- BBC News World
Going to the ghost town of Humberstone, in the Great North of Chile, is like traveling back in time.
Although no one has lived or worked here for more than half a century, among its desert alleys you can still see part of the facades of the offices, schools and even a large theater that gave life to this site between 1870 and 1960, when thousands of workers worked for a common purpose: the millionaire industry of the salitre, also called “white gold”.
They were happy times for this South American country. The enormous demand for the material from the industrialized nations of Europe led to a period of great enrichment, which was even called the “Belle Epoque”Chilean.
And it is that at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, almost all the saltpeter in the world came from the Atacama desert. And for Chile, its importance was vital: it represented between 40% and 60% of its tax revenue.
“Chile literally lived on a single product: saltpeter,” explained the historian from the University of Santiago, Julio Pinto, BBC World.
It all came up in 1866, when the Chilean explorer José Santos Ossa discovered saltpeter deposits in the Salar del Carmen, near the city of Antofagasta. At that time, these lands belonged to Bolivia, but Santos Ossa obtained a permit authorizing him to extract the mineral for 15 years.
Some time later, in 1982, the main and best known nitrate headquarters in the area was built: the Humberstone Saltpeter Office, originally called The Palm.
At its peak —between 1900 and 1929—, this place located about 50 kilometers from Iquique (Tarapacá Region), was home to around 3,500 people, which meant a great demographic mobility of Chileans to the north, which was later enriched with different migratory waves, especially from Peru and Bolivia.
Here its inhabitants forged a specific community culture of the “pampinos” —that is, of those who inhabit the desert area of northern Chile—, characterized by their linguistic expression and their pioneering struggle for social justice due to the difficult working conditions in Chile. one of the most arid and hostile areas on the planet.
The business model behind the nitrate mill was based on the sistema Shanks, developed by James Humberstone (nicknamed “Don Santiago” by workers in the area), a British chemical engineer who emigrated to South America in 1875 And where does the name of this ghost town come from?
The procedure considered dissolving the “caliche”, the nitrate-rich desert crust, in order to extract the sodium nitrate, a fertilizer that transformed agriculture in America and Europe, providing Chile with considerable wealth.
In this way, the Briton managed to build a fortune based on one of the largest extractors of “white gold” in the world, employing thousands of people and setting up a business that was an engine of development for the surrounding regions.
A difficult job
But it wasn’t all about making happy accounts. Digging the saltpeter was backbreaking work. The workers had to spend the entire day in a scorching sun, with little water or shade.
In 1889, the well-known correspondent of the newspaper The Times, William Howard RussellHe visited Humberstone and the surrounding nitrate towns, saying they reminded him of the iron and coal mines of northern England.
“The work doesn’t stop, crew after crew, nitrate grinders, kettles to boil and cook it in its own juices … and sodium nitrate leaping into tanks day and night to be shipped around the world,” Russell wrote.
“There is a general resemblance to a gas plant, with the particularities of a coal mine,” observed the journalist, highlighting “the squalid settlements where the workers and their families live.”
The saltpeter was so important to the Chileans who were willing to go to war for him.
Despite the fact that the independence of the countries of Chile, Peru and Bolivia took place in 1810, 1821 and 1825, respectively, the borders were not completely defined.
In the 1870s, many of the nitrate towns belonged to Bolivian territory despite the fact that most of the companies operating in the area were Chilean backed with British investment.
The problem was unleashed when the Bolivian government imposed a tax of 10 cents per quintal of exported nitrate under a private transaction contract. Chile, then, decided to invade its territory in protest and arguing that it violated a trade treaty signed in 1874.
This agreement established that Bolivians would not increase taxes on nitrate for 25 years, that is, until 1899.
The conflict that broke out and that involved Peru, an ally of Bolivia, is what is known today as the Pacific War (or War of Guano and Saltpeter), which took place between 1879 and 1884, and is considered one of the bloodiest in the history of Latin America.
The Chilean victory moved its border northward, annexing a large strip of nitrate-rich territory.
This left Bolivia without 120,000 square kilometers of territory Y 400 kilometers of coastline, according to the estimates of historians.
“The saltpeter was fundamental to the war,” said historian Julio Pinto.
“Once it had started, the main objective of the Chilean government was the permanent occupation of the Bolivian province of Antofagasta and the Peruvian province of Tarapacá,” he says.
The collapse of the industry
A generation later, in the 1930s and 1940s, another war would end the nitrate industry.
When the First World War exploded, the British blocked saltpeter exports to Germany.
That led the Germans to look for alternatives, so they invented synthetic substitutes that could be used to make compost.
And so, suddenly, no one needed Chilean nitrate and the industry collapsed.
Little by little, the different nitrate offices that operated in the north of Chile began to close and disappear.
Finally, in 1958 the Compañía Salitrera de Tarapacá and Antofagasta entered into an acute crisis and ended up dissolving; while Humberstone was closed definitively and its last inhabitants abandoned it between 1960 and 1961.
60 years after its disappearance, the ghost town of Humberstone is on the Unesco World Heritage List. Since 2001 it has been under the protection of the Chilean Saltpeter Museum Corporation.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.