Uruguay was never really considered part of the formal British Empire, but it is commonly used as the typical illustration of Britain’s informal empire. Most studies on the relationship between Great Britain and Uruguay during the 19th century are economic and political. Missing are the social and cultural responses of the British colonists to what they perceived as an alien and dangerous environment.
The British colony in Uruguay was never more than 2000 strong, but during its apogee, between the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, the colony certainly wielded enormous economic power. This small group of British subjects became immersed in the local population: the native criollos, who, although they were all third- of fourth-generation descendants of European origin, were nonetheless considered culturally inferior. The British leaders of the colony in Uruguay defined the classic cultural and social strategies to combat and defeat the most profound fear of the Late Victorian period: turning native.
The British settlers in Uruguay during the first half of the 19th century were businessmen and adventurers, and usually some combination of both. From the exports of the great raw materials of Uruguay’s grasslands were created some of the great fortunes of the South American continent. From behind the flag of commerce the British kept coming, and, as in the other regions of the colonized world, the flag of civilization was raised next.
British investors saw an opportunity, and big landowners were the first to grab it. Modernization in Uruguay came by the way of British investors who monopolized the public services, communications and finances. By the time of the Baring crisis, Uruguay’s public debt was held in London. As no British investors would let their money get in the hands of criollos – seen as lazy and corrupt – a small army of British administrators and professionals came to manage it. And with them came Victorian women to establish the Victorian family and to cement the first bricks of the cultural walls of the growing British colony in Uruguay.
To establish a colony, two elements were deemed necessary.
First was the need for numerous settlers. During the last decade of the 19th century that necessary number was apparently reached. Although 2000 doesn’t seem like much, they were all concentrated in Montevideo and worked and lived in the same neighborhoods.
Second was the need for leadership. The British colony was lucky during this period to have two of the most inspiring ones of the century: Ernest Satow and Walter Baring. There was no British embassy in Uruguay, but there was a legation. The British ministers in the last decades identified themselves with their British subjects and participated strongly in all the communities’ activities. Satow and Baring did not came to Uruguay as a sideline of their diplomatic career. They put all their strength and heart behind their official appointment. Baring also had the support of his family, which was very popular and a great help in all the colony’s entertainments. Spiritual guidance also came by way of two Anglican clergymen. Based on the Falkland Islands, they were always at hand and travelling constantly to Montevideo.
The leaders of the colony, with the help of the leading businessmen, established the guidelines. It was decided that the British settlers needed cultural and social activities to protect them from the ‘native temptations’.
In the late 1880s, the first newspaper in the English language, The Montevideo Independent, was founded. It was short lived as it depended on commercial activities based on Baring Bros. loans, which collapsed alongside the fortunes of the company. But from the Independent’s ashes came the River Plate Times, which then became The Montevideo Times from 1892 until its demise in 1934.
Its editor and owner was William Denstone, from the ultra exclusive and high-cultured English Literary Society of Buenos Aires (Argentina), and was founder of the Entertainment Society of Montevideo. This society was responsible for organizing theatrical and musical events for the British community in Montevideo. One of its finest moments was in 1890 when it produced the first Gilbert & Sullivan musical in South America: HMS Pinafore. These cultural activities demanded a physical place. So in 1905 the Victoria Hall theatre was inaugurated.
With the British family came the need for a proper British education system for British children. The English School for Boys, and later the British Schools were founded to give solutions to those families who couldn’t send their children to England. A correct ‘British’ upbringing was essential to instill in children their necessary Victorian values, and, more importantly, to keep barbarian values from taking their place.
The health of the Montevideo British community was in the charge of the doctors of the British Hospital, and for those unlucky few, there was a distinctly British Cemetery, which was run jointly by the British Hospital Society and the British Cemetery Society.
The social aspect was not forgotten.
The English Club was founded much earlier, in the mid 18th century but grew in prestige during this period. It functioned much like its Scottish counterpart, which had its great day in the yearly Saint Andrews dinner – full of malt whiskeys, haggis, and hangovers.
One of the great British exports and stalwart of British culture – sport — was also introduced in Uruguay.
Working both as a byproduct of education and a leisure component, sport and social clubs proliferated in Uruguay. The Montevideo Cricket Club, which still exists, is one of the oldest sporting clubs in South America. Other clubs of the period, many of them also still in operation, include: Montevideo Rowing Club, Montevideo Golf Club, Montevideo Polo Club, Albion and, the most famous, the Central Uruguayan Cricket Club [CURCC], which has become universally known by its criollo name, Peñarol, after the Central Uruguayan Railway Company decided to eliminate the club from its statutes in 1905.
All these institutions were deemed to be necessary in order to make Uruguay a ‘civilized’ and friendly place for those strangers in a strange land, the British settlers.
It’s difficult to understand how such a small number of people had such great economic power in my country. It’s also difficult to understand why so few needed so many institutions to maintain their Britishness. But it certainly gave them ample activities and excuses to congregate.
With the 20th-century decay of the British Empire, the British colony in Uruguay also started to retreat. Even still, 200 Uruguayan volunteers went to fight in the Great War, 21 of whom died in action. By the mid 20th century, the high noon of the British colony had passed, but still 250 Anglo-Uruguayans volunteered for the Second World War, although at this point the volunteers were as criollos as the native Uruguayans, something that would have been unbelievable to the first members of the British colony of Uruguay.
Alvaro Cuenca holds degrees from the University of Uruguay, the University of London, and the University of Leicester. He has authored multiple books on British colonialism in Uruguay, including the forthcoming Duty and Adventure: Anglo-Uruguayan Volunteers to the Second World War.
 Except during a brief three month period when the ill-fated Auchinleck expedition to the River Plate occupied Montevideo, then the capital city of the Spanish viceroyalty’s Eastern Province.
 See, especially, Peter Winn, ¨British Informal Empire in Uruguay in the Nineteenth Century,” Past and Present 73 (1976): 100-126; and Winn, Inglaterra y la Tierra Purpurea (1997).
 Another newspaper, The Uruguay Weekly News, soon appeared as a short-lived Debating Society.