should be read, for it is an excellent example of how to combine rigid standards of scholarship with lucidity of expression. Professor Rodríguez’ extensive research in the archives of the United States, Central America, and Europe, his careful attention to the available evidence, and his sensitivity to the human element in foreign relations have produced a superior portrait of a significant British imperialist.
Frederick Chatfield was the leading British agent in Central America from 1834 to 1852, first as consul and later as consul general and chargé d’affaires. This period virtually coincided with Lord Palmerston’s long tenure in the British Foreign Office and with the time of Great Britain’s greatest influence in Central America. The negotiation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850, the dismissal of Palmerston in 1851, and the dismissal of Chatfield in 1852 signified the end of this era and the beginning of systematic British retrenchment in Central America. In the days of British ascendancy Chatfield added his own aggressive interpretation to Palmerston’s high-handed policies. Making full use of British claims and often backing them up by force or the threat of force, Chatfield secured favors for his countrymen and his country. Often he edited documents and correspondence which he sent to the Foreign Office in order to further his own imperialist interpretation of British foreign policy. Although the Foreign Office did not always condone or even know of his unscrupulous methods, the effect was the same to the Central Americans. Thus Chatfield both formulated and executed policy, especially in extending British control over strategic points on the Central American isthmus. The author believes that “Chatfield did commit Lord Palmerston to an aggressive, imperialistic stand in Central America,” and he challenges other historians to investigate other Palmerstonian underlings with a view toward explaining their influence on British policy.
Chatfield’s influence on Palmerston may still be subject to debate, but Professor Rodríguez lays to rest one historical controversy. With regard to the impact of Chatfield’s policy on Central American union, Rodríguez emphatically states that Chatfield did not further the breakup of the Confederation in 1838. In fact, at that time Chatfield “was a positive influence upon unionism.” Later, however, mindful of the danger of union to Great Britain’s territorial positions in Central America, he aligned himself against re-creation of the Central American Republic. The latter position gave rise to the common Central American belief that Chatfield was partially responsible for the collapse of the Confederation.
In the short run the Palmerston-Chatfield approach to foreign policy was effective. In the long run, however, it may have done British interests in Central America more harm than good. Virgilio Rodríguez Beteta offers support for the latter interpretation in La política inglesa en Centroamérica durante el siglo XIX, a collection of 40 short articles originally published in a Guatemalan newspaper during 1961 and 1962. One hundred and ten years after the departure of Frederick Chatfield from Central America, Rodríguez Beteta still finds it worth while to flail the zealous British agent. Although perhaps more restrained and less colorful than Central Americans of the 1840s, the author’s opinion is the same—that Chatfield was the embodiment of Perfidious Albion. Relying upon such anti-British, nineteenth-century writers as Lindley M. Keasbey and Lorenzo Montúfar and ignoring the recent investigations of Richard W. Van Alstyne and Robert A. Naylor, the author sees no difference between the agent Chatfield and British policy. The British simply wanted all the territory they could get, they uniformly opposed union, and they were intent upon wresting Belice from Guatemala. Far from claiming objectivity, the author candidly admits that he might better have called his book, “The Execrable History of English Diplomacy in Central America from Independence until the Definitive Spoliation of Belice was Consummated in 1859” (p. 127). This title would incidentally have been accurate as to the period covered, for the author does not deal with the last forty years of the nineteenth century.
In short, La política inglesa is designed for Central American patriots, A Palmerstonian Diplomat for serious students of British policy in Central America.