With a keen eye for detail both revealing and amusing, Desmond Gregory has read the first accounts of British travelers to Latin America (except for Central America and the Caribbean) during that region’s opening to the English-speaking world between 1810 and 1830. His method has been to group these travel books—often impressively bound and illustrated with etchings—according to the countries they describe and then to take the reader on a lively and entertaining ramble through them. If that sounds like fun, it is. Readers totally unfamiliar with nineteenth-century travel books on Latin America (like almost all our undergraduate students) will come away with a vivid impression of these outlanders’ diverse activities and strikingly chauvinistic attitudes. What such readers will learn about Latin America itself, however, is a bit more questionable, and most professors will find Brute New World (despite its rather nouveau-sounding title) to be, well, interpretively antediluvian. But then this is a study of businessmen, travelers, and diplomats, not truly a study of Latin America.
What Gregory, who has written four previous volumes on the British presence overseas, does best is tell stories and deploy anecdotal information. Rarely, though, does he provide a fresh interpretation of his subject. The British who ventured to Latin America were generally disappointed and repulsed by their experiences. They found Latin Americans slovenly, lazy, and priest-ridden. Such a rich land, so wasted on its inhabitants! Official emissaries scoffed at the public and political life of these “so-called Republics.” The market that British traders so eagerly sought (and so poorly understood) turned out to be much smaller than they expected, and irate British merchants fumed perpetually at corrupt and inept customs officials. Mercenaries in the service of patriot armies and immigrants hoping to found agricultural colonies almost invariably left in frustration. British capital invested in mining ventures—invested in anything, really—was very often lost.
This is a story we have heard somewhere before. Gregory does tell it with zest and authentic sympathy for “the poor and primitive people” (p. 116) who had to suffer the disdainful incomprehension of outsiders, and he explains Latin American poverty through reference to centuries of colonial misrule and vast geographic barriers impeding economic development. The author criticizes British ignorance of markets and cites the very real inadequacy of commercial infrastructure, such as port facilities and financial institutions. On the other hand, his interpretation has not been influenced by the notion of economic dependency, nor is it impelled by any particular interest in such analytical categories as class, gender, or race—matters the travelers themselves hardly neglected. This suggests the real weakness of the book. Without an analytical compass of some sort, intellectual travelers do tend to wander; and the chapters of Brute New World likewise lack a meaningful itinerary. Instead, readers are at the mercy of the guide’s idiosyncratic enthusiasms (for meticulous descriptions of the colorful uniforms worn by British mercenaries, for example)—which really will not do when the tour is sponsored by an academic press.