Workers, Liberators And Exiles: Latin Americans In London

| 21 September 2006
statue of Simon Bolivar

Statue of Simon Bolivar. Photo: K Smith

Many of the founders of Latin American independence lived, wrote and engaged in politics in London. We look at the history of Latino London from the 1800s to the large, diverse communities living here today.

Latin America: A London Museums' Trail

Latin America consists of 21 countries. From the time of Simon Bolivar, the 'Liberator' who freed Latin America from Spanish rule some have dreamt of the area as a united region - either as a single federated country, or (more recently) as a trade block like the EU to stand up to other large world powers. But many individuals don't take on the identity of 'Latin Americans' until they come to Europe - they are Argentinian or Chilean, Peruvian or Paraguayan. So in speaking of Latin Americans in London, we are looking at a very diverse groups of people and experiences.

As we shall see, in the 19th century a handful of Latin American political figures, writers and diplomats stayed in London - first trying to raise funds for arms to free the continent - then in search of loans to develop it. But it's only since the 70s that Latin Americans have been present in the capital in significant numbers. The first arrivals were mainly political refugees - beginning with Chileans fleeing the regime of Pinochet - followed by exiles from Uruguay, Bolivia and Argentina. Now Brazilians and Colombians form the largest proportion of Latin Americans in London.

Footballers on Clapham Common: a traditional passtime for Latin Americans in London since the 1970s. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

There have more recently been economic migrants, not all of them legal. Latin American women outnumber men 3 to 2: Gema Vincente suggests that the culture of the UK offers them greater opportunities.

This is a community that since its earliest presence here has had a strong affinity for publishing, the arts, and dance. Like the yoga class, salsa has become common across Britain - even if the food culture of Latin America is more restricted to London.

However, there have been far fewer historical takes on Latin American life here: the recent Crossing Borders oral history project is one of very few. You can hear and see some of the results of that research in the Museum of London's Belonging exhibition from late October to February 2007.

Canning House

Perhaps the cultural headquarters of Latin American London is Canning House, which runs a series of talks, films and events about Latin America. It also has a library and a gallery.

photo shows blue plaque of andre bello

Andre Bello's blue plaque in Fitzroy Square. Photo: K Smith

Writing

From Andre Bello onwards, Latin Americans have used their time in London to publish: in many cases producing work that they would have been arrested for in their home countries. One of the earliest was the astonishingly prolific Brazilian Hippolyto Da Costa (1774 - 1823). Fleeing Brazil in 1805, he began writing in London. Pam Decho writes:

'It was then that he founded the Correio Brasiliense, a monthly publication written entirely by da Costa himself and smuggled into Brazil, which had a significant influence at the time of independence.... some of the issues were over 200 pages long.'

For many years he was buried here but in the last five years his bones have been repatriated to Brazil. A plaque still remains commemorating his presence.

photo shows newspaper with woman in swimsuit on the front.

A London Latin American newspaper from the early 90s. Courtesy of the Museum of London.

Another prolific writer was the Colombian Garcia del Rio, who edited El Argos de Chile whilst in London, and set up the Biblioteca Nacional de Lima on his return to South America. The poet Jose Joaquin de Olmedo lived here: his activities as a diplomat were mostly fruitless, but he published his most famous work, La victoria de Junin: Canto a Bolivar in London in 1826.

Andre Bello lived in London for 19 years of his long life, originally arriving as a tutor to Simon Bolivar. He spent much of his time at the British Museum Reading Rooms writing his own work, and promoting the work of other Latin Americans.

Today, there are a huge number of publications produced by Latin Americans in London - from Noticias Latin America which mostly repeats South American news, to publications for clubbers, and satirical magazines.

photo shows plinth.

The plaque at the bottom of Bolivar's statue in Berkeley Square shows a tactful politeness to his hosts, and his ongoing political effort to get Britain involved in the liberation of Latin America. It reads 'I am convinced that England alone is capable of protecting the world's precious rights, as she is great, glorious and wise. - Simon Bolivar'

Eighteenth Century Politics and the Formation of Latin America

It's no accident that some of the most important figures in the creation of Latin America spent time in London. The British government were glad to see the weakening of the Spanish colonies. Although they never were persuaded to provide the concrete support of arms and money that so many Latin American politicians sought, London was a safe place for Latin Americans, whether as visitors or political exiles.

Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Latin America who defeated Spanish forces in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador to become President in 1821. He visited London for six months in 1810 as leader of a diplomatic mission. You can still see his statue in Belgrave Square, close to Canning House.

By contrast, Francisco de Miranda (1750 - 1816) spent over 14 years in political exile in London. Originally in the Spanish army, he wanted to free South America from the Spanish after witnessing the War of Independence in North America. Pam Decho again:

'In 1790 he held the first of several meetings with Prime Minister William Pitt to negotiate the possible realisation of his dream. In this, as in subsequent meetings, Pitt offered just enough encouragement and money to keep Miranda's hopes alive, while never fully committing himself, or the British Goverment, to the plan of emancipation'

Whilst in London, he was mentor to another future Latin American leader: Bernardo O'Higgins, who was Supreme Director of Chile 1817 - 1823.

In 1806 Miranda set out for an attack on Venezuela, when it failed he returned to London. Simon Bolivar brought him back to Venezuela in 1810, but ultimately betrayed him: Miranda spent his last years in a Spanish prison.

His London home is at what is now 58 Grafton way, and a statue of him stands at the corner of Fitzroy Square

photo shows statue against wall of house

Francisco de Miranda. Photo: K Smith

Where to Find Latin America In London

A handful of London museums have collections relating to Latin American history - tending to concentrate on pre-conquest histories. You can read about places to visit here

Most monuments to Latin Americans in London are concentrated on the south eastern corner of Fitzroy Square. You can also see monuments to Latin Americans at a nearby church: St Patrick's Soho Square.

Peruvian newspaper Minka Online reports that a group of Peruvians are campaigning to have a statue of Juan Pablo Viscardo Y Guzman (1748 - 98) put up in London. Viscardo y Guzman already has a small plaque at St Patrick's. One of the earliest people to argue for Latin American independence, he died in poverty in Soho. Like so many of his compatriots who stayed in London, his memory was kept alive by his writings, which inspired a generation of Independence leaders.

For a flavour of Latin American life in the capital today, head first for the Elephant and Castle area for a concentration of shops, food and salsa palaces.

Further Reading

Latin Americans In London: A select list of prominent Latin Americans in London 1800 - 1996 By Pam Decho and Claire Diamond. A comprehensive, accessible picture of Latin American history in London, we're very indebted to this book for the facts in this article.

The Making of Latin London: Salsa music, place and identity - Patria Roman-Velazquez

Unpublished thesis available at Canning House: Latin Americans in London - Migration and the politics of not belonging. Gema Vincente ILAS/Goldsmiths College, London

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