Through refinement and elaboration of a doctoral dissertation written two decades ago, Harold Blakemore presents us with a monograph on a significant topic. His book focuses on Chile’s nitrate industry during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Somewhat dryly written, the chronological narrative draws upon both primary and secondary sources, represents careful research, and devotes con siderable attention to historical detail through notes and references. Let us briefly review the six chapters which comprise this work.
The first chapter describes Chile in the nineteenth century, noting political and economic developments to 1886, specifically: 1) the pattern of British investments in Chile; 2) the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) in which Chile took the Peruvian province of Tarapacá and rich deposits of nitrate; and 3) the involvement in nitrates of an English engineer, John Thomas North. These developments are tied to an analysis demonstrating an increase of British control over nitrates from 13 percent in 1878 to over 70 percent in 1890.
Second is a discussion of the “kingdom” built by North, with attention to the nitrate fields of Tarapacá, the nitrate railways, a waterworks company, a bank, and a provisions supply company and other interests. The market for nitrates was unstable, and into this uncertainty North cast his dealings and emerged a wealthy entrepreneur.
The threats to North’s hold over nitrates during 1889 and 1890 are discussed in a third chapter. Playing upon publicity by promoting himself, North was able to impress London society. But his success was suspect in some quarters, namely the press which began to expose the weaknesses of his control over Chilean nitrates.
The 1890 crisis in Chilean nitrates was brought on by an overstocked world market and a fall in nitrate prices, as analyzed in a fourth chapter. Blakemore weaves a discussion of the economic crisis with the political crisis prompted by President Balmaceda’s efforts to enhance his power. He plays down a major interpretation that Balmaceda, pursuing a policy of economic nationalism, found himself opposed within Chile for economic reasons. Stressing political differences between Balmaceda and Congress, Blakemore also deemphasizes the view that North was an incarnation of British imperialism.
A fifth chapter deals with the civil war of 1891 in which Balmaceda held the support of the army, and rebels seized the nitrate province of Tarapacá. Blakemore argues that evidence of complicity of nitrate interests in the revolution is weak, and that Balmaceda’s downfall was the consequence of the domestic political situation. In any event, North’s maneuverings in Chilean nitrates continued until his death in 1896.
In an epilogue Blakemore makes explicit his position. He counters interpretations of Marxist historians that the Chilean ruling class operated in concert with foreign capitalists on behalf of their own interests and against progressive Chilean nationalists such as Balmaceda. He refutes as myth the notion that Balmaceda held clear ideas about state intervention in the economy. He aligns with the opposition to the Allende government which condemned as perversion the fact that Balmaceda was used as an example of anti-imperialism. In setting this position Blakemore acknowledges the intellectual influence but criticizes the interpretation of Chilean Marxist writers such as Hernán Ramírez Necochea and Julio César Jobet. There may be some justification in Blakemore’s conclusion that “their views have been adopted, without, it must be said, any attempt at critical evaluation, by other influential social scientists seeking to provide easily-understood explanations for the complicated reasons for underdevelopment in Latin America” (p. 245). For whatever the weaknesses in the work of some Chilean and other Marxists, their framework will continue, in the mind of this reviewer, to provide for new significant analysis and interpretation. By identifying his own position in juxtaposition to that of the Marxists, Blakemore helps the reader to relate his own interpretation to the facts of his case study.