John Thomas North, the Nitrate King
Britain's connections with Chile date from her War of Independence, and were powerfully re-inforced by a Victorian company-promoter in the City of London.
In the export of British capital and enterprise in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the key role was often played by individual entrepreneurs who created the necessary interest among the investing public in the potentiality of overseas resources and who made possible significant developments in the areas of their operations, largely by the force of personal example. Such a man was John Thomas North, 1842-1896, known in his day as “The Nitrate King,” the principal promoter of an industry and trade that was the economic prop of the Latin American state of Chile from the 1880’s until the First World War. North was a remarkable Englishman who rose, in his own words, “from mechanic to millionaire” in the space of some twenty years, whose activities in the 188o’s and 1890’s were a constant subject of interest to the commercial press, and whose efforts to become a figure in society were almost as dramatic as his manipulation of the nitrate market on the London Stock Exchange. A self-made entrepreneur, endowed with considerable business acumen and an ebullient character, North belongs to the age of Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato, though, unlike them, he is almost completely unremembered in his own country. But he has a permanent place in the history of Chile and in the history of British commercial relations with Latin America.