John Fraser
The Amazing Argentine: A New Land of Enterprise

The Amazing Argentine: A New Land of Enterprise
John Fraser

John Foster Fraser

The Amazing Argentine: A New Land of Enterprise



It was on a boat which was laden with bananas and running from Colon, on the Isthmus of Panama, to New York.

The steward called me at dawn. He thought I was mad because I stood in pyjamas without apparent heed of the mirky drizzle. Beyond the sad waters there was little to see but a low-lying and dreary island with a melancholy lighthouse. No vegetation brightened the scene. There was no gorgeous sunrise. There was nothing but a lump of barrenness heaving out of the sea. But this was the island of San Salvador, the western land which Columbus first touched when he sailed to find the Indies.

There are now near one hundred and fifty millions of people of European descent in the Americas. And a little glow came into my imagination that rain-swept morning when I felt I was the only traveller on the boat who had crawled forth to gaze at San Salvador. I tried to picture what thoughts must have crowded the mind of Columbus when he sighted this shore. He never knew what he had discovered for Spain. He could never have dreamt he was the first in the greatest invasion the world has ever witnessed.

A year later I was on an Atlantic liner. The fo'c'sle was thronged with poor Spaniards from Vigo and poor Portuguese from Lisbon. In the voyage across the Atlantic I had watched them in the steerage – tawny-visaged, easygoing men, and broad-set, figureless women, sprawling, gossiping, drowsing. To the accompaniment of an accordion they lifted their voices in song on the balmy, starlit evenings whilst the ship churned through the tropical seas.

Another misty morning and I climbed on deck. Saloon passengers were tucked in their bunks. But all the steerage had turned out and were crowding the foredecks, and were gazing at a dim strip of land and watching a blinking light. The land was the coast of Brazil, and the light was the harbour of Pernambuco, which means "the Door of Hell."

The immigrants raised a long-drawn shout of joy. They hailed Latin America. There was the country of which they had heard so much. They had broken with the Old World. Four hundred years ago their ancestors came across these seas with eyes greedy for gold. Now they came, not to snatch gold from temples or to terrorise the natives into showing where the metal could be found, but to work on sugar plantations, to nurture the coffee plant, to rear bananas, to do the humble work in the building of towns and the construction of railways, to toil in the jungles, to sit in the saddle and round up cattle on the prairies. They had come to the New World to get gold by industry.

How much we talk and write about the enterprise and colonising power of the Teutonic races, and how prone we are to dismiss the Latin races as effete and played out! But our generalisations will not bear examination. The spirit of adventure cannot have left Italy and Spain and Portugal. Every year hundreds of thousands of people sail from those countries across the Atlantic.

We speak of North America as Teutonic – made prosperous by the stock of northern Europe – and South America as Spanish. Latin America, however, does not all lie south of the Panama Canal. We must begin to reckon it from the territory line which separates the United States from Mexico. Southwards from the banks of the Rio Grande the Latin tongue is spoken, chiefly Spanish, but with much Portuguese in Brazil, and Italian in places right down, through the Torrid Zone, the heavy tropics, reeking with luxuriant vegetation, to the bleak and rocky, inhospitable Tierra del Fuego.

There are millions of Latins. They have set up half a score of Republican governments. The wealthy world slowly and then impetuously realised the possibilities of this strangely diversified region. Untold gold has been poured forth to develop it and get quick return.

It is not stories of treasure which bring a glint into the eye of modern men. It is enterprise and development which appeal. There are cattle to be reared on the ranches of Mexico; there is rubber in Peru; there are nitrates and fabulous mineral wealth in Chili and the neighbouring lands; there are cotton and sugar and coffee in the mighty sweep of Brazil; there are the illimitable wheat areas of Argentina, and cattle rearing and the giant possibilities in supplying Europe with frozen meat; there is the opening up of immense areas by networks of railroads.

"The stuff is there; it has only to be got," says the man who knows and talks with the fire of enthusiasm.

South America is not the land of the future. It is the land of to-day. Nowhere in the world is the speculator, the investor, more busy than in Latin America. The tales told by the first Spaniards are baby talk to the stories told to-day by those who have been and seen and are fascinated. Of course it is overdone. Of course there is exaggeration. Of course some of the jewels in El Dorado are useless stones. Of course some of the caves of Aladdin are found empty. But what the modern world ranks as precious is in abundance.

I like to conjure a contrast between the little barques of a few hundred tonnage bobbing on unknown seas with the big fifteen-thousand tonners which make their ports of call according to time-table. The early invaders went into the unknown, crept along unmapped coasts, battled with savages, and died like flies before the scourge of fever. The whole story of the conquest and settlement of the Americas is one of slow victory through a mist of tragedy. The invaders of other days left their native lands with little hope to return. The invaders of to-day set forth waving an au revoir to their friends on the dock side.

The man with the flimsiest imagination can think of the tiny craft, ill-lit, ill-furnished, with scurvy-providing food, running before the trade winds, lolling with idle sails in the doldrums, and with uncertainty as constant companion. To-day the huge vessels scorn the tides. Aflame with electric light they press through the dusk, and the ship's orchestra plays ragtime music. You cross the Equator to the tune of a Gaiety light opera. Sultry afternoons are relieved with exhilarating deck sports. The warmth of the dinner hour is softened by the whirl of electric fans. In the evening a space on deck is enclosed and hung with the flags of all the nations, and dancers in fancy dress whirl blithely on the powdered floor. These are the circumstances of the modern invasion. The journey is a holiday with nothing of grim adventure about it.

What Latin America means to-day is told in the personalities of the passengers. There are the rich Argentines, after six months in Europe, returning to Buenos Aires, occupying the cabins de luxe. They offer you the information how much they are paying, contribute largely to the sports fund, and their ladies dress with frank display. Whether Spanish or English they are proud of the name of Argentine, and never weary telling of the progress of their country. They have open contempt for their Portuguese neighbours in Brazil. The wealthy Brazilian men, swarthy and fat and bejewelled, do not join the deck games, but, with cigar between lips, saunter the decks, leering at every woman with a passable countenance. The Argentines thank God there is no nigger blood in their veins. The Brazilians retaliate they could buy the Argentines up. Care must be taken not to mix the two nationalities at the ship's tables. Each nation sports its own flag. Sometimes rivalry threatens tragedy.

There is the Englishman "with interests in Argentina" going out to look after his property, frequently an estancia, or ranch, purchased when land was cheap, and before the boom came. Now a railway cuts through his property, and it has increased seventy-fold in value. Sometimes he mentions drought; occasionally he shudders at the mention of locusts. But he recalls the state of things when he went out thirty or forty years ago "with not much more than a bob," and now he has a fortune made out of meat shipped to Europe, and his only regret seems to be the iniquitous amount of death duties which will have to be paid by his heirs.

"Argentina is not what it was," he tells you. That means the winning of a fortune is going to be increasingly harder to this and subsequent generations. But he is a fine type of Englishman, for he went forth before South America had grown beyond its monthly revolution, when the continent chiefly bred restlessness amongst the Spanish settlers, and when life and prosperity was a gamble. He has come through the fire. Foresight, daring, and good luck have swung him, as they have swung thousands of others, into affluence. He has "retired." He lives at home in Belgravia, and gives fine dinner parties. But he keeps an eye on Argentine stock, and when you encounter him in the club he repeats that "Argentina is not what it was, but still – " and then he makes you wish you could place your hand on some of the plums that remain.

There is the rich Argentine who shows what he is made of by insisting upon everybody in the smoking-room drinking champagne at his expense – and he is uncomplimentary if anybody deliberately refuses his hospitality. There is the man who hires a band to play to him during the voyage. There is the delicate lady who has a special cow on board so that she may be sure of fresh milk. The boat carries a cow so that the children may have milk. The charge per pint for the milk is high. "Why," said one passenger when he heard what the price was, "I think I will give my children champagne; it will be cheaper."

British gold has flowed like water into South America to make the dormant region fruitful. British interests are colossal. The United States has not taken much of a hand in development, partly because the Latins do not love their northern neighbours, and partly because the financiers of the States have been sufficiently occupied in their own country. Three hundred million British pounds sterling has been invested in Argentine railway and tramway companies, and there are on board men who manage the lines – tall, stalwart, clear-skinned Englishmen, with cool nerve and steady eye.

There are the big estancia men, proud and ambitious, who pay enormous prices for famous race-horses and get the best breeding stock from home in cattle and sheep, no matter what competition forces the price up to. There are shrewd men going out on behalf of syndicates to throw their eyes round the country and scent out possibilities for money-making on the grand scale. In the free talk of the smoking-room they speak with vagueness of what their special mission is. There are the men who have been charged to take control of city development schemes – for all ports, towns, and cities in South America are crazy for development, and are piling their backs with debt to achieve their desires. There are the men who represent English firms who are intent on extending their connections or in establishing branches. There are engineers, with jobs in the far interior, proceeding to fill five-year contracts. There are young bank clerks, flushed with increased salary, exchanging London for a pampa town and scarcely realising they will find living three times as expensive as at Bromley. There are the men who laughingly acknowledge they have no direct mission except that they intend to see what they can pick up. But they are mostly a good brand of Briton, well set, and with courage in the veins. And when one remembers the growing Latin population, and listens to captivating explanations about potentialities and hears what has been accomplished – more wonderful in the making of cities than a tale out of the Thousand and One Nights – there is the fact in the background that all this continent must long have continued to lie undeveloped if it had not been for the constant and confident inflow of British money.

Beyond the rails are the second-class passengers, folk of humbler aim, but going to play their part in the land of adventure. But, above all, are the third class, the steerage – few British here – travelling to South America with little but hope and muscle to do the labourer's part. It is labour the country needs to-day more than capital. In the spring of the southern hemisphere the Atlantic is trailed with ships packed with Italians, Spaniards, and Portuguese. The continent swallows them. They are men of courage, or they would never have gone forth. They take with them their fiery Latin temperament and fierce political, frequently anarchist views. The native Indians are mostly too cow-like to be of much use in industry. The millions of negroes in tropical Brazil are too lazy to be relied upon. Labour is the need, the ever-pressing need. Emissaries are busy in southern Europe booming South America and filling the boats which sail from Lisbon and Vigo and Genoa – chiefly from Genoa, for the Italian is the ideal immigrant for a warm clime. He is industrious, sober, frugal.

All the towns along the South American coastline have futures. They talk about the future, always the future, and are preparing for it. Swung in a basket from the deck of the liner, I boarded a tug and went ashore at Pernambuco. The buildings which stood were decrepit, as though erected by the original Portuguese, like their ramshackle homes on the other side of the ocean, and they had done nothing to them since except an occasional smear of pink, blue or yellow colour-wash. Most of the place was in ruins; whole streets were literally choked with débris, suggesting there had been a frightful earthquake, or that a revolutionary episode had perpetrated dire havoc. In fact, Pernambuco was in the throes of improvement. The first necessity of all these South American towns is not a system of drainage but an Avenida – a wide main thoroughfare with bedizened buildings on either side, and cafés and bands and electric lights and motor-cars and a theatre. They have begun with a theatre. But the ways of Western civilisation have travelled so far because, instead of drama and opera being presented, the theatre is devoted to kinema entertainments.

As though cleared with a hundred cannon, there is a way right through the town; this is where the Avenida is to be. Open matchbox tramcars, drawn by weedy mules, rumble over uneven metals. The next time, however, I visit Pernambuco electric cars will whiz along the roads. There are no cabs or carriages, even of ancient pattern, to be hired; but there are plenty of motor-cars. There is a breakwater built on a coral reef; yet huge harbour works are in progress, and before long liners instead of lying outside will be fastened to the dock side. There are big shops where you can buy most things, including the inevitable picture post cards, though you pay twopence each for post cards of a kind which you can buy for two a penny at home. I paid 1s. 8d. for a drink for which no hotel at home would have charged me more than 6d. The neighbourhood is rich in vegetation, but potatoes and fruits are imported from Portugal. The people are town proud. They are proud of Brazil. The Brazilian flag, with its yellow ground and star-spangled blue globe in the centre, waves everywhere.

The next day we were at Bahia, picturesquely reclining on a wooded hill. It used to be the great port in the slave trade, and most of the inhabitants are negroes. Indeed, it must not be forgotten that most of the population are negroes, or negro Indians, or negro Portuguese, or a mixture of all three. However, it is only the Portuguese, a mere handful in the total, who exercise political influence in the country. On the boat came many Bahians. All down the coast, whilst we were losing the European invaders, we were taking on board and losing Brazilians. Most of them were podgy, and an inky tinge on their skins indicated there was mixture in their blood.

The healthy sports which had entertained the English travellers on the Equator were things of the past. There was a new sport, and it was played in the smoking-room all day long and far into the night, when most of us had gone to bed. The rattle of the dice-box never ceased. Gambling was in the veins, and the English sovereign was constantly shuffled from hand to hand on the green baize tables. There was baccarat, first for low stakes and then for high. There were two glib Yankee-Negro-Spaniards who had such luck that spectators shrugged shoulders and exchanged glances. In a single game they netted £150, and one young Englishman was a loser by £80.

From gambling at the tables one turned to talking about gambling in the country. The enormous liabilities to foreign countries are all incurred in a great gamble that the hinterlands will yield produce which will pay for all and leave massive surpluses. The coffee trade of Brazil is immense. But all merchants do not make their incomes by watching and nursing the market. That is too slow. Transactions are decided quite as often by the throw of the dice as by negotiation and bargaining. Reckless, far removed from business principles, all this is; but it bespeaks a buoyancy of belief that, notwithstanding the lapse of luck, there is a bottomless well of prosperity to be dipped into in the natural productions of the country. It is scarcity which breeds timidity; it is the confidence of affluence which occasions waste.

Of course there was much talk about Rio de Janeiro, the city with the most gorgeous setting in the southern hemisphere.

"Rio harbour is the most beautiful in the world," said the Brazilian.

"It cannot be a patch on Sydney harbour," said the Australian, who had never seen Rio.

"Tut!" said the Brazilian, who had never seen Sydney.

It was in the fall of an exquisite Sunday afternoon that our glasses caught sight of the hills around Rio. As we approached and ran past picturesque islands a wonderful panorama was unfolded. The scenery was unlike any other scenery in the world. The hills, radiant with equatorial vegetation, rose like strange humps out of the sea. In the background giant mountains reared their heads in the crimson-grey clouds of approaching evening. The picture was not like real scenery. It was like the realisation of a disordered imagination. I would say it was like an imitation of Turner, were the illustration not so trite. Then I thought there was something Chinese about the outreness of the landscape. Then the sun went down in a hurry, and the background was a weird purple. The ship dropped anchor, and the front part of Rio town, a tumble of fantastic red and yellow washed houses, was for all the world like a drop curtain to a stage. I felt we had slipped into another world – and I am not given to rhapsody.

A thousand lamps began to blink along the esplanade which curves to the bend of the bay. A thousand lights pricked the hill sides. There were two big black Brazilian warships, and somebody had to tell the old story how two battleships were sent out to visit the Brazilian convict island in the Atlantic, and how one returned with the awful story that the island had disappeared, for they sailed straight for it and it had gone, whilst later on it was learnt that the other vessel had certainly found the island, for it got piled up on the rocks. Gaily illuminated launches scurried about whilst our liner was slowly being berthed alongside the quay.

"Ah!" cried the Brazilian to me, whilst his eyes glowed brightly, "say that Rio is the most lovely harbour in the world!"

"There's nothing to shout about," interrupted the Australian, "alongside Sydney harbour; and you've seen Sydney harbour," he added, turning to me.

As a sort of amateur Solomon, I was turned to for judgment. My first comment was to laugh. I had seen the two harbours which are each claimed by their champions to be the grandest thing Nature has ever accomplished. It was amusing to witness the fervour of the two men, as though they had a hand in the making of these famous harbours. They were both of the stuff which leads men to believe that for any other country to have pretensions to beauty is just dull-witted boastfulness.

"Well," I remarked, "I think Vigo harbour is charming."

"Oh, Vigo!" they both exclaimed in disgust.

"And there is something to be said for the Golden Gate leading to San Francisco," I added.

"But the Golden Gate and any other place is not in the same street with Sydney harbour," blurted the Australian rather angrily, though he had never seen the Golden Gate. "It cannot be," he said decisively.

"But what do you really think of Rio compared with Sydney?" asked the Brazilian, who saw I was attempting to be funny at the expense of them both.

"I'll tell you," I said, actually throwing half a cigar overboard, for I was called upon to give a verdict on one of the most debatable subjects in the world. "It is like passing judgment on two lovely women. For grand, impressive spectacular effect, being hit right between the eyes with stupendous gorgeousness, seeing Rio harbour at the hour of sunset is the most wonderful sight in the world."

The Brazilian smiled, and the Australian made a contemptuous noise with his lips.

"But hold," I added. "You see all the beauty of Rio harbour at one view. It is like suddenly coming face to face with an imperial lady of dazzling attractions. When you have seen her you have seen everything. Sydney harbour does not knock you over with bewilderment of beauty like Rio does. It is more calm, less turbulent; it impresses you. The more you know it the more it impresses you. And it has lovely arms, stretching up between soft woodlands, as peaceful as the best bits of the Thames. Rio has nothing like that. No, no; I'm not competent to pass judgment. You two gentlemen can go on fighting over the matter, as I dare say the people of your two countries will continue to do, till the crack of doom. I admit the unrivalled grandeur of Rio, but personally I have more affection for the grace and the delights of Sydney."

The Brazilian bowed politely. The Australian wanted to argue I had ceded too much to Rio. Happily, just then a group of friends came on board to rush me off to a dinner party on shore.

Rio will always remind me of Imre Kiralfy, the White City, and Earl's Court. There are some narrow, old European-like streets that recall places on the other side of the Atlantic: the houses high and sombre and with a little mystery behind the shutters. But most of Rio is rampantly new and garish. The people have driven a magnificent Avenida right through the heart of the city, and hang the expense! The piles of buildings, hotels, public offices, great stores along this Avenida are generally eccentric in architecture – and there comes the feeling that here these transplanted Latins, with a strain of negro in their veins, are struggling to express themselves as a new people. The wonderful thing is that five years ago this Avenida was not.