By Daniela Paolini
Chronologies do not necessarily match among different societies, and the variation in Romantic periods across the globe is a good example of that. We could say that Britain, along with Germany, was the birthplace of Romanticism, an aesthetic tendency that emerged at the end of the 18th century, spread through Europe during the first decades of the next century, until it reached the Río de la Plata region –most of which would become present-day Argentina and Uruguay– thanks to the poet Esteban Echeverría, who brought the literary novelties from his trip to Paris. Thus, influenced by French Romanticism, Echeverría published Los consuelos, usually considered the first Rioplatense romantic work, in 1834, at a time when British Romanticism was extinguishing. This is a general but well-established approach to the diffusion of Romanticism as a literary movement, which goes from the center of Western culture to its margins with a certain delay, as if the “denial of coevalness” –the distancing in time of contemporary cultures made by the anthropological observer– could also be applied to processes of transculturation. However, before the alleged incorporation of French Romanticism via Echeverría, the creole elite of the Río de la Plata saw Britain as a desirable ally and model for the future nation; furthermore, economic, political, and cultural relations were frequent between the two during Britain’s Romantic period. Is it possible then to think that the cultural practices and discourses of Romanticism could have had an earlier impact in this part of Latin America, through the bonds that Rioplatenses and Britons forged in the first third of the 19th century?
This question is the starting point of my research on the cultural encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata between 1806 and 1834, in which I consider the synchrony of these encounters with the rising of British Romanticism. Taking this into account, I turn to the analysis of periodicals, letters, poems, memoirs, biographies, historical essays, and travel narratives that deal with these Anglo-Rioplatense networks and that indicate changes in Río de la Plata’s ways of perceiving, understanding, and feeling, which can be related to the cultural sensibility emerging in Britain during the Romantic age. The chronological frame covers the period of British Romanticism’s major activity and ends up before the rise of the avowedly Romantic 1837 Generation, a group of young intellectuals led by Echeverría, whose literary and political programs would be tied to the fight against the second government of Juan Manuel de Rosas (1835-1852). Prioritizing direct encounters –i.e., those that occur by in situ contacts through wars, travels and settlements– and readings that are not mediated by other cultures –in English and in Spanish, or in translations between these two–, I focus on four contact zones: the British occupations of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (1806-1807), the diplomatic journeys to London during the revolutionary years (1810-1816), the British residences in Río de la Plata since the British Invasions until the beginning of Rosas’s second government (1806-1835), and Rudolph Ackermann’s publications for Latin America, which circulated in Rioplatense society through this period (1823-1829).
The British invasions into the Río de la Plata marks a first contact zone, a concept that emphasizes the interactive, unforeseen, and mutually significant aspects of cultural encounters, even if they are determined by asymmetrical relations. While Britain turned its imperial ambitions to this part of Spanish America –conceiving the capture of Buenos Aires on the 27th of June 1806 as a chivalric enterprise, part of its crusade against Napoleonic expansion– the Rioplatenses experienced the loss of the Viceroyalty’s capital as a shock of modernity that disrupted the peaceful and stable course of colonial life. After forty-six days in which Buenos Aires belonged to the British Crown, the locals gathered in newly formed militias that recaptured the city on the 12th of August, a victory that infused, in the words of the British Major Alexander Gillespie, a “new spirit of chivalry” (Gleanings and Remarks, 1818) among the Rioplatenses, so initiating a militarization process that would later be crucial in the emancipation of the Spanish American colonies. In this sense, the war with the Britons modified the self-perception of the people of Buenos Aires as patriots and warriors, in a similar way as how Romantic Britain saw its fight in the Napoleonic wars through an imaginary recovery of Medieval values, like bravery, honor, and spiritual devotion. The second British attempt to take Buenos Aires over in July 1807, made while seizing control of Montevideo, brought with it a new media and visual experience, expressed in the circulation of British propaganda and of a bilingual periodical, The Southern Star (1807), which inaugurated the print culture of the Banda Oriental (present-day Uruguay). These materials politicized the Rioplatense public sphere by spreading ideas of free trade, freedom of expression and religious tolerance that advocated for new ways of living and engaging with the world, challenging the foundations of the colonial system.
After this frustrated enterprise, Britain became an important supporter of Spanish American emancipation, which was a means to expand its commercial and political power through alliance rather than formal imperial dominance. During the revolutionary years that led towards independence in the Río de la Plata (1810-1816), London was a key destination –and lieu of the second contact zone– as a negotiation center to open the local economy to the British and international markets, as a place of mediation in the disputes between the former colonies and the metropolis, and as a meeting point with other Spanish-American revolutionaries. However, far from being an ideal scenario, the English capital presented a complex situation, because the British government was trying to appear neutral in the conflict between Spain and its colonies, among other circumstances that hindered diplomatic relations. In this context, Rioplatenses envoys like Manuel Moreno and Vicente Pazos Kanki found another way to fulfill their missions through their insertion in the London periodical press and book market, partaking in the same cultural scene in which the British Romantics intervened. After the failure of the mission assigned to Mariano Moreno, who died at sea before reaching London, his brother Manuel Moreno had to find other means to fulfill the trip’s purpose and vindicate the memory of Mariano, accused by his opponents of being a Rioplatense version of Robespierre. With that in mind, he wrote and published in London the biography of his brother, Vida y memorias del Dr. Don Mariano Moreno (1812), where he depicts a moderate concept of the 1810 May Revolution more attractive to the conservative British eye, and an image of the deceased revolutionary that consecrates him as a civic hero, who sacrificed himself for an ideal. For Vicente Pazos Silva, the London experience meant an identity transformation, because during his stay he converted to Anglicanism, and on his return to Buenos Aires he adopted his mother’s indigenous name, replacing “Silva” for “Kanki”. This transformation can be linked with his future role as a cultural organizer in the Rioplatense press and with his way of recovering the past, customs, and languages of the Native-Americans in his Letters on the United Provinces of South America (1819), which manifests his interest in historical reconstruction to better understand the contemporary situation of the South American countries. Thus, Moreno’s and Pazos’s literary operations can be associated to the formation of Romantic culture in Britain, characterized by the disenchantment with concrete political action, the propagation of nationalist sentiments and historicist discourses, and the construction of the Romantic hero as a misunderstood and sacrificed genius.
In the 1820s, British interest in Spanish America began to increase as a result of invitations to emigrate and to invest economically in the promising new republics. In the Río de la Plata, the Minister of Government in Buenos Aires, Bernardino Rivadavia, applied a modernization plan that encouraged a considerable number of British foreigners to reside and establish their businesses in the region, whose residences shaped the third contact zone of this research. A group of them, including Santiago Spencer Wilde, financed the creation of a park inspired by London’s Vauxhall Garden, the Parque Argentino, where people could promenade in an environment adorned with exotic plants and be entertained by theatrical and circus performances. British merchants influenced the acquisition of a local taste for foreign commodities, popularizing tableware patterns with rural and exotic motifs, which embodied the feeling of romantic nostalgia in the face of advancing industrialization. The social ties between Britons like John and William Parish Robertson (Letters on South America, 1843) and members of the Rioplatense elite like Ignacio Núñez (Noticias Históricas de la República Argentina, 1857)and Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson (Recuerdos de la Buenos Aires Virreinal, c.1860) inspired the adoption of new habits and manners, such as greeting each other at the table with a glass or walking arm in arm, practices that are associated with the shape of a more modern and liberal society. These changes in customs and fashions and in ways of inhabiting the land which separates work and leisure, public and private, rural and urban spaces are sustained by a romantic experience of the visual, leading to a gradual awareness that the visible depends as much on the perceptible as on the imagined.
Rudolph Ackermann’s cultural project for Latin America is the last contact zone of this series. The German publisher, bookseller, inventor, and businessman, settled in London since 1787, was a relevant figure that contributed to the shaping of middle-class culture in Early 19th century Britain. He saw works of art as commodities that could facilitate the democratization of good taste, and his colorful plates and engravings, magazines, and other publications meant to teach cultural literacy to their audience. This type of undertaking attracted the attention of Spanish-American representatives in London that wanted to civilize their countries through the dissemination of enlightened knowledge, like Rivadavia, who attended Ackermann’s literary meetings in the 1810s. Rivadavia, who later became the first president of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (1826-1827), arranged with the businessman the importation of magazines (e.g. Variedades o el mensajero de Londres, 1823-1825), books (e.g. Spanish Translation of Ivanhoe, 1825), literary annuals (No me olvides, 1824-1829), and secular catechisms made by a group of liberal Spaniards exiled in London, among them José María Blanco White and José Joaquín de Mora. These writers –often included in what is called Transatlantic Romanticism– managed to use Ackermann’s publications to disseminate their aesthetic and ideological interests, which contrasted with what they considered “frivolous” aspects of sections dedicated to fashion or picturesque travel. Such contrasts materialized the disputes at stake in Romantic era Britain, transmitting tensions between high culture and mass culture, knowledge and entertainment, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, to the Rioplatense reading public.
These encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata show the many forms in which cultural connections can be manifested, such as through sociability, intervention in the public sphere, taste acquisition, or cultural ventures. This way, we seek to detect unexpected phenomena of transculturation, that are affected by an emerging state of new experiences –which we can critically described as “romantic”– in a period of Argentine and Uruguayan cultural history considered predominantly Neoclassical. By looking for transformations in sensibility –changes in ideas and concepts, but also in emotions, beliefs, values, and perceptions that are not necessarily defined or rationalized at the moment they are experienced– we can explore how contact with British culture prepared the sociocultural setting of the Río de la Plata for the assimilation of Romantic sensibility at a time prior to its appearance as a literary movement.
Daniela Paolini is a doctoral candidate at the Universidad de Buenos Aires working on cultural encounters between the Río de la Plata area and Great Britain during Britain’s Romantic Period. Currently, she also teaches 19th century Argentine Literature at this university and, as a doctoral fellow, she develops her research at the Instituto de Literatura Hispanoamericana. She has published an article on Mariano Moreno’s biography in Cuadernos de Ilustración y Romanticismo and a chapter in a book on Gothic Fiction in Argentine Literature, both in open access.
Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia.
Featured Image: La Reconquista de Buenos Aires (1909) by Charles Fouqueray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.