Visiting Harrods, Buenos Aires, Argentina: Nostalgia for the British?
Remembering shopping 100 years ago
"Harrods? I thought Harrods was a department store in London, England?"
Well, yes, but as far back as 1914, Harrods had a branch in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Great Britain formerly had huge commercial interests in Argentina and there is still a large English-speaking community) (1)(2).
This property at 877 Florida Street (Spanish: Calle Forida), in Downtown Buenos Aires, is now classified as a heritage building. Six years after its opening in 1914, the building was expanded greatly; at its greatest extent, its sales floor space expanded to 47,000 square metres. Features of the property include marble flooring and cedar furnishings and a cupola atop 8 stories of the building at the corner of Florida and Córdoba Avenue (Spanish: Avenida Códoba).
Many readers may well be taken aback at the sheer extent of British commercial interests in Argentina, a country which was never a British colony or dominion. The former Harrods Buenos Aires was simply one sign of this formerly formidable British commercial presence, which in various ways may have been beneficial but which was preponderant to an undoubtedly excessive extent. Not only were the railroads controlled by British companies, but in the early 20th century the enormous meat industry was handled overwhelmingly by British companies. By way of example, to illustrate the arguably lopsided influence which British firms exercised in Argentina's meat exports, one need only turn to the terms of the Roca-Runciman Treaty of 1933, negotiated between Argentine Vice President Julio Argentino Roca, Jr. (1873-1942), and Sir Walter Runciman, President of the British Board of Trade. Among the provisions heavily favouring British interests, Sir Walter Runciman indicated, in language which continues to strike people as offensive, that the British government "would be agreeable to permit" Argentine companies to engage in up to 15% of Argentina's meat packing industry. It is scarcely believable that foreign representatives could take such an overbearing attitude before the leadership of an independent, sovereign state (3). In Great Britain Sir Walter Runciman is perhaps better known — somewhat infamously — for his rôle in the 1938 Munich Agreement, but in Argentina he is chiefly remembered for his part in the Roca-Runciman Treaty.
Such inequitable arrangements with Great Britain became in due course the subject of attempts in the Argentine Senate at investigation. When in 1935 Senator Lisandro de la Torre tried to question the undue extent of British commercial interests in the meat industry, his colleague and supporter Senator-elect Enzo Bordabehere (1889-1935) was assassinated in the Senate Chamber. Lisandro de la Torre himself became so disillusioned that he himself committed suicide in 1939.
Thus, the period of increasing nationalist fervour which Argentina underwent in the 1940s may be said to have part of its context in widespread misgivings among Argentinians regarding the extent of the influence of the British government and foreign commercial interests.
Time has moved on. Back to Harrods Buenos Aires. I have not frequented this former establishment in recent years; and, since the separation of Harrods Buenos Aires from its former British parent company, business underwent contraction and there have been ongoing discussions about the use of this historic property. (In recent times, the building has been used by practitioners of the Argentine tango.)
April 8, 2015
(1) Some of Greater Buenos Aires's suburbs have English names, such as the municipality of Hurlingham. It is not unusual to come across Argentine nationals with surnames indicating a British heritage. One of Argentina's de facto Presidents in the 1970s is a gentleman by the name of Levingston. One of neighbouring Uruguay's Presidents was an Argentine-born gentleman by the name of Duncan Stewart.
(2) See also (in Spanish): http://edant.clarin.com/diario/1999/07/11/o-02401d.htm
(3) Completely leaving aside issues relating to the internal workings of the British Empire, relations between British ambassadors and Latin America in the 19th century illustrated something of such overbearing attitudes. While Great Britain was not known for formally colonizing Latin American countries (with the exception of British Honduras), such was British commercial influence that British ambassadors would sometimes attempt to instruct Latin American heads of state as they might do to subordinates. (Robert Harvey, Liberators: South American's Savage Wars of Freedom 1810-30, London: Robinson, 2000, p. 493)
Also worth seeing
Visitor attractions Buenos Aires abound, but some of these include: the Casa Rosada seat of government and the Metropolitan Cathedral, both facing Plaza de Mayo; the Congress Palace; the Obelisk and July 9 Avenue. Travellers to Buenos Aires may also find an excursion convenient to Montevideo (distance: 230.4 kilometres) in neighbouring Uruguay.
How to get there : United Airlines flies from Washington-Dulles Airport to Ministro Pistarini International Airport (or: 'Ezeiza'; Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini), Buenos Aires , where car rental is available. Please check with appropriate consular sources regarding any visa requirements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date travel information.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.
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