Victorian Literature Britain in Latin America
Dennis Hogan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0119


In the 19th century, foreigners had unprecedented access to Spanish America, as the newly independent nations welcomed travelers as readily as they accepted foreign loans and investment capital. Britons were able to freely travel into the South American interior, and commercial ties between Britain and Latin America grew quickly. Cultural and economic exchanges proceeded in two major waves: the first occurred during and in the immediate aftermath of the Wars of Independence, and then, after a cooling-off period, during the second half of the century, when infrastructural and technological advances opened up the Latin American hinterlands to capitalist expansion. International trade grew after 1850, along with Britain’s role in Latin American culture. Britain remained the hegemonic foreign power in Latin America until the First World War. These relationships left their mark on both British and Latin American literatures. In addition to a vast number of travel books about Latin American countries by adventurers, explorers, and tourists, British poets, novelists, philosophers, and historians also drew inspiration from this still relatively unknown territory. Toward the end of the 20th century, Victorian studies began to focus more insistently on British and Latin American exchanges, often making use of historical analyses that interpreted the British-Latin American relationship in terms of dependency theory and world-systems theory. These analyses have generally characterized Britain’s enormous economic, cultural, and political influence in terms of informal imperialism, a strategy for establishing domination over a territory without ruling it directly; however, the nature of British imperialism in Latin America, and its implications for cultural analysis, remain much debated. Currently, literary studies of Britain’s role in Latin America, and Latin America’s role within the British literary imaginary, constitute a large and growing body of scholarship. This bibliographic introduction offers an overview of important texts produced in the 19th century, as well as major currents of scholarship in literary studies and related humanities disciplines.

Historical Context

This historiography of Britain’s presence in Latin America during the 19th century is extensive. In selecting these works, I have focused mainly on the debate around the term “informal imperialism,” a concept that has come to define much of the thinking about British-Latin American relations. First coined in 1934 by the historian C. R. Fay, the term “informal empire” gained new importance with the publication of Gallagher and Robinson 1953, articulating the concept of imperial domination without direct territorial control more fully. Since then, the term—alternately called capitalist imperialism, business imperialism, or gentlemanly capitalism—has undergone many revisions and contestations. Platt 1973, Darwin 1997, and Cain and Hopkins 2016 are important examples, while Miller 1995 and Porter 2001 offer useful surveys of the debate. Bethell 1989 provides a historical overview and is a good short introduction, and Platt 1977 and Naylor 1989 provide specific case studies that complement and complicate the big-picture accounts. Burns 1980 offers another perspective, one that engages the informal imperialism debate less directly, instead highlighting the role of Latin American elites in drawing their countries and societies closer to Northern Europe, even at the expense of the majority of the people within them. Most recently, Darwin 2009 proposes a reassessment of the history of Britain’s empire, understanding it as a world-system comprising several distinct modes of governance and influence; the commercial dominance of the City of London in Latin America, especially after 1880, constituted a significant part of this network. Finally, Garner 2015, writing for a Mexicanist audience, laments that none of the standard models of the British Empire in Latin America fully account for the diversity of British connections with many Latin American republics, especially Mexico.

  • Bethell, Leslie. “Britain and Latin American in Historical Perspective.” In Britain and Latin America: A Changing Relationship. Edited by Victor Bulmer-Thomas, 1–24. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    An extremely useful short historical overview that narrates British involvement in Latin America across six centuries, focusing primarily on Britain’s global and regional hegemony in the 19th century, and its supersession by the United States over the course of the 20th century. Summarizes British territorial holdings and business interests across Latin America and offers some historical explanation for Britain’s declining influence in the region.

  • Burns, E. Bradford The Poverty of Progress: Latin America in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520342439

    Burns offers a revisionist interpretation of Latin American history, arguing that ordinary Latin Americans were worse off at the end of the 19th century than they were at the beginning. Burns blames the elite obsession with “progress,” an ideology drawn from the Enlightenment, Darwin, Spencer, and Comte. Efforts to implement “progress” from above, combined with growing business ties to Europe and especially Great Britain, trapped Latin American countries in relations of dependence while decimating local folk cultures.

  • Cain, P. J., and A. G. Hopkins. British Imperialism, 1688–2015. 3d ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315677798

    Cain and Hopkins argue that Britain used a combination of persuasion, compulsion, and adaptation to local circumstances to establish commercial dominance in Latin America, but the process took several decades and depended on both the development of transport networks and a flood of cheap British credit to Latin American countries.

  • Darwin, John. “Imperialisms and the Victorians: The Dynamics of Territorial Expansion.” English Historical Review 112.447 (June 1997): 614–642.

    DOI: 10.1093/ehr/CXII.447.614

    Darwin argues that British imperial policy consisted in a pragmatic approach reflecting the both the limited options available to British policymakers and the diversity of interests at play in the British state and business community. Darwin supports the thesis that private interests rather than official government policy drove territorial expansion through the 19th century. Though the argument is global, the intervention has relevance for the history and interpretation of British policy in Latin America.

  • Darwin, John. The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830–1970. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511635526

    John Darwin’s global history of the British Empire characterizes the empire not as a single political unit but as a project comprising three separate elements of conquest, settlement, and commercial and business activity. It is primarily within the last of these that Darwin locates the British relationship to Latin America. References to British interests in Latin America appear throughout the book, which also includes a good short section on the period of British commercial dominance from 1880 to 1914.

  • Gallagher, John, and Ronald Robinson. “The Imperialism of Free Trade.” Economic History Review 6.1 (1953): 1–15.

    DOI: 10.2307/2591017

    Gallagher and Robinson provide the central early account of what has been called alternately capitalist imperialism, informal empire, or informal imperialism, arguing that British policy in Latin America, where it had few territorial claims, was consistent with British policy in the parts of the world that it controlled more directly; namely, penetrating into the interior and developing the hinterlands to create relationships of economic dependency.

  • Garner, Paul. “El ‘Imperio Informal’ británico en América Latina: ¿Realidad o Ficción?” Historia Mexicana 65.2 (2015): 541–559.

    DOI: 10.24201/hm.v65i2.3156

    In this short, Spanish-language summary of the informal empire debate, Garner compares and evaluates texts cited above by Gallagher and Robinson, Cain and Hopkins, and John Darwin. Garner finds that Cain and Hopkins are most attentive to the heterogeny of the British experience in different Latin American contexts, though he laments that none of the models offer a sufficiently developed account of British commercial relations with Mexico and other Latin American countries beyond Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

  • Miller, Rory. Britain and Latin America in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Longman, 1995.

    An important synthetic history that covers the period of greatest British commercial influence in Latin America (from independence to 1914) as well as the periods immediately preceding and immediately following. Miller confronts questions of trade and investment as well as the problem of British government involvement in informal imperial processes and does an excellent job of staking out the central scholarly debates from both British and Latin American perspectives.

  • Naylor, Robert A. Penny-Ante Imperialism: The Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras, 1600–1914: A Case Study in British Informal Empire. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

    Naylor’s study offers an in-depth exploration of British commercial and diplomatic ties on the Atlantic Coast of Central America, especially in a region called Mosquitia, named for a mixed-race group called the Miskitu. Naylor makes the case that Britain’s involvement in the region was not aimed at securing political control or territorial acquisition, but rather the promotion of commerce, trade, and economic development, with the government often drawn somewhat unwillingly into disputes thanks to the initiative of minor officials and private actors.

  • Platt, D. C. M. Latin America and British Trade, 1806–1914. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1973.

    Platt’s revisionist account argues that independence did not cause a major commercial boom for Britain, but that the year 1865 marked an important inflection point in which British trade increased in importance as British merchants gained access to the interior, mainly thanks to railroads that had been constructed to facilitate the export of products like grain and coffee.

  • Platt, D. C. M., ed. Business Imperialism in Latin America 1840–1930: An Inquiry Based on British Experience in Latin America. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

    This collection of essays consists of several case studies examining different aspects of British business involvement in Latin America, with special reference to Argentina, Brazil, and Peru. Though Platt’s introduction makes the claim that Britain’s political and diplomatic interests in the region were slight, the essays themselves are useful as surveys of the principal business practices and engagements of British firms in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Porter, Andrew, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire. Vol. III, The Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    This volume of the Oxford History contains two essays that touch directly on the legacy of informal imperialism and Britain’s role in Latin America. The first, by Martin Lynn, titled “Policy, Trade, and Informal Empire,” contextualizes imperial free trade policies as tools used by the British government to secure commercial advantages across the region. Alan Knight’s contribution to the volume, “Britain and Latin America,” emphasizes the role of collaborating local elites and representatives who facilitated the project of informal imperialism.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.