At first, it tasted a bit like pork. Some of them vomited at the idea but, after a few morsels – nearly freezing to death from hypothermia and driven demented by hunger after over a week without food – they sat on the side of the Andes and chewed on their dead friends in silence. Apparently, you could tell the ones who had eaten human flesh due to the ghastly greenish tinge on their faces. Cannibalism was not something the Christian Brothers of the Stella Maris College in Montevideo had prepared them for.
Quite apart from Luis Suarez’s cannibalistic instincts in the box, one of the few things most people know about Uruguay is the awful story about the rugby team whose plane crashed over the Andes in October 1972 and the fact that a number of the young men survived by resorting to cannibalism.
But did you know that all these young men, who played for the Montevideo club “The Old Christians”, were all pupils or recent graduates of the Stella Maris College – an Irish secondary school? This school was founded in 1955 by Brother Patrick Kelly to educate the Irish-Uruguayan population here in Montevideo. At the peak of Uruguay’s economic miracle, thousands of Irish migrants rocked up here in Montevideo. Many became middle managers or professionals and they now are heavily present in the bourgeois of this tiny Latin country.
Yesterday, I was speaking at the Sheraton in Montevideo to a large group that included some descendants of these Irish migrants with plenty of O’Neills, Lawlors and O’Briens in the audience.
But what were Irish people doing down here in the first place? And does their story have anything to teach us over 150 years later?
They arrived here in the River Plate region during the first great age of globalisation, at the same time their cousins were arriving in New York. Many people think that globalisation is something very new; it is not.
We are in the second great age of globalization. The first was between 1870-1914, when the world opened up to trade, ideas, innovation, huge capital flows and – unlike today – huge legal movements of people from Europe to the rest of the world. The Irish were at the vanguard of these movements.
At the core of these population upheavals was massively disruptive technology, which destroyed old ways of doing things and opened up new opportunities all over the globe. The same is happening now.
As I write from a beautiful café right in the centre of Montevideo – Cafe Brasilero – you can almost hear the enormous River Plate, the main trading artery from here to Europe, flowing a block or two away. Interestingly, the date this café opened was 1877; you can just make out the scratchy numbers in the café’s ancient faded mirror.
In June 1877 a British-financed ship with a French name “The Frigorifique” set sail on the River Plate. But this wasn’t just any old ship. This ship would change the course of history. It carried something that had never been shipped such distances before: it carried frozen beef. The fridge was one of the single most important disruptive technologies of the past 100 years.
By enabling direct exports of meat from the Pampas of Argentina and Uruguay, the fridge destroyed the stranglehold that European farmers had on the quantity and thus the price of beef.
This invention destroyed European agriculture and more importantly laid the foundation for the establishment of Ireland as a free state.
The arrival of cheap meat from the River Plate was the biggest change to Irish agriculture ever. It also changed Irish politics forever.
Think about it. Ireland was a beef producer. We produced beef for the British market. Irish agricultural incomes were dependent on the British price of beef. The British price of beef was dependent on the productivity of Irish, Scottish and English farms. This was in turn dependent on the amount of land farmed. By definition, there could be no more land, so it was a fixed supply and therefore, the price of land was always underpinned by the demand for and price of beef.
But, with the disruptive technology of floating freezers (allowing export from Uruguay and Argentina to flood the European market), all that changed. The price of beef collapsed. So too did the return to Irish land and, as a result, the price of land fell too. The fall in both the income from land and the collapse of wealth associated with land meant that Irish tenant farmers saw their incomes fall, implying fewer farmers could be maintained on the land.
This prompted significant emigration of younger sons in the late 1880s and 1890s – 50,000 Irish emigrated to the River Plate region. It also radicalized the ones who were left, who blamed the landlords for the collapse in their income.
But something else was going on.
The Montevideo-inspired collapse in the price of Irish land made English landlords in Ireland and local landlords less inclined to hold on to land. So they started to side with the London Parliament to accelerate the Land Acts, which many of them saw as the last chance to sell land in Ireland. It was seen as a bailout by many politically-agnostic landlords.
The endgame of this process, the radicalization of Irish tenant farmers and the gradual disengagement from Irish land by all landlords (bar the most Unionist) were the direct consequences of the disruptive technologies deployed here in Uruguay and over the giant river in Argentina.
Sitting here in the Café Brasilero in Montevideo (http://www.cafebrasilero.com.uy/) founded in the same year as floating freezers changed our world, it is not difficult to see how disruptive technologies deployed thousands of miles away can have profound impacts on the industrial, agricultural and political of countries on the other side of the world.
Would 1916 have happened without floating freezers? Who knows. But there is one thing that is certain: looking at narrow-gauge history without looking at the broader economic factors that propel historical events will give you an incomplete picture.
Given the huge technological changes going on right now, I wonder what start-up is discovering a new way of doing business and what major economic, social and political impact such an invention might have on the lives of millions in the years ahead?