This book focuses on British performance in trade with Latin America, particularly in competition with Germany and the United States. It is not much concerned with the fate of Latin American efforts to develop exports or the effects of British trade relations upon Latin America.
The author aims principally at refuting S. B. Saul’s Studies in British Overseas Trade, which sees in Britain’s declining position in Latin America after 1880 an index of a general sapping of British competitiveness in industry and commerce. Platt argues that Great Britain’s declining trade position in Latin America was only relative. The British, Platt avers, could not expect to maintain forever, and in a rapidly-growing market, the overwhelming monopoly that they enjoyed in the less dynamic years up to 1880. Secondly, the decline was only partial and selective. The British remained predominant in most markets, and particularly in the most lucrative ones—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay—until 1914, losing their dominance only in Mexico and the Caribbean (to the United States) and more generally in certain sectors such as chemicals and electrical goods (to Germany). Thirdly, and most importantly, Platt argues that the relative decline of British hegemony in Latin America must be seen not solely in terms of British-German-North American competition in Latin America but also in the context of the total world economy. Platt emphasizes that the British tended to slip in Latin America after 1880 largely because they were much more interested in the richer, more concentrated markets of Europe, the United States, and, of growing importance, the Empire. Concentrating upon rapidly growing Empire markets, the British tended to give way before the more aggressive Germans in most places in Latin America except Argentina, the only Latin American market which retained striking importance to the British. Seeing the problem in the context of British imperial interests, Platt argues that it was not the British who were in a bad way between 1880 and 1914 but the Germans who, lacking a colonial empire, had to fight for a place in the insignificant markets of Latin America.
Platt devotes the first fifth of the work to a preliminary discussion of the years 1806-1860. Building his case for the insignificance of Latin America’s markets to British merchants, he emphasizes that the great leap in trade after 1806 was of short duration; it represented not the beginning of a continuous expansion but rather primarily a response to temporary demand created by the disruption of former lines of supply during the Independence struggle. British merchants soon found Latin American markets poorer than they had supposed and trade slackened everywhere but in Brazil. Platt also stresses that between 1820 and 1850 Latin American markets were limited by a considerable amount of residual domestic production, particularly of goods for lower-class consumption. For the pre-1880 period this point is argued impressionistically from scattered comments in travellers’ accounts but is not convincingly documented. It is reasserted more persuasively for the post-1880 period when import-substituting manufacturing clearly was developing.
Discussing Britain’s relative decline after 1860, Platt makes clear that British interests were able to maintain their position beyond what might be expected. The United Kingdom never was a leading consumer of such Latin American primary products as Brazilian coffee and Colombian tobacco, yet throughout the pre-1850 period the United Kingdom succeeded in maintaining itself as the leading entrepot even for these products. This situation could not last, however, and after about 1850 Latin American exports flowed directly to the Continent, opening the way for more active Continental competition in the import trade. Between 1880 and 1914, Britain’s role as a consumer of Latin American products declined further as the United Kingdom turned increasingly to the Empire for mutton, wool, wheat, rubber and tin. At the same time British exporters, concentrating on Empire markets, failed to match the Germans in Latin America in sending out sales representatives and tailoring products to the demands of a particular market. Though hardpressed by their German competitors, the Britons were able to retain their edge in importing through the aid of longstanding commercial and financial relations, continuing strength in shipping, investments in railroads and mining (which brought equipment orders), and a competitive advantage in sales of coal.
This is a markedly Anglocentric work, written not only from a British perspective but also almost entirely from British sources. Within these limitations it is highly instructive. Undoubtedly the British consular reports upon which the bulk of the work is founded are among the best sources on trade and general economic conditions, particularly for 1870-1914. The author might have found it a useful corrective of perspective, however, to have consulted more extensively the consular reports of Britain’s prime competitors. Reliance solely upon British sources appears in some cases to have led him to underestimate the competition.
A more serious weakness lies in Platt’s use of statistics, which is often irritatingly unsystematic and incomplete. In discussing British, North American and German shares of trade in a particular time and country, he sometimes will provide data on one or two of the competitors, discussing the third in vague literary terms if at all (pp. 290-293, 300). The author is not above presenting the carefully selected extreme statistic as a representative one. And he is given to misleading uses of noncomparable statistics. For example, whether intentionally or not, he tends to magnify the scale of British sales of locomotives by giving the figures for 1890-1913 (3,090 to Latin America, of a total export of 13,899), while for the United States presenting only figures for 1906 (292 exported of a total production of 2,374) (p. 241). The statistical material in the tables could have been presented more helpfully, for example, by providing totals to go with the disaggregated data. In some places graphs, in place of or accompanying massive tables, would have made the material more immediately meaningful (e.g., Appendices I and II).
If the book is weakened by unsystematic use of statistics, its strength lies in its shrewd perception of the institutional realities underlying the statistics. Platt is not the sort of historian who draws from statistics broad macroeconomic trends and then guesses at hazard what must be happening. He has a good grasp of the nuts and bolts of business operations and the actual conditions and considerations affecting commercial decisions in the period he covers. The result is a book of nuance and sophistication. Within the limits of the author’s perspective, and of the questions he has set himself, it is an, extremely useful and informative work.