If the British, under the command of John Whitelocke, had been able to capture Buenos Aires in July 1807 (after a much smaller British force was defeated the year before, following an initial victory in a private, unauthorized expedition), how would the British have proceeded with the River Plate region and elsewhere in southern South America?

I was thinking, until recently, that all or most of Argentina and Uruguay (as a single country) would have evolved to become like Canada or Australia in terms of being anglophone and highly developed. However, from what I understand, that is not quite realistic, given that the Buenos Aires inhabitants were much more interested in independence than in rule by either the Spanish or British Empires, and the British government was becoming more interested in economic than political influence in Latin America in general. Besides, Buenos Aires had a much larger population than Montevideo; the latter's population size was more comparable to that of Cape Town (captured by the British in 1795 and again in 1806) or that of Quebec City (captured by the British in 1759).

What I have come up with lately, therefore, are two main possibilities:

1) Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina proper (excluding Patagonia) becomes an independent state under British suzerainty ca. 1810 (since the British are likely to have trouble dealing with Buenos Aires directly - due to insurgencies in the surrounding area, relatively big population size, not-so-strategic value, etc.), Uruguay remains a British colony (because Montevideo, its capital, is more strategic to British interests than Buenos Aires), and Patagonia evolves to be a British colony. The upshot is that Argentina is an independent country while Uruguay and Patagonia are British colonies, then dominions, and finally highly developed independent countries under the British Commonwealth.

2) Both Buenos Aires/Argentina and Uruguay become independent British client states (in the event that the British find Montevideo as well as Buenos Aires too much to deal with, owing to insurgencies around Montevideo also), and only Patagonia becomes a British colony (then dominion and finally a highly developed British Commonwealth country).

Which of these two possibilities sounds better or more realistic?

  • $\begingroup$ The British were interested in economic influence in South American because domestic business interests wanted a market to help replace the losses in income from Napoleon's Continental Blockade. While it was not as effective as he would have liked, if was still hurting the British economy. Large scale military adventures (in SA) were also discouraged because Britain already had trouble putting together anti-French coalitions due to the lack (or size of) British armies on the Continent.. $\endgroup$
    – WPrecht
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ Just a coment, "and Patagonia evolves to be a British colony"... Why would you think that being a British colony is evolving? $\endgroup$
    – AleOtero93
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 12:57
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @AleOtero93 Evolving does not really imply improvement, just adaptation to existing environment. Becoming a British colony is adapting to British dominance of the area and hence does count as evolution. In a stricter and more proper sense than the word is usually used even. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ The English had been grabbing overseas territories and returning most of them right back to the original owners at the end of the war for generations if not centuries. Since Argentina was nominally the property of Spain, an ally, it would have been returned in 1815 if not earlier to their control. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 1:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Oldcat: The Spaniards were too weak by then to force the British to hand back such territory. Plus, after the British captured Trinidad (as in Trinidad and Tobago) from the Spaniards in 1795, the British kept it. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 18, 2015 at 13:26

4 Answers 4


The only reason the British were in South America is because they lost the American colonies. I don't think the British were ever really serious about taking big chunks of South America. The British had huge, valuable holdings and trade routes in the East, but not so much in the West.

So they would have if they could have, but the fact that they lost the Buenos Aires battle and basically left for good indicates that it wasn't very interesting for them, and it wasn't worth the effort. After that, everything was done by proxy.

If they had won the battle, it's likely that Buenos Aires would have been an important port, but only for maybe another 50 years or so. The end of the era of sailing ships made a lot of ports around the world a lot less important. And once you build the Panama Canal, there isn't any compelling reason to be down in the South Atlantic.

So Argentina doesn't get dominion status. It's not that important now, and it wasn't that important then. Compare it to Africa, where there were plenty of British colonies, but only one was a dominion.

  • $\begingroup$ In the West after the American Revolution, the British did have valuable (if not huge) holdings and trade routes in the West Indies and what is now Canada, and they also have had claims as well as settlements in the Falklands. Plus, on an informal empire level, they had tremendous economic influence in Argentina and certain other South American countries in the late 19th-early 20th century. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 20:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I grant that the Southern Cone wasn't as interesting to the British as many other parts of the world (especially India, the way to/from India, and the West Indies), but the British lost the second and official battle in Buenos Aires largely because the commander was inept, and they left that area for good because the rioplatenses pressured them to do so right after that battle. The British were actually interested in fighting in South America some more and were about to in 1808 when the outbreak of war in the Iberian Peninsula rerouted British efforts to the Peninsula. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 20:39

I am not sure its right to assume that the south american would have fought for independence so quickly (although at some point would arguably have been inevitable). One key differentiation between the Spanish colonial rule and the British system was land ownership. The ability of the people to share in the wealth generation could have placated the populous enough to make it a major hub.

I think they would have expanded into Chile to make the colony cross-continental. In terms of trade, Chile/Argentina/South Africa/Australia would have almost guaranteed Britain trade and naval dominance of the southern ocean and the south pacific.

  • $\begingroup$ Add control of Suez and Panama when the time comes later, and the British would have controlled trade between the oceans. Which would have made Suez and Panama a high priority for other powers... Nice catch. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 14:32

Let's not forget that prior to WWII and the presidency of Juan Peron, Argentina was in the the top ten wealthiest countries in the world. They still have huge resources there. They loaned money to to Great Britain. Great Britain not only had citizens living and doing business throughout the country but was instrumental in setting up railways, industry, and communities. There are still English and Welsh speakers there and an English language newspaper. It was Juan and Eva Peron who kicked out the British and removed Argentina from being competitive on the world stage. What Singapore is doing, they did exactly the opposite.

I do often think of the Welsh communities in the Patagonia who had their start in the 1890s tried to set up a little Wales outside of Wales. What would it have been like for them had they faced a favorable harvest and a little more luck?

  • $\begingroup$ I should point out, and I should have done so at some point since I wrote my original question, that indeed all of Argentina (minus some of the northern edges like Salta/Jujuy and Formosa), and not just Uruguay and Patagonia as I mentioned previously, gets annexed to the British. It's just that it's much more gradual than what I had thought prior to making my original post almost 5 years ago now. The thing is that come the 1840s under Rosas, who was xenophobic, the British would have taken over Buenos Aires or else British control is lost in that whole region forever. $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2020 at 15:59

Also very worth a gander: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_investment_in_Argentina

"The question of informal empire and British hegemony in Argentina through investment

Towards the 1870s, it was clear that the British were extremely influential in the economics of Argentina. This set up a unique power dynamic between the two sovereign states of Great Britain and Argentina. Some scholars have even argued that Argentina was a product of British imperialism. A. G. Hopkins explains that for imperialism to occur, the sovereignty of one state is being diminished by another state with more structural power.[5] Susan Strange, an English political scientist, identified four main forms of structural power in her study States and Markets. One of these is "control over credit."[5] For a developing nation it is clear that a free line of credit is essential to nation-building. Capital is needed to build industries, and the Argentinians lost their line of credit when they declared independence from Bourbon Spain. Argentina as well as most of Latin America lacked the domestic capital to rebuild after the destruction of infrastructure during the revolutions.[6] Therefore, the City of London stepped in and funded the capital where Argentina could not.[5] In return for this foreign capital, the Argentinians were motivated to ensure political stability and keep the interests of the investors in mind.[5]"


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