• Carolyn

Patagonia and British royalty

Updated: Jun 18, 2020


Patagonia, straddling southern Chile and Argentina, was still largely unexplored during the latter half of the nineteenth century, and there were many border disputes between the two countries.

You and I could easily assume that the ridge of the Andes mountains should mark the borderline. But as I soon found, this is not as easy as it sounds. Because a line joining the highest peaks would favour Argentina, whereas a line determined by the direction of water flow - the drainage basins - would favour Chile.

The difficulty of the drainage basin approach - for Argentina - was described by the famous Argentine explorer Francisco Perito Moreno (after whom the famous glacier is named). He showed that many Patagonian lakes draining to the Pacific were part of the Atlantic basin, but had been moraine-dammed during the quaternary glaciations, changing their outlets to the west.

Queen Victoria

In 1896, unable to agree the approach, the governments of Chile and Argentina decided to submit border disputes south of latitude 26° 52' 45" to the arbitration of 'Her Britannic Majesty's Government,' in other words the government of Queen Victoria.

So, when a dispute arose in 1898, it was referred to Her Britannic Majesty's Government. Queen Victoria set up a Tribunal, and the Tribunal set up a Technical Commission to survey the frontier. The reading of many maps and reports, the bureaucratic decision-making and the appointment-organising all seemed to take a while, because it was only in January 1902 that the survey began. It continued until in July 1902. This is explained in section 6 of the final report as follows:

6. After a preliminary consideration of this voluminous information, we arrived at the point at which it became advisable that an actual study of the ground — as provided for in the Agreement of 1896 — should be undertaken; and upon our suggestion Your Majesty's Government nominated one of our members, Colonel Sir Thomas Holdich of the Royal Engineers, a Vice-President of the Royal Geographical Society, to proceed as Commissioner to the disputed territory, accompanied by an experienced staff.

We know from section 7 of the final report, that the officers enjoyed their work:

7. Sir Thomas Holdich and his officers were received with great cordiality and friendliness by the Presidents of the two Republics, and were given every assistance and facility by the officials and experts of both Governments.

In fact, rumours (no doubt untrue) say members of the team were so cordially received by various southern Patagonian sheep farmers, that their proposed border may have moved a little over dinner.

Whatever the issues, the Commission's report was approved in November 1902. The problem of the disputed lakes was resolved by dividing them into two equal parts, which thereafter caused confusion to travellers, because each country gave them different names.

King Edward VII

By this time Queen Victoria had died. Her son had become Edward VII, and he signed the formal award. He was referred to in the report as 'EDWARD, by the grace of God, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India, etc., etc.'

Hopefully Edward was pleased with this title, after having waited forty long years for it.

A medal

After agreement was reached, the Presidents of the two countries, on board their respective ships, met in the Straits of Magellan. A medal, cast in 1902. commemorated this event. On one side it showed the cruisers 'San Martin' (Argentina) and 'O'Higgins' (Chile) side by side under steam, with a Latin legend 'Henceforth peace in both oceans.' On the other side was a mountain range beneath a rainbow.

Queen Elizabeth II

Further disputes arose in 1965, with an award signed by H.M. Queen Elizabeth II on 9 December 1966. And then again in 1971, the Argentine Republic and Chile agreed to submit a Beagle Channel controversy to arbitration.

'Olde Worlde' Spanish

And for those students of Spanish who find the spelling from 1902 confusing, it is. The image below, a snapshot from a document that described the border issue, is an example of this. Words like 'extensión' were spelt 'estension.' And 'y' was spelt 'i.' Also, but not in this example, some words that now begin with 'g,' began with 'j' - for example 'general' was 'jeneral.'

Sources: The National Archives, Kew, United Nations, and relevant wikipedia pages.


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