This research project explored the histories and legacies of British investment in Chilean nitrate mines and involvement in its global trafficking.
Xavier Ribas and Dr Louise Purbrick were principal investigators, joined by postgraduate research student Ignacio Acosta.
Through an examination of sites, artefacts and images, the project traced nitrate's route from natural mineral state processed in the oficinas (works) of the Atacama desert through transported commodity and stock market exchange value to become, ultimately, part of the material and symbolic inheritances of London mansions and of estates in the capital's surrounding countryside. It undertook new audio and visual documentation of geographically disparate but historically connected landscapes, remote nitrate fields and metropolitan financial districts, accompanied by an analysis of nitrate's material and visual culture.
As a basic ingredient of both fertilizers and explosives, nitrate was intimately connected with the industrialization of life and death, yet an account of its production and trade, including the pivotal role played by British merchant houses and adventure capitalists, is quite unfamiliar beyond specific research communities devoted to Latin America economic development. Thus, the project entitled Traces of Nitrate, directly addresses a lack of historical understanding and cultural awareness of the significance of the nitrate industry by disseminating its research through a photographic exhibition, video installation, programme of public events as well as scholarly publications aimed at interest groups in and outside the university sector. Seeking to uncover the extent to which a once highly prized mineral was at the centre of the relationship between Britain and Chile between 1879 and 1914 and how, in this period between the beginning of the Pacific War and the outbreak of the First World War, it was connected to fortunes of City of London, ports of Liverpool, Pisagua and Iquique, the research will also locate nitrate within a process of globalization shaped not only by the expansion of consumer culture but also by the extraction and depletion of non-renewable resources.
The 'trace' of the project's title thus refers to a process of delineation as well as to the objects of inquiry: the physical remains. Their transformation over time was carefully mapped to create 'biographies' of nitrate artefacts, paying close attention to how mineral wealth has been collected or allowed to disappear and to the preservation or regeneration of twentieth century landscapes of finance. Sustained archival research enabled the identification of particular places and objects but these records of nitrate industry (for example, photographs within the Fondo Fotográfico Fundación Universidad de Navarra or papers of Antony Gibbs and Son, Guildhall Library) were also scrutinized as representations that deploy categories of the 'foreign' or 'familiar', define land as a commodity or as a nation and cast the character of the financial investor or identity of nitrate miner. Assembling and analyzing these spatial, visual and material records indicated where British and Chilean histories converge and separate allowing insights into the selective process of remembering and forgetting the past.
Traces of Nitrate engaged with three fields of current academic inquiry: visual cultures of colonialism; contemporary photographic practice; the material culture and heritage of conflict. Its scope is dependent upon the different expertise of Ribas (PI) and Purbrick (Co-I) in documentary photography and the interpretation of visual and material culture, respectively, and their overlapping interest in the investigation of contested spaces and unequally shared legacies. As part of the project, they jointly supervised doctoral student Ignacio Acosta.
Traces of Nitrate was conducted in collaboration with partners in Chile, Spain and Britain: Universidad UNIACC, Santiago, Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona, Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool.