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Managers from the British World: A Global Approach to Sheep Farming Industry Labour Disciplines in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, 1837-1956

Published: 6 May 2021 - Nicolás Gómez Baeza

In 1894, a New Zealander called Alexander Allan Cameron began working for the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego, the biggest sheep-farming company in Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, in the southernmost area of Argentina and Chile. He managed Caleta Josefina, the first estancia (typically known in English as a station or ranch) of the Explotadora, on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. He took on the role of the company’s General Manager from 1905 to 1915. However, he and his brothers (who joined Alexander Allan and worked under his supervision or in other enterprises) appeared to have had a difficult relationship with the local working class they commanded. In fact, the newspaper El Trabajo from the Federación Obrera de Magallanes (the regional Labour Federation) declared that their columns should give more attention to the “Abuses by the Cameron family”.[1]

My PhD research aims to explore how managers from the British world (meaning from Britain or the British Empire), such as Cameron, imported and developed practices to control and discipline the workforce for the building of sheep farming industry labour regimes in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. The introduction of pastoralism as an economic activity that deeply transformed the aforementioned South American borderlands from the late nineteenth century onwards, was boosted with the arrival of settlers mainly from England, Scotland or Australasia, supported by the governments of Argentina and Chile. In 1877, the first lands were given to an Englishman named Henry Reynard by the Chilean government to bring the first sheep flocks from the Falkland Islands to Eastern Patagonia. The consolidation of sheep farming capitalism went hand-in-hand with a racialized policy, favouring a European colonization which at the same time was usurping indigenous domains in Tierra del Fuego. It meant that many men from the British world were granted land, and immediately most of the white-collar employees and managers of the estancias or frigoríficos (meat freezing works or cold-storage sites) were also of the same origin, by establishing close social networks to locate themselves in decision-making positions.[2]

Alexander Allan Cameron, also known for his infamous participation in the indigenous genocide of Tierra del Fuego.[6]  Picture apparently first published in: Fernando Durán, Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego, 1893-1943. Santiago y Valparaíso, 1945, p. 47. URL:

At first glance, it seems that managers, all of whom were men, imposed capitalist wage labour regimes in Patagonia, the basic components of which originated in the British world. English was the dominant language in their controlled workspaces of the estancias and frigoríficos. Their lifestyle was very different from the rest of the people working in the sheep farming industry, with whom they had very little interaction, as they hardly spoke Spanish. The local British society, including landowners and managers of pastoralism from Britain and the British Empire, made up an exclusive colonial-style circle. They made particular distinctions in terms of ethnicity and nationality, remarkably with the Chilean national workforce, who were in their majority seasonal workers from the island of Chiloé (more than two thousand kilometres to the north of Punta Arenas, the main port city of the region along the Strait of Magellan). The scenario was not, therefore, devoid of ethnic and class tensions.

To understand behaviours of managers from the British world, and to unveil to what extent they transferred mechanisms to develop Patagonian pastoral capitalist labour regimes, I also take into account early backgrounds. Following the career development of managers from the perspectives of their transnational experiences, sheds light on the transfer of knowledge, and helps us to understand situated practices in different places. For example, the aforementioned Alexander Allan Cameron followed a family tradition. His father John, born in Argyllshire (Scotland) in 1837, arrived in Otago in 1862, and managed ranches. The young Cameron also worked as station manager before his journey to South America, learning first about sheep farming management in the grasslands of New Zealand.[3]

In contrast with farming backgrounds, other cases included sons of middle-class professionals, having grown up in metropolitan England. One such case was that of Thomas Raymond Downing Burbury, who was a “Clerk” in London in 1891 before travelling to Patagonia, and became General Manager at the Explotadora from 1915 to 1923. He succeeded Cameron despite their dissimilar occupational experiences.[4] Another similar example was that of Thomas Price Jones, General Manager of the South American Export Syndicate frigorífico until 1956, in a town called Río Seco, near Punta Arenas. Jones was born in London and began his career as an “office boy” for the Houlder Brothers & Company (an England-based firm, which was the owner of the frigorífico at Río Seco itself) before arriving to Patagonia in 1909.[5]

In terms of their disciplining practices in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, existing information is diverse. On the one hand, business records and circulars (“circulares”), state archives and the working-class press itself reveal numerous features on those matters at the Explotadora, estancias, and frigoríficos under Cameron and Burbury managements. The importation of Chiloé workers with contractual conditions and forms of restraint; punishment and repression with the support of the Argentine and Chilean State; and the mentioned distinctions over ethnicity and/or nationality between high-ranking employees and seasonal workers, were some examples linked with exploitation or even brutality from the alliance between that company and public authorities, especially during the 1910s.[7]

On the other hand, information in other local newspapers, such as La Unión or El Magallanes, gave optimistic observations on Jones' management of the frigorífico Río Seco. They wrote about comfortable working facilities and workers' welfare, even publishing testimonies of workers who spoke, according to the newspapers, of job stability, adequate food provisions, and not so arduous tasks.[8] Therefore, with further examples to consider on the abovementioned cases, it is necessary to contrast the information about their practices conducting and disciplining labour, with further analysis in terms of how those managers’ routines were: 1) linked to their own trajectories from England, Scotland or New Zealand; and 2) observed, reported and in fact developed over time in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. It is also fundamental to consider the relationship between them and other local agents, mainly the workforce and the nation-state authorities, understanding the shaping of labour regimes and their disciplines as multidirectional.

Workers’ dining room in frigorífico Río Seco, managed by Thomas Jones. Author: Thomas Smith Boyd. Courtesy of Marie T. Boyd and Thomas G. Boyd. Available In: The British in Southern Patagonia, “Frigorífico Río Seco, Punta Arenas, 1935”. URL:

The history of the labour regimes and their internal social relationships which informed labour disciplines in the local Patagonian sheep farming industry is both a local or regional labour history, and part of a global history of capitalism and colonial behaviours. Managers’ practices of disciplining labour, more or less abusive, were essential to the consolidation of sheep farming capitalism in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. However, rather than making generalizations by considering their management as part of a homogenous British model, or based purely on regional exceptional features, it is proposed that the managers from the British world raised different shapes of capitalist-colonial labour regimes from their plural knowledge. They worked first in their homelands in a variety of occupations, from farming to business, before establishing their capitalist estancias and/or frigoríficos. Here, it is crucial to comprehend the diversity of global (or more specifically, imperial) roots of capitalist processes, in addition to local factors based on adaptations, impositions and also non-unidirectional social dynamics.

Nicolás Gómez Baeza is a Chilean second-year PhD student in the History Department of the University of Warwick, fully funded by ANID (“Agencia Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo”) Chile. He holds an MA in History from the Universidad de Santiago de Chile and is also currently part-time working on a research project with the “Museo de Historia Natual de Río Seco” (Natural History Museum of Río Seco) of Punta Arenas, Chile. His original interests are in the labour history of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and his PhD research project expands on his previous research to study transnational trajectories of managers from the British world in the Patagonian sheep farming industry.

[1] “Cámeron, sínonimo de abusos y de… lo demás queda en el tintero”. El Trabajo, Punta Arenas, 07/09/1912.

[2] For statistics on occupations by national backgrounds, see: Laurie Nock, "Ethnicity and Economics in Punta Arenas, Chile" (McGill University, 1990). 400-568. On the land granting and usurpation see: Alberto Harambour, "Soberanía y corrupción. La construcción del Estado y la propiedad en Patagonia austral (Argentina y Chile, 1840-1920)", Historia (Santiago) 50, n.o 2 (2017): 555-96.

[3] Alexander Allan Cameron & John Cameron. Otago and Southland Early Settlers (OASES) database, on site at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand [information sent by Jenny Chen]. New Zealand, Electoral Rolls, 1853-1981. Supplement Electoral Roll, Waimate, September 1890, p. 1. Roll Nº 2409.

[4] England and Wales Census Records: Census 1891, piece 517, folio 68.

[5] Tom Price Jones, Patagonian Panorama. (Outspoken Press, 1961), pp. 9-10.

[6] Alberto Harambour, "Partes del exterminio: la barbarie de la civilización o el genocidio selknam en la Tierra del Fuego", La Roca 4 (december), 38-58.

[7] Some details in: Joaquín Bascopé, "Pasajeros del poder propietario: la Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego y la biopolítica estanciera (1890-1920)", Magallania (Punta Arenas) 36, n.o 2 (2008): 19-44.”; Alberto Harambour, "Monopolizar la violencia en una frontera colonial. Policías y militares en Patagonia austral (Argentina y Chile, 1870-1930)", Quinto Sol 20, n.o 1 (2016): 1-27.; Nicolás Gómez, "Vigilancia, represión y disciplina laboral en la Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego (1910-1919)", Izquierdas 49 (2020): 123-140.

[8] “El mejoramiento de las habitaciones obreras en los frigoríficos del departamento.” El Magallanes, Magallanes, 05/03/1930, p. 6. “80 mil ovejunos sacrificará el Frigorífico de Río Seco este año.” La Unión, Magallanes, 13/03/1934, p. 6.