Historian Alberto Harambour spent 15 years in studying historical and social processes related to the occupation and colonization of southern Patagonia. This work presents new interpretations of the land rights of indigenous peoples and the role played by Argentina, Chile, and the British Empire.

Lorenzo Palma, IDEAL Center. How was the Chilean and Argentine occupation of the southern end of South America possible? This is one of the primary questions that researcher Alberto Harambour tries to answer in his new book, “Borderland Sovereignties. Nations and Capital in the Colonization of Patagonia: Argentina and Chile, 1840s-1922.”

For more than a decade, Harambour, as historian for the Research Center – Dynamics of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL) and faculty member at the Austral University of Chile (UACh), conducted an exhaustive review of business, government, judicial, and travel material in files located at various sites around Argentina, Chile, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Harambour initially set out to write about the colonization of Patagonia from the perspective of the dispossessed, the migrants, and the indigenous peoples. However, as his research progressed, he realized that in order to fully cover the story it would be necessary to take a new look from the perspective of evolving empires, the presence of the Chilean and Argentine states, and the establishment of large ranch holdings.

With more than 300 pages of intriguing reading, this book, published by the Austral University of Chile, presents a range of representations of Patagonia, including fanciful European notions about savages, giants, and a vast but cursed territory. At the same time, Harambour covers the succession of colonization failures that helped to maintain the idea of a wild and empty territory. All of this would change, he argues, with the introduction of the livestock (principally sheep) industry promoted by British capital and the expansion of an economic, if not sovereign, empire, in part due to steam-driven shipping technology. The book cites material from the expeditions made famous by FitzRoy and Darwin as well as details of the state and private violence that brought an end to “rebellious Patagonia” between 1919 and 1922.

“This work avoids the traditional business-oriented and nationalist myths of colonization, which present it as some sort of Golden Age, of social harmony. On the contrary, corruption and racism appear as key aspects of this colonization, along with the denial of the rights of indigenous peoples at first, and later similar treatment of migrant workers. The book is about rethinking the commonly accepted notions about colonization, in a less simplistic manner,” explains the historian.

The book becomes especially relevant as Chile prepares for the year 2020 recognition of the 500 years since Hernando de Magallanes passed through the strait that bears his name. According to this research, the historical fact “is important for Spain, but had very little impact on Patagonia.”

“For more than 300 years, the treacherous Strait was virtually useless for global transportation. Its importance begins in the mid-nineteenth century. From that perspective, October 21, 1520 is a nearly meaningless date, related to the impact of imaginary factors such as the presumed man-eating giants, which would be called ‘Patagones.’ Then along came further invention as part of this tradition of commemoration, but in comparatively recent times. In fact, it was essentially inaugurated by the image of the so-called “King of Patagonia,” business magnate José Menéndez, appearing next to the monument to Magellan in 1920, in the Punta Arenas Plaza de Armas,” noted Harambour, who observes that it was the development of steam-powered navigation that finally permitted effective use of the Strait.

This publication can be purchased in either printed form or as an ebook from www.edicionesuach.cl, as well as in the selected bookstores around the country. The official presentation of this work was held on July 11, in Punta Arenas, at the IDEAL Center headquarters.