The nitrate trade



One of the last trades for which sailships could compete was the south american nitrate one.

The ships went from Europe to Chile, what is from East to West round Cape Horn. Because of the strong westward winds in these latitudes, the passage was frequently quite difficult, very different from the passage from West to East, not easy itself.

After having rounded the Cape Horn and discharged in Valparaíso, they went to load the nitrate, most frequently in Iquique or Antofagasta, and went back to Europe in the "easy" way around the Cape Horn.

The Cape Horn, the Falklands and the Antarctic

In the years 1890, numerous ships sailed on this route: they were sometimes one hundred to load in Iquique...

The desert of Atacama

The german maritime transport company Ferdinand Laeisz used sailships on this route until the beginning of the Second World war.

The White Gold legend

The desert of Atacama
In the most arid desert of the world, the desert of Atacama when it never rains, in the north of the Chile, men, mules and machines took part to one of the biggest adventures of the modern industry: the working of natural sodium nitrate.

The desert of Atacama
Since the XVth century the Incas were aware of the salpetre properties as fertilizer.

During centuries, production methods stayed primitives and production was stagnating. However, in the last decades of the XIXth century, the south american nitrate became very important.

The desert of Atacama
Several factors such as diminution of salpetre from India, the increasing worldwide demand and the enormous resources in the areas of Atacama and Iquique made the nitrate as the main stake in the war between Chile - Peru and Bolivia in 1879. A war, for most, more motivated by international interests than divergence between parties... Following his victory, the Chile took control of all this region.

Iquique at the beginning of the century
After the peace, the working of the nitrate accelerated thanks to british and american capital. It was the dawn of the white gold...

Paradoxically, the natural nitrate is at the same time a fertilizer and a basic component for explosives... With the First World war, the export of salpetre showed its best period. The demand for chilean nitrate increased exponentially. The white gold turned the frozen north into a new California...

Just at the edge of the nitrate the concessions with dream names flourished: "Adventure", "Perseverance", "Chance" ... or with a woman name: "Marie Eugenie", "Marie Helene", "Soledad", "Carmen".

Nitrate plant in 1922

Until 1915 more than two hundred and fifty concessions were working feverishly, with a population close to three hundred thousand people and an output of four million tons a year...

Crystallization vats, nitrate plant, 1922

The concessions were true miniature cities, made of sun and wind, toughed by cold and night, covered with salt.

Loading of nitrate in 1929

The inhabitants of the pampa quickly crossed, the tanned Chilean with the pale gringo; the quiet Chinese with the impassive aymara ; the inhabitant of Santiago with the one of Atacama.

The powerful english railroads forwarded unceasingly from the concessions built with the sweat of a hard labour of excluded from the privileged life...

One time when one got dressed with English linnen, drank French champagne and smoked by listening to the waltz of the " Merry Widow ". The salpeter, more than an industry, was a magic way of life... The abundance of the money attracted foreign women and the northern ports Taltal, Pisagua, Tocopilla and Antofagasta became the high places of the victorious captains of the Cape Horn...

However, the synthetic ammoniac, Haber-Bosch method, created by the germans during the First World war, became a serious competitor of the chilean nitrate.

Without embargo, the coup de grâce of the white gold came from the world recession of 1930, which put an end in a few months to an adventure of almost fifty years...

The concessions closed one after one, its inhabitants, incredulous gave up all, believing in a momentary situation... persuaded of a prompt return...

The silence of salt came back on Slavonia, Celia, Chacabuco, North Lagunas, Delaware...

The money went away toward other foreign horizons...

Le last three-masted clipper loaded her nitrate and left
with no return.

A return to the desert... Farewell Vergara, Araucana...

The desert of Atacama

Sodium Nitrate
Cap-Horners Museum, St Malo

The english railroads circulate today between nothing and the silence...

The graveyards with wind erased names are the last rest of a single
nationality... the inhabitants of the pampa.

Iquique is now a port and an... ordinary seaside resort.


(1) Taltal

(2) Monkbarns

Ferdinand Laeisz

The voyages of the Pamir

The Pamir