Latin America & Caribbean

Humberstone: A Chilean ghost town's English past

A sign at the entrance to Humberstone in December 2014 Image copyright Empics
Image caption Before it was named Humberstone, the town was known as La Palma

Cast your eye across a map of northern Chile and amid the Spanish and indigenous place names, one name stands out as peculiarly English.

Humberstone is a former mining town in the Atacama Desert, a few hundred kilometres from Chile's borders with Peru and Bolivia.

It was named after James Humberstone, a British chemical engineer who emigrated to South America in 1875.

He made his fortune from saltpetre, which was dug out of caliche - the nitrate-rich crust of the desert - and used to make fertilizer.

For a while in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, almost all the saltpetre in the world came from the Atacama Desert.

It was known as "white gold" and was in huge demand in the industrialising countries of Europe, which needed fertilizer to help grow food for their rapidly expanding populations.

"During the golden age of saltpetre, from 1880 to 1930, it was monumentally important," says Julio Pinto, a historian at the University of Santiago in the Chilean capital.

"It accounted for between 60% and 80% of Chilean exports and between 40% and 60% of Chile's fiscal revenue.

"Chile literally lived off one product: saltpetre."

Gruelling business

Humberstone was one of dozens of saltpetre towns, all of them stuck out in the vast and inhospitable Atacama.

Image caption Humberstone is located in the dry Atacama desert in northern Chile
Image caption Everything in Humberstone revolved around saltpetre mining

Founded in 1872, it was originally known as La Palma and in its heyday was home to around 3,500 people.

"Everything took place in the town," said Osiel Rodriguez, who lived there as a child in the 1940s and is now 78.

Image caption Osiel Rodriguez grew up in Humberstone, a town isolated from the rest of Chile, he recalls

"Our contact with the rest of the country, and even with the surrounding region, was minimal."

Digging for saltpetre was a gruelling business. The workers were outside all day under a blistering sun, with little water or shade.

In 1889, the renowned correspondent for The Times newspaper, William Howard Russell, visited Humberstone and the surrounding saltpetre towns, saying they reminded him of the coal and iron pits of northern England.

"The work goes on incessantly, gang following gang, crushers grinding caliche, boilers dissolving it to stew in its own juice… and nitrate of soda yielding itself up in the tanks night and day to be sent all over the world," Mr Russell wrote.

"There is a general resemblance to a gas works, with the adjuncts of a coal mine," he observed, noting "the squalid-looking settlements where the workmen and their families abode".

Above the factories stood "slender chimneys, rising above black or dun-coloured masses of machinery, vomiting out smoke, white vaporous steam issuing from the boilers beneath".

The cause of war

Saltpetre was so important to the Chileans that they were prepared to go to war over it.

Humberstone was in Peruvian territory in the early 1870s and many of the other saltpetre towns belonged to Bolivia, although most of the companies that operated in the area were Chilean, backed by British investment.

In 1878, Bolivia increased the taxes that one important Anglo-Chilean company paid on its nitrate exports.

Image caption Much of the equipment came from English manufacturers
Image caption It has been well preserved in the dry desert air of the Atacama desert

The Chileans were incensed and despatched troops to the north in protest.

Within weeks, they were at war with the Bolivians, who were backed by Peru.

The War of the Pacific lasted four years and claimed thousands of lives.

The Chileans won and annexed a large swathe of nitrate-rich Bolivian and Peruvian territory - a bone of contention to this day.

"Saltpetre was fundamental to the war," Mr Pinto said.

"Once the war had started, the prime aim of the Chilean government was the permanent occupation of the Bolivian province of Antofagasta and the Peruvian province of Tarapaca."

Death knell

A generation later, another war sounded the death knell of the saltpetre industry.

Image caption Nothing much has changed in the town for decades

When World War One broke out, the British blockaded exports of saltpetre to Germany.

That prompted the Germans to look for alternatives, and they invented synthetic substitutes that could be used to make fertilizer.

Suddenly, no-one needed Chilean nitrate anymore and the industry collapsed.

These days, Humberstone is a ghost town. No-one has lived or worked here for half a century.

But in the dry desert air it has been well preserved.

You can still see the old company store where the workers bought their food and provisions.

Image caption The company store would once have been bustling with activity
Image caption Humberstone is a ghost town, but restoration work is under way to attract more visitors

In the central square, there is a bandstand and cinema that provided them with their entertainment.

Nearby are the remains of a hotel and swimming pool. British-made heavy machinery is littered across the site.

Humberstone is now a United Nations World Heritage Site.

UNESCO is working to restore it for future visitors to this arid, mineral-rich and history-rich corner of South America.

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