More `anglo-criollo’ than British: early `British’ investments in Argentinian railways and utilities

Colin M. Lewis

The paper examines the origin and early development of investment in two key areas of overhead social capital: railways and public utilities. Conventionally characterised as sectors dominated by foreign capital, it will be argued that many companies operating railways, tramways and other public services in the Argentine in the formative decades of the 1850s to the 1880s are more accurately described as `mixed’. While the nature of the mix varied from company to company, or sector to sector, a common feature was the presence of both `London’ and `Buenos Aires’ money in the majority of enterprises. This phenomenon was not peculiar to railways and utilities. A bi-national character may be observed in corporate initiatives - formation, funding, management and operation - in many fields. Yet, arguably, it is in these sectors that an anglo-creole partnership has been most ignored - or most readily forgotten, possibly due to the apparent dominance that London-registered railway and utility companies had come to assume by the early twentieth century.

The first part of the paper examines the context within which railway and utility enterprises operated. It outlines current debates about Argentinian growth and presents stylised facts on the British-Argentinian connexion from around the middle of the nineteenth century until the end of the twentieth. These long-run surveys connect with analyses of railway and utility enterprises at a number of points. First, because of the causal relationship between investment in social overhead projects and growth. Secondly, because utilities and railways came to epitomise strategies of export-led growth and an `over-commitment’ to staple production, held by some to be responsible for the subsequent erratic growth experience of the country. In short, the character and composition of social investment touches on the current re-examination of the historic growth record. Thirdly, because the political economy of responses to contemporary assessments of `slow-down’ in the inter-war period were influenced by the apparent hegemony of British finance in the railway and utility sectors. The presence of foreign capital in these strategic areas exercise policy-makers and analysts of the period and has had an enduring impact on subsequent scholarly discussion. The latter part of the paper charts the early history of utilities and railways, from the formation of pioneer companies to sector consolidation around the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth century. The main arguments presented here are: (i) that in the formative period of development, most enterprises were anglo-criollo, involving the participation of domestic (private and public) and foreign interests; (ii) that technical innovation - in management and operating technology - and the macroeconomics of growth around the 1880s triggered major reorganisation - at company level and across the sectors; (iii) that the erosion of the anglo-criollo character of these enterprises had an adverse impact on their operations and perceptions of them in the Argentine - not least because by the turn of the century, most Argentinians experienced daily contact with London-registered railways, urban transport systems, and water and power entities.