Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 37/July 1890/The Commercial Geography of South America

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 37‎ | July 1890

THE COMMERCIAL GEOGRAPHY OF SOUTH AMERICA.[1]
By GEORGE G. CHISHOLM, F. R. G. S.

THIS, the smaller half of the New World, has at least four fifths of its area within the tropics, and hence yields chiefly tropical products; but here as elsewhere the temperate area, relatively to its extent, furnishes a greater abundance of commercial commodities, and it is in this part of the continent that the rate of increase in the production of such commodities, and the development of means of distribution for them, are now most rapid, and European immigration is most constant.

The lofty chains of the Andes, on the west side of the continent, form an important climatic barrier. In the latitudes in which the trade winds prevail they arrest the moisture-laden winds from the Atlantic, draining the moisture out of winds that had already been partly drained in their course over the continent farther east. The Andes also constitute a great obstacle to communication between the east and west coasts. There is as yet, no railway that completely crosses any part of them, though there are railways which reach a height of upward of fourteen thousand feet before attaining the table-lands between the principal chains of these mountains.

Some of the mighty rivers to the east of the Andes form excellent water-ways. The Orinoco, in the north of the continent, is navigable for steamers continuously for nearly a thousand miles. The Amazon is navigable without interruption to the base of the Andes, a distance of twenty-six hundred miles from its mouth, and six thousand miles of navigation are afforded by the main stream and its tributaries. Many of these tributaries, however, have their navigable course greatly obstructed by falls and rapids. The value of the navigation of the Amazon is diminished by the paucity of population and products in the region through which it flows and by the similarity of the products in nearly the whole of its navigable course. The inland water-way, which is already of most importance, and likely to remain most useful to commerce in the future, is that from north to south formed by the upper Paraguay and the lower Parana, a water-way which is uninterrupted from near the source of the former river, and which, like the Mississippi, brings hot and temperate climates into direct communication. Its chief drawback is the extreme shallowness of its estuary, the Rio de la Plata, or River Plate.

The population is still very scanty, probably not more than thirty millions. Whites of pure blood form only from two to three tenths of the whole, negroes about one tenth, and the remainder either native Indians or people of mixed race; so that on the whole the Indian element still largely predominates. The white population in Brazil is of Portuguese origin, and Portuguese is there the official language; but elsewhere, except in Guiana, the whites are mainly of Spanish descent, and Spanish is the official language.

Brazil is an empire[2] which secured its independence of Portugal in 1822. In size it is the rival of the United States and Canada. Only a limited area has been turned to account for agriculture. Even the area which travelers in Brazil deem it possible to bring under cultivation at some future time is but a small fraction of the whole. The equatorial valley of the Amazon is filled with dense forests. Close to the coast, that trends in a south easterly direction, stretch ranges of mountains which cut off the Atlantic moisture from the region behind. This region is made up mainly of low table—lands (campos) with a sterile soil. North of about 20° south—that is, throughout the broader part of the country south of the forests—these campos are considered fit for nothing but pasture. There remains nevertheless an area in the south—small, indeed, compared with the extent of the empire, but yet between four and five times the size of Great Britain—in which there are many fertile districts still unsettled, and a considerable extent of these in latitudes fit for European settlers. Till recently the practice of slavery has deterred free immigrants from settling in those provinces in which the institution was most firmly established (those growing tropical products), but since 1871 it has been in process of abolition, and it was entirely abolished in 1888. Great efforts are hence being made by the Brazilian Government to attract immigrants to those districts in which a substitute for slave-labor is most needed. Immigrants, chiefly Italian and Portuguese, are now arriving in thousands. In the southernmost provinces, where slavery was never very general, German and Italian colonies have existed for many years. Railways are so far most numerous in the coffee region of Brazil. Of the projected railways, one of the most important is that designed to avoid the rapids of the Madeira, but for which steamers would be able to ascend to the base of the Bolivian table-land.

The capital of the empire is Rio Janeiro, which is also the chief seaport, and the principal outlet for the coffee region. Its harbor is admirable on account of its commodiousness and safety, and delightful on account of its beauty. The second port of this region is Santos, farther south. Bahia, or San Salvador, and Pernambuco are the seaports of the region producing sugar, cotton, and tobacco; Para, Maranham, and Ceara, those of the region yielding forest products—rubber, Brazil-nuts, cabinet and dye woods, together with cacao and sugar. The ports of the temperate region producing animal products are Rio Grande do Sul, Pelotas, and Porto Alegre, all of which are accessible only to vessels of small draught (under eleven feet), on account of a bar at the entrance to the shallow lake on which they all stand.

Colonial Guiana consists of three portions—one British, about equal to Great Britain in size; one Dutch (Surinam); and one French (Cayenne). Cultivation of plantation products (chiefly sugar-cane) is almost confined to the British and Dutch colonies, and in these to a strip of lowlands along the coast and the river-banks—a strip partly below sea-level, and protected by embankments. In British Guiana Demerara is the chief sugar district. The laborers are negroes, mulattoes, and coolies. In British Guiana a rich gold-field lies on the banks of the Cuyuni in the west, but it has long remained unworked on account of claims being made to this portion of the territory by the government of Venezuela. A rich gold-field is reported to have been recently discovered on the borders of Dutch and French territory. Cayenne is used by the French as a place of deportation for Arab convicts from Algeria.

Venezuela, a republic in the north of the continent, consists chiefly of the basin of the Orinoco. People of Spanish, Indian, and negro descent, all now free, make up the bulk of the population and the majority are settled on a small area of highland valleys in the northwest, where branches of the Andes strike northeastward, and then eastward parallel to the coast. The staple product is coffee; but cacao, cotton, tobacco, and sugar, besides other tropical products, are grown. Gold in the east and copper in the west are important minerals. The plains (llanos) of the Orinoco are devoted to cattle and horse rearing, an industry at one time much more flourishing than now. The chief inland towns are Caracas (the capital) and Valencia, which are situated in inland valleys from eighteen hundred to three thousand feet in height, and are connected by rail with their respective sea-ports, La Guayra and Porto (Puerto) Cabello. Ciudad Bolivar, on the Orinoco, the navigation of which is free to all nations, may also be ranked as a seaport, being accessible to sea-going vessels.

Colombia is a republic with a similar population to that of Venezuela, settled chiefly in the upper parts of the valleys of the Cauca and Magdalena, where, in consequence of the great elevation, the grains of temperate climates are grown. In the low-lands, on the other hand, rice is grown; and it is so generally eaten by the people that a deficiency of this commodity has to be made up for by import. The mineral wealth is great, and gold, silver, and precious stones take a leading place among the exports, which include also Peruvian bark and plantation products. The great channel of communication is the Magdalena, which is navigable for steamers without interruption as high as Honda, but on account of a bar at its mouth is connected with the sea by a short canal running westward to Cartagena, and a railway from Barranquilla to another seaport nearer the mouth of the river. The Panama Railway (from Colon or Aspinwall in the north to Panama in the south) and the Panama Canal belong to Colombian territory. Bogota, the capital, is within five degrees of the equator, but, in virtue of its situation at the height of eight thousand feet above sea-level, enjoys a healthy climate, with a temperature like that of a perpetual spring.

Ecuador is a republic chiefly south of the equator, but which owes its name to the fact that its capital, Quito, is almost under that line. Quito lies, like Bogota, between two chains of the Andes, its elevation being between nine and ten thousand feet. The only seaport is Guayaquil, whence cacao, grown on the western lowlands, is exported. At present communication is difficult between Guayaquil and the capital, but a railway between the two towns is now in progress. To Ecuador belong also the Galapagos, or Turtle Islands, a group situated on the equator, about seven hundred miles to the west.

Peru, a republic lying to the south of Ecuador, has a population of about three millions, at least half of whom are pure Indians. It is composed of three zones: 1. A rainless coast strip, fertilized only here and there by rivers from the Andes, which afford the means of irrigation for sugar and cotton plantations contended by Chinese coolies. 2. The sierra, or valleys and table-lands of the Andes. On one of the table-lands lies (partly in Bolivia) Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America, at the height of twelve thousand five hundred feet above the sea. At this height even barley seldom ripens, and the only regular food-grain is derived from a native plant called quinoa (wholly unlike our cereals). 3. The Montana, the region on the eastern slopes of the Andes, containing the head-waters of the Amazon, a region largely covered with impenetrable forests, of which the most valuable product is Peruvian bark. The capital of the country is Lima, an unhealthy city on the coast strip, a few miles from its port, Callao.

The chief exports are sugar, cotton, nitrate of soda, and llama, vicuna, and sheep's wool; the first three derived from the coast strip, the last from the sierra. Apart from nitrate of soda, the mineral wealth for which Peru (including Bolivia or Upper Peru) was long ago noted is at present commercially of little importance, but projects are now on foot for conferring renewed importance on them by the laying of railways. Among the railways already in existence in Peru are two of the most remarkable in the world, those namely by which the table-lands of the Andes are reached. One of these is the Lima-Oroya Railway (not yet completed), which attains in its passage through the western chain of the Andes a height of fifteen thousand six hundred feet. This railway it is proposed to continue northward to Cerro de Pasco, where there are immense deposits of silver-ore, though the silver-mines have been inundated for half a century. These it is proposed to reopen and work scientifically. The other Andes railway is from the southern seaport of Mollendo to Puno on Lake Titicaca, and this line it is now proposed to continue northward to Cuzco, the ancient capital of Peru. The value of this line has already been greatly increased by the establishment of steamboat traffic on Lake Titicaca and the river Desaguadero, the outlet connecting that lake with Lake Aullagas in Bolivia. Another railway project which has the prospect of being carried out is one for a line southward from Lima, to be afterward continued up the Andes to Huancavelica, where there are rich deposits of quick-silver (mercury). It is likewise proposed to bring the Montana, now almost completely shut off from external commerce, into connection with the outside world by the laying of roads in the north to the Amazon. In this district cotton and coffee plantations have already been started with success.

Bolivia is a republic, now entirely inland, occupying the broadest part of the table-land of the Andes, with a montana to the east. Its population is about two millions, inclusive of about eight hundred thousand uncivilized Indians. Even the civilized population is mainly of Indian origin. The communications of Bolivia with Peru and Brazil have already been referred to. The capital of the country is Sucre, on the part of the table-land drained to the east. La Paz is the chief town on the table-land of Lake Titicaca. The silver-mines of Potosi, which made Peru so valuable a possession to the Spaniards, belong to this state, and are still productive, though in a greatly diminished degree.

Chili, a republic, possesses the whole of the coast strip south of Peru, together with the islands that fringe the coast, including part of Tierra del Fuego and both sides of the Strait of Magellan except in the extreme east. The northern portion of the country is a continuation of the desert strip on the coast of Peru, and is valuable solely for its mineral products—guano (near the coast from the frontier to about 211/2° south), nitrate of soda, or cubic niter, as it is also called (in the same latitudes, but farther in-land), gold, silver, and copper. Copper is even more abundant farther south, along the base of the Andes, north and south of Coquimbo. Silver is also found more abundantly to the south of Copiapo. The middle portion of the territory (between about 33° and 38° south) contains the bulk of the population, who number about two million five hundred thousand in all. The agricultural products are mainly wheat, barley, and southern fruits—similar, in fact, to those of Spain, which has a climate resembling that of the more populous parts of Chili. Notwithstanding that whites predominate in this republic (instead of Indians and half-breeds as in most of the others), agriculture here also is generally in a backward condition, except in some parts of the north, where there are some admirable irrigation works. In the more thickly peopled part of the country there are several hundred miles of railway.

The capital of the country is Santiago, and its port is Valparaiso, on a fine bay looking to the north. Here is received the great bulk of the imports, but since the greater part of the exports consists of mineral produce, chiefly nitrate of soda, copper, and guano, the northern port of Iquique, whence most of the nitrate and guano is shipped, has the largest share in the export trade, Valparaiso coming only second, and Pisagua (another northern port) and Coquimbo next in order. Next to minerals wheat and other agricultural produce form the chief exports. The leading imports are manufactured articles, coal, and iron. The United Kingdom receives the bulk of the exports, and takes the first place in the import trade, Germany and France following, and contributing together a share about equal to that of Great Britain. There is a considerable import trade in cattle and other animals from the Argentine Republic across the passes of the Andes, but the export trade by these routes is very scanty. The passes chiefly used are those near the latitude of Santiago, the Portillo and the Uspallata passes—the former nearly fourteen thousand feet in height, the latter about five hundred feet less. The Strait of Magellan is stormy and washed by strong tides, and hence difficult of navigation, so that sailing vessels still prefer the equally stormy, but for them less dangerous, route round Cape Horn, in the south of Tierra del Fuego.

The Argentine Republic comprises a territory of more than a million square miles, with a population of about four millions. This territory consists mainly of a vast plain sloping down to the Atlantic from the Andes, and other lofty mountains in the west and northwest. It extends from within the tropics to the south of the continent, embracing the eastern half of Tierra del Fuego, and thus includes a great variety of climate. The districts in which the population is most considerable and most rapidly increasing are chiefly those in the neighborhood of the estuary of La Plata and along the right bank of the lower Parana, where there are not only the greatest facilities for commerce, but where also the climate is most favorable to production and best suited to people of European stock. The provinces to which this description applies are Buenos Ayres, south of the estuary; Santa Fe, on the right bank of the lower Parana; Cordoba, to the west of Santa Fe; and Entre Rios, "between the rivers" Parana and Uruguay. The climate here is that of the warmer temperate latitudes, generally with an ample rainfall. Toward the interior the rainfall generally diminishes, and irrigation becomes necessary for cultivation. It is more abundant, however, in the neighborhood of the northern mountains, at the base of which there are sugar and other tropical or sub-tropical plantations. The plain extending eastward from these mountains to the river Paraguay is mainly a region of open forest, and is inhabited at present almost solely by a few tribes of wandering Indians. It is known as El Gran Chaco, or "great hunting-ground."

Of late years the Argentine Republic, together with the neighboring state of Uruguay, has been undergoing a rapid development similar to that of the United States and Canada. They are receiving streams of agricultural settlers, but in this southern region the settlers are mainly from southern Europe (Italy, Spain, and southern France). The Spanish and French immigrants include a large proportion of Basques, who are found to be among the most valuable colonists in these regions. In the thirty years ending 1886 upward of a million immigrants entered the country, and in each of the three years 1886 to 1888 the number considerably exceeded one hundred thousand. The branch of agriculture mostly pursued by these immigrants is not tillage, as in the northern region of European immigration, but the rearing of live stock (chiefly sheep and cattle). Tillage, however, is receiving greater attention, especially in the agricultural colonies, which have been planted in large numbers since 1856, principally along the banks of the Parana; and the result of this is seen in the rising export of wheat and maize. The cultivation of maize is not at present nearly so extensive as the climate of the settled districts admits of, which is chiefly due to the want of a market for the produce; but there is reason to believe that its cultivation might be profitably stimulated by the establishment of the "pork-packing" industry on the same basis as in the United States.

The chief export is wool. The natural facilities for inland commerce afforded by the Paraguay and lower Parana have been mentioned; and here it may be added sea-going vessels can ascend the Parana to Rosario, that the Parana is likewise navigable for steamers above the confluence of the Paraguay as far as the limit of the Argentine frontier, that steamers can ascend the Uruguay River on the eastern frontier as far as the falls which occur in about 31½° south (at the Urugayan town of Salto), and that sea-going vessels of fourteen or fifteen feet draught can reach as high as the Uruguayan town of Paysandu. The Pilcomayo, on the northern frontier, is navigable for two hundred and forty miles, and the Rio Negro in the north of Patagonia affords three hundred miles of navigation through a region deemed a few years ago scarcely fit for settlement, but which is now being rapidly stocked and settled along the whole course of the river. Patagonia, the territory south of the Rio Negro, is mainly a stony desert, but recent explorations have shown that it embraces a considerable amount of fertile land along the base of the Andes. On the coast of this territory there has long been a Welsh colony at Chubut, in latitude 43°, where, among other things, wheat is grown.

As in the United States, railways are being rapidly extended to promote the commerce on which the immigration depends. The Argentine Republic is the part of South America in which railway construction has been, and still is, most active. There are projects for no less than three railways across the Andes into Chili. Of these the farthest advanced is the continuation of the railway from Buenos Ayres to Mendoza across the Uspallata Pass.

The capital of the republic is Buenos Ayres, which stands on the River Plate, and is at the same time the chief seaport, carrying on about one third of the shipping of the republic. This proportion would probably be larger if it were not for the defectiveness of the port, which, is one of the chief hindrances to the development of Argentine commerce. At present, in consequence of the rapid silting up of the River Plate, large vessels have to anchor ten miles from the city, and have not only to load and unload with the aid of lighters, but in certain states of the river large-wheeled carts have to he employed to convey goods and passengers from the lighters to the wharves. Great harbor-works are now, however, in progress with the view of providing a navigable channel to large docks that are to be constructed close beside the town. Lower down the estuary a new capital for the province of Buenos Ayres has been founded under the name of La Plata, and a port with docks and a navigable channel nowhere less than twenty-one feet in depth has here been provided.

Uruguay, a republic lying between the estuary of the La Plata and Brazil, has a similar surface, climate, and population, and similar industries to the neighboring provinces of the Argentine Republic, and is now being as rapidly developed. Among the railways there is one avoiding the rapids of the Uruguay River above Salto, and there is one in progress connecting Salto with the capital. Having a greater rainfall on the whole than the more populous districts of the Argentine Republic, Uruguay rears relatively to area more cattle than the latter country; and of the one million two hundred thousand animals that were annually slaughtered in the two republics for the making of preparations of meat, on the average of the ten years 1876-1885, about fifty-five per cent were slaughtered in Uruguay. This industry has made the small towns of Fray Bentos and Paysandu, on the Uruguay, well known throughout Europe. Among the countries sharing in the commerce of Uruguay, the United Kingdom has the first place both in imports and exports, supplying on the average of the years 1878-1885 nearly twenty-nine per cent in value of the imports, and receiving about twenty per cent of the exports. The capital of Uruguay is Montevideo, which has an excellent harbor.

Paraguay is an inland republic, lying mainly between the Paraguay and Parana Rivers, with a very sparse population, chiefly of native Indians. Its chief export product is the so-called Paraguay tea, or mate. Tobacco, timber, and skins are also exported.

The Falkland Islands, situated to the east of the Strait of Magellan, belong to the British. They have a damp, foggy climate, and are largely covered with peat, but are inhabited by a small number of settlers engaged in the rearing of sheep and cattle. They are frequently visited for repairs and supplies by vessels that have made the passage round Cape Horn.

  1. From the author's Handbook of Commercial Geography, recently published by Longmans, Green & Co., London and New York.
  2. [* These pages were written before Brazil became a republic.—Editor.]