A commercial war: Britain against Germany in South America, 1900--1925

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Peter Marsh


Commercial war, Britain, Germany, South America, World War I

Subject Categories

European History | History | Latin American History


his study focuses on an unappreciated facet of the First World War, namely the British campaign against Germans and their businesses in South America. At the start of the twentieth century, British merchants and diplomats in South America feared German competition for control of the lucrative import and export markets of that continent. Since their independence, republics in the region were economically dominated by British businessmen who considered themselves true British subjects and viewed the local populace as racially and commercially inferior. After the First World War began in 1914, the government in London grew attuned to the demands of these Britons in the neutral South American republics, and as a result, implemented schemes to destroy the distant German firms while fostering British replacements. While examining this attempt by the British to eradicate what they considered a German scourge in the independent, mostly neutral republics of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, this dissertation provides insight into the goals, limits, and motivations behind British imperialism in the region, highlighting the impact of nationalist British businessmen in South America on the formation of policy in London. Contributing to our understanding of the debate over free trade that permeated wartime politics in the United Kingdom, this study shows that those who created and guided this economic war included both ardent tariff reformers and proponents of free trade, all of whom believed that their actions were irrevocably refashioning British foreign trade policy by knitting together British businessmen at home and abroad. Initially the campaign appeared successful. However, it was difficult to influence the other allies to follow the British policy, exposing how South American issues divided Britain and the United States during wartime. When the German businessmen proved wily and flexible targets, the war in South America also illuminated the limitations on British power and the difficulty of infringing on the economic sovereignty of the republics. After the war ended, official systems to gather commercial intelligence and promote British foreign trade spiraled into decline, marking the failure of the government to seal nationalist bonds with British people abroad.


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