Caldcleugh, Alexander (1795-1858)

Merchant, miner, botanist and mineralogist, was born in London, the only son of the four children born to Alexander Caldcleugh and Elizabeth Beatson. Very little is known about Caldcleugh’s early years and career. The first documented information about him is that he departed from Plymouth on 9 September 1819 on board HMS Superb bound for Rio de Janeiro, where he arrived on 21 October 1819. He acted as private secretary to the British minister at Rio de Janeiro, Sir Edward Thornton (1766–1852). Caldcleugh remained in Rio and its vicinity from October 1819 until January 1821, when he was invited by Captain Stanhope to visit Buenos Aires on board the Alacrity. Before arriving in Buenos Aires on 5 February 1821, he visited Montevideo for a few days. Caldcleugh remained in Buenos Aires for only two weeks but was well received by a local British merchant, George Frederick Dickson (1787 – 1821), who was later appointed as consul to London by the Buenos Aires government. From the River Plate Caldcleugh, travelled to Mendoza and subsequently to Chile. In his short visit to Santiago de Chile, he was well received by a ‘J. Lawson, Esquire’ (A. Caldcleugh, 1825: vii). On 14 April 1821, Caldcleugh left Valparaiso for Lima on board the Creole. He stayed in Peru for a few days before returning to Valparaiso. From there, once again, he crossed the Andes and arrived back in Mendoza on 9 June 1821. From Mendoza, Caldcleugh returned to Buenos Aires and re-embarked for Rio de Janeiro in late June. At the end of 1821, he left Brazil for England, where he arrived on 22 November 1821.

During most of his travels in South America, Caldcleugh kept a detailed diary in which he recorded a wide range of interesting subjects. Based on these notes, he published a two-volume book in 1825, which was very well received in Britain and even translated into German the following year. Modern Spanish America was relatively unknown to the rest of the world. After independence, British travellers and many others were allowed to visit this ‘New World’; they wrote extensively about the continent during the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s. Among the extensive British writing of this time, Caldcleugh’s books are considered to be among the finest early descriptions of southern South America. His work contains not only fascinating personal stories but also helpful historic, geographic, statistical and commercial information. During this trip, Caldcleugh collected plants for Kew Gardens, which he sent to A. B. Lambert (1761–1842), including many native South American plants that were unknown in Britain. Indeed, the plant, caldcluvia, was so called in his honour.

For the period 1822–1829, when Caldcleugh was back in Britain, little is known about him, except that he resided in Croydon. There is evidence that he was a Fellow of the Geological Society from 1822, a Fellow of the Linnean Society from 1823 and a Fellow of the Royal Society from 1831. For the Royal Society, he wrote a paper about the devastating earthquake that affected Chile in 1835; this was published by the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

In 1829, Caldcleugh returned to Chile, this time as a commissioner of the failed Anglo-Chilean Mining Company to liquidate the firm. All the evidence suggests that Caldcleugh intended to establish himself in Chile for a long period. Indeed, soon after his arrival, he invested in mining enterprises in northern Chile and in farming land in central Chile. Within a few years, he became one of the most prominent British businessman in that country, where he spent the rest of his life, living in Valparaiso, Santiago de Chile, Coquimbo, Ovalle and Serena. His greatest investment is believed to have been in the mine of Panulcillo (Ovalle). Similarly, in 1855, Caldcleugh and two other British investors, Thomas Cood and William Waddington, obtained the exclusive rights to build a railway between Serena and Coquimbo, one of the first railways ever laid in South America.

Caldcleugh was highly regarded in both the British business world and in Chilean society. Illustrative of this prestige in Britain is his appointment as agent of the British bondholders of the ‘Chilean loan’. In 1822, the Chilean government had raised a loan for £1m in London but, in 1826, the Chileans defaulted. In 1828, after early negotiations had failed, the British bondholders of the loan appointed Edward Widder as their representative in Chile to transfer the necessary funds, from Chile to London, for the payments of the dividends of the loan. Soon after, the committee of British bondholders appointed Alexander Caldcleugh, in Widder’s place, as their agent on the spot. Almost immediately, Caldcleugh entered into direct negotiations with the Chilean Chancellor and, eventually, in 1842, he reached a settlement with the Chilean government for the repayment of the debt. In the early 1840s, Caldcleugh was entrusted with similar powers by the British bondholders of the ‘Peruvian loan’.

While residing in Chile, Caldcleugh was also empowered by Thomas Cochrane, the tenth Earl of Dundonald (1775–1860) to obtain from the Chilean government a compensation for his services to this government. Similarly, Caldcleugh was officially appointed by a Chilean governmental decree of 19 May 1835 for the minting in Britain of copper coins of low denomination for circulation in Chile, equivalent to 1,000 quintals of fine copper. Caldcleugh successfully accomplished the task and, in July 1836, the first copper coins arrived to Valparaiso from London; a second cargo arrived in early 1837.

Caldcleugh is also known for his friendship with the naturalist, Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882). In 1834, Darwin visited Santiago de Chile and Valparaiso while travelling on the Beagle and met Caldcleugh for the first time. In 1835, when Darwin returned to Valparaiso, he was assisted by Caldcleugh in his excursion through the Andes. In Darwin’s own words: ‘Mr Caldcleugh most kindly assisted me in making all the little preparations for crossing the Cordilleras’ (Darwin, 1933, p. 288). Caldcleugh also invited Darwin to visit his Panulcillo mine, where they spent a few days in May 1835.

On 5 July 1845, Caldcleugh married the Chilean Leonor del Carmen Calvo (1805–1849). She was the widow of Manuel Jose Valdivieso y Balmaceda (d.1844). The marriage did not last long as Leonor died on 6 July 1849. Caldcleugh spent his last two years semi-retired at Valparaiso, where he died on 11 January 1858 in the house of Isabel Valdivieso, sister of Miguel Estalisnao Valdivieso who defined himself as Caldcleugh’s ‘politic son’. Caldcleugh was buried in Valparaiso cemetery. In his last will, he had appointed an English resident and former partner, Thomas Cood, as his executor, leaving all his property to Leonor’s three daughters. He had neither sons nor daughters of his own.

Sources: Manuel Llorca-Jaña, ‘Caldcleugh, Alexander (1795–1858)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, Oxford University Press, Oct 2009; A. Caldcleugh, Travels in South America, during the years, 1819–20–21: containing an account of the present state of Brazil, Buenos Ayres, and Chile (1825); R. Donoso, ‘Alexander Caldcleugh’, Revista Chilena de Historia y Geografía, 133, (1965), 152–231; M. Mulhall, The English in South America (1877); C. Darwin, Charles Darwin’s diary of the voyage of H.M.S. ‘Beagle’ (1933).

Author: Manuel Llorca-Jaña.

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