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British management of labour in the sheep farming industry in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego


Rio Seco waterfront. The yellow shed on the left was part of the old frigorífico. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.
Rio Seco waterfront. The yellow shed on the left was part of the old frigorífico. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.

My PhD project in History at the University of Warwick (fully funded by ANID Chile) explores the practices of British management of labour in the sheep farming industry of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. I received SLAS funding for a research trip in Chile.


In Punta Arenas, the main city of the Chilean Patagonian region of “Magallanes y la Antárctica Chilena”, there is a town near the Strait of Magellan called Río Seco. Between 1905 and 1964, people from this place mostly made a living from freezing work and working in the slaughterhouse and were employed by the meat industry. The place people worked is known locally as the frigorífico, and is the premises of “The South American Export Syndicate”, owned by the London-based shipping company “Houlder Brothers Company”. The connections between the British capital and this frigorífico during more than half of the twentieth century were evident, with periodic visits of ships steams to load chilled mutton for exportation to England, with sheep imported from the Falkland Islands or New Zealand decades before and now locally produced in estancias (farms) used for the extraction of wool. Moreover, the directors, managers and some of the high-ranking employees in the frigorífico were English men who moved in different circles from the rest of the workers.


My research trip to Punta Arenas and Santiago (Chile) saw me working on different aspects of my project. One was interviewing workers about their memories. I heard about some of their experience of working and living around the frigorífico, including herding sheep, slaughtering animals, and loading in the docks, recalled by elderly former workers, employees, and families who recounted their own experiences of living there during those times. Some of their stories were even based on what their fathers and grandfathers had told them. At least some of these memories were collected in interviews as a pending part of a project in collaboration with a team formed by the Museo de Historia Natural Río Seco, located in the buildings of the former frigorífico. This collective work was one step in the research trip, and special thanks go, therefore, to Camila Oliva, Miguel Cáceres, Aymara Zegers, and Jorge Grez, in addition to all the team, and to the communities of Rio Seco. I would also like to thank Soledad Arriado, Juan Carlos Barrientos, Hilda Díaz, Pablo Foglia, Esteban Lopizic, Rafael Navarro, Jorge Santibáñez, and their families for sharing part of their lives with me.


Biblioteca Municipal “Gabriela Mistral”. Punta Arenas, Chile. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.
Biblioteca Municipal “Gabriela Mistral”. Punta Arenas, Chile. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.

In addition to the work in Rio Seco, I spent time researching in libraries and archives between late December 2021 and mid-April 2022. During this trip, I focused on finding information for case studies on some managers, including one from the Río Seco frigorífico: Thomas Price Jones. The question I want to answer is: how have managers from the British world developed systems or practices of management of labour and work discipline in their sheep farming establishments? By gathering information from various social actors, from above and from below, I seek to understand the forms of British colonialist domination through the management of labour. Here, the interviews from the community in Río Seco have helped me create a picture of the working practices of the British directors and managers, including Jones, which is complemented by information from some business records, newspapers and journals. To collect that information, it was possible for me to work in places such as the Museo Regional de Magallanes, the Biblioteca Municipal in Punta Arenas and the Biblioteca Nacional in Santiago. My thanks must go to the staff of the museum and both libraries, who made my inquiries and investigations possible.


The information found in newspapers and journals was not limited to Jones. Other managers also appeared in publications, such as “El Magallanes” or the labour-owned “El Trabajo”. In the latter, managers such as the English man Thomas Burbury and the New Zealander Alexander Allan Cameron are constantly mentioned as perpetrators of various abuses against the workers. Here, further triangulation of sources is possible thanks to the availability of a large amount of information in business records. Cameron and Burbury managed the emblematic case of the “Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego” in 1905-1915 and 1915-1923, creating the biggest sheep farming company in Chilean Patagonia with most of the lands used to establish estancias and also another frigorífico. Most of this company’s ledgers and documentation are available in the library and Centro de Documentación Fuegopatagonia in the Instituto de la Patagonia, Punta Arenas (some documents are also available in digital format: http://www.bibliotecadigital.umag.cl/). Here, the staff have kindly provided me access during January and February to work in the collections, for which my thanks also go to them.


Reading room of the Archivo Nacional Histórico. Santiago, Chile. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.
Reading room of the Archivo Nacional Histórico. Santiago, Chile. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.

Unlike the case of the “Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego”, most of the old business records from other late-nineteenth-century estancias, or even from the mid-twentieth century Rio Seco frigorífico, are unavailable, as they were mostly destroyed some time ago, or at least lost in private places that are currently impossible to reach. Information about managers such as Jones was more challenging to find in comparison with Cameron and Burbury. This was even more challenging with other case studies, such as the one relating to the Scottish landowner Thomas Saunders. With less information, only a few business records, newspapers, and journals had just enough information for me to use as the basis for an interview with his grandson (thanks to Mr Michael Saunders for the information provided about his family and, mainly, his grandfather). The search for people related to my case studies was also supported by contacts made thanks, for example, to Duncan Campbell and Gladys Grace, administrators of The British in Southern Patagonia website (patbrit.org). Their website has also helped me find Mrs Marie Boyd and Mrs Elise Molkenbuhr, descendants of former Rio Seco frigorífico employees who kindly granted me an additional interview while I was in Punta Arenas (thanks to them too, of course). Indeed, my research has required this ongoing contact with individuals and communities. That has been really heart-warming.



Front of the Archivo Nacional de la Administración. Santiago, Chile. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.
Front of the Archivo Nacional de la Administración. Santiago, Chile. © Nicolás Gómez Baeza.

Last but not least, I visited the buildings of the National Archive of Chile in Santiago. My final thanks go to the staff of those establishments. The collection of governmental sources, from the Labour Directorate and the judiciary, provide as valuable an insight into day-to-day life as the business sources, shedding light also on the link between British managers and the Chilean authorities in the disciplining of workers and also on the struggles that coordinated practices provoked.


It is important to note that the biggest challenge of my trip was the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. However, the staff who began to open libraries and archives, as well as people who took the time and care to bring us together to do the necessary work, made this research possible. Thanks again to them and to my family and friends who welcomed me. Undoubtedly, the materials gathered on this research trip (which was initially intended to be carried out earlier) will be essential for my thesis. For me, in particular, it is exciting to be part of the reconstruction of labour history in the region. Thanks again to SLAS, as without the funding provided, collecting the essential data in Chile and the conclusions I can draw would not be possible.


Nicolás Gómez Baeza

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