Ploughing The South Sea
Ploughing The South Sea
A History of Merchant Shipping on the West Coast of South America
Perfect Bound Softcover
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“Ploughing the Sea” is borrowed from the text of a letter sent by Simón Bolívar to one of his lieutenants, complaining that governing his country in the early 19th Century with its never-ending problems was like ploughing the sea; no sooner had the difficulties been pushed aside, they would inevitably, after a short period, flow back again to their original chaotic state.

The “South Sea” was the name given by Balboa in 1513 to that stretch of the Pacific Ocean south of the Bay of Panama and extending to the Strait of Magellan.

Given the problems associated with this region, the title is particularly apt.  “Ploughing the South Sea” is a study of economic, social and political factors contributing to an affecting the development of merchant shipping along the West Coast of South America, from the Spanish Imperial Era to the end of the 20th Century.



Little has been written in the United Kingdom on the development of merchant steam shipping on the West Coast of South America (WCSA). Consequently, details of the interactions of shipping companies operating in that region such as the once powerful Pacific Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) of Liverpool, England, the American Grace Line of New York, and the Chilean Compañia Sudamericana de Vapores (CSAV) remain largely unknown here. Even less is recorded of the younger South American shipping firms such as the Ecuadorian Transnave, the Compañia Chilena Naviera Oceánica (CCNI), and La Grancolombiana. The development of steam navigation and its affects on the WCSA, apart from Claudio Véliz’s detailed history of the Chilean Merchant Marine up to 1920, and valuable contributions from René De La Pedraja’s general view of Latin American shipping  has been sadly neglected.

Ploughing the South Sea is an attempt to fill that gap.  It is not a specific or conclusive history of PSNC, although the “English Company”, as it was called in Latin America, did play a dominant role, and is used as the vehicle to bring all known and related historical data together.  To produce such an undertaking with only passing references to PSNC would be like baking an apple pie without the filling. This book’s objective is to provide a revealing insight into the political, social and economic backgrounds and their influences on merchant shipping, principally in a 19th Century age, when codes of behaviour, business ethics and proper treatment of the poorer classes were more notably absent than they are today.

This publication may, therefore, disappoint those seeking a neat chronological and nostalgic history of PSNC; such publications do exist, for example, John E.Lingwood’s, “The Steam Conquistadors-A History of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company”  in which he acknowledged that his work relied heavily on Arthur Wardle’s 1940 book commemorating the company’s centenary and entitled “Steam Conquers the Pacific”.   For this company’s post-1940 history John E. Lingwood, PSNC’s Archivist, naturally resorted to its records. Both books are currently out of print and copies are quite rare.

In his commemorative work, Wardle, in acknowledging his reliance on PSNC’s archives, revealed that some company records from its early years were, unfortunately, lost. It is clear from his text that he was obliged to borrow heavily from Argentinean historian Juan Bautista Albérdi’s biography of North American William Wheelwright, published in 1876, as “La Vida y Los Trabajos Industriales de William Wheelwright en La America del Sud” (Life and Industrial Works of William Wheelwright in South America). Wheelwright, since regarded “as the father of PSNC”, has been bestowed, certainly in Albérdi’s text, with heroic attributes for his role in its formation and for other public projects completed in Chile and Argentina.

Apart from works by Véliz and De La Pedraja, those titles already cited are mostly commemorative publications. Anyone pursuing an interest in the development of PSNC and its contribution to Liverpool and WCSA, might gain the impression from the afore mentioned bibliography, that William Wheelwright truly was a heroic figure setting PSNC on a straightforward growth path by his initial foresight, care and attention.

PSNC was, undeniably, a very powerful force on the WCSA, but in order to appreciate the reasons for the development of merchant shipping in that region,  investigations of the interplay and relationships between the “English Company” and its other competitors are essential. The impact of these firms must be assessed both individually and collectively, and not only on each other, but also on the West Coast nations themselves.

Basic questions need to be addressed; why, for example, haven’t some once famous shipping enterprises, particularly PSNC and Grace Line, survived and why have others, often lesser known establishments in the 19th Century, become more powerful? Why did PSNC commence operations on the WCSA and not initially involve British ports? Was it really a pioneering adventure on which Wheelwright embarked, or was there a ready-made gap in an existing market that remained to be filled, which others could have undertaken?  Did Wheelwright merit the praise and fame heaped upon him? Many other questions arise which cannot readily be answered without further research. Detailed investigations were, therefore, required, especially as all known existing histories of PSNC, whilst accurate in terms of the limited data available to their authors, painted a one-sided, mostly benevolent, and too sympathetic a picture.

Albérdi’s biography of William Wheelwright, for example, was the result of 19th Century fashion for South American historians to eulogize at least one national hero. At the time of its compilation, Juan Bautista Albérdi, an Argentinean ex-politician and historian, was living in exile in Chile when cultural conflict characterized contemporary South America. The Creoles,  or élite ruling classes in South America after early 19th Century independence, were fixated with the progress and modernization of industrial Europe and the United States. In seeking to Europeanise their own countries, they sought to import and impose, rather than apply, these much-extolled foreign techniques and philosophies on their young nations, as well as imitating European culture and French society especially.

These ruling élites firmly believed that the European super powers and the United States, would not only provide solutions to problems then painfully afflicting South American societies, but that their values and philosophies would also embrace and underpin their own life styles. In other words, they were keen to adopt anything that would enhance and preserve their privileged positions. In the first half of the 19th Century, such was the élites’ desire for “progress”, that is the ambition to recreate their nations as closel

E.John McGarry was former Crew Purser on Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s flagship ss Reina del Mar. He left that company in 1964 after marrying Elena whom he met on that liner.  Employed for thirty years by various Local Government Authorities in North Wales, the New Forest and ultimately in Yorkshire, he left in 1996 after 23 years service as a Town Clerk to a small Yorkshire Local Authority. He then entered the service of Ofsted as a School’s Lay Inspector before finally retiring in 2002 to finish researching and writing “Ploughing The South Sea”.  Fluent in Spanish, which he studied at Liverpool College of Commerce, he also holds a BA degree in Mathematics and Technology.


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