An interview with William “Eddie” Edmundson, Author of “A History of the British Presence in Chile”
(Ed note. William ‘Eddie’ Edmundson was Director of the Chilean-British Institute in Concepción from 1984-1990. His career with the British Council has taken him to Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Cuba, and he now works as a consultant in Recife, Brazil.
In this interview with the Santiago Times, Edmundson talks about the history of Anglo-Chilean relations. His book on the same subject - 'A History of the British Presence in Chile' - was launched in Santiago last month and is available at Libreria Eduardo Albers, website texto.cl
Question: What do you think will interest our readers about your Book?
WE: It is the first comprehensive and accurate history of the British presence in Chile, so it will interest the Anglo Chilean community. One estimate is that there are 350,000 to 400,000 descendents of British immigrants in Chile. I also hope it will be held up as a reference for years to come, for those who are students of Latin America in general and Chile in particular. This book is really a history of Chile. The British were present at every twist and turn in Chilean history....
Q: So you feel the British were an intrinsic part of the development of Chile?
WE: They were protagonists, they weren't humble peasants or people who escaped poverty and persecution and therefore had no influence when they arrived. These were people who mainly arrived with money in their pockets. The first generation to settle down married the daughters of the Chilean land-owning class, and this is a phenomenon that you don't find in other countries in Latin America. That gave immediate entrance into the influential families and therefore the politicians. It is remarkable that at every turn of events, from 1554 when Mary Tudor became Queen, Chile right through to WWII, Britain or British visitors were present at every important turn and twist of Chilean history. You can’t say that of other communities. The British, in general, walked in the corridors of power or were instigators of events of great importance in Chilean history.
Q: Was British interest in Chile solely economic?
WE: I suppose so. There is a lot of economic history because of the nitrates and copper in the north; also the mining and importing of coal and the sheep farming in the very south. These three economic undertakings were extremely important. But then you have the story of the war of independence. The Navy commanders were all British. Look at the naval list: they were all Scottish, Welsh and English names, led as well by Lord Cochrane, the first admiral. There were tremendous numbers of British soldiers too.
Q: You also mention Darwin and the importance that Chile played in his work...
WE: Darwin spent 17 months in what is now modern day Chile. His 'On The Origin Of The Species' begins with the quote As naturalist in South America I was much impressed by the peoples that I met. This is what he met in Chile, nowhere else. The Fuegian Indians in Tierra del Fuego made him ponder on the species of mankind. They helped him realize that culture was just a veneer over humanity. He saw for himself that (these savages) could adopt manners and customs, and learn other languages.
Another thing - which if it hadn't happened there would have been no Galapagos and no circumnavigation of the world - was the earthquake which occurred in Concepcion when he visited. He realized that however despondent and depressed he and the crew of the HMS Beagle were, their lot was extraordinarily good compared to those who had lost everything in the earthquake. The captain decided to have another look at Chiloe and the southern coasts of Chile before they crossed the Pacific. This kept Darwin on board. He would have left otherwise. The earthquake in Concepcion made them stay longer.
Q: You write that there exists a unique 'mysterious sympathy' between Britain and Chile...
WE: It's no accident that the Chileans are often referred to as the 'English of South America.' I don't think that that is so much to do with the British influence, but more to do with what Britain and Chile share in common.
For centuries, until very modern times, Chile was an island, in all but name. You have the driest desert in the world, the Atacama to the north, the impassable Andes to the west and the forbidding ice fields and the Magellan straight to the south. Also the enormous extent of the widest ocean in the world: Chile was an island, just like Britain. That’s why I think the characteristics that people speak of about Chileans, the reserve, the formality and the gentlemanliness, the sense of identity and the great pride in history are characteristic of the British as well. That’s not so much because the British came here, but what they have in common and that’s part of the mysterious sympathy. I think the British throughout history felt very much at home here.
Q: What do you see as the future for Anglo-Chilean relations....?
WE: Clearly, there has been a decline of influence, starting from the First World War, compounded by the great depression, and what was left was hit on the head by WWII and by Britain's withdrawal from its empire. Britain maintained a close contact with Argentina through trading agreements, but Chile and other countries were left to fend for themselves, really. So I don't know what, if anything the future holds.
Q: When you worked here it was under Pinochet. Have you noticed a lot of changes in the country since your return?
WE: Not so many. Whatever you think about Pinochet, he had the wisdom to have an excellent minister of the economy. Governments since then, starting with Aylwin, a Welsh name, by the way, have continued with the policy laid down during Pinochet's time. The prosperity that was evidently on the close horizon when I lived here has mushroomed. I’ve been to Concepcion recently and I couldn't find the institute I worked in for six years without asking locals. In that sense it has changed. It is now a very prosperous country.
Q: As a person yourself, you speak with a lot of passion about Chile. You must have a lot of fond memories about the country?
WE: I love the country. It possesses a charm that stereotype's Britain as well, that people are simpatico. We wandered around yesterday, and everyone we talked to in Santiago was very engaging. Very friendly, but very respectful; it’s easier to relax here.
I also miss the mountains. My children had their early years here and every weekend we went camping, walking, skiing. I miss that. There is a place here its called the Sierra Belluda, its an extinct volcano that blew its top, next to the Volcan Antucho. I regard it as the most beautiful place in the world. I walked up there thirty, forty times, with my family and there was never anyone else there, just us and the condors. It was really, really beautiful. I really miss Chile. It has a sense of order, which you don't find in other countries in the region.
By James Fowler - Santiago Times