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The South American Handbook: a centenary history

Estimated reading time: 30 mins approx.

The South American Handbook (SAH) celebrates its centenary this year - a remarkable achievement in a world where printed guidebooks are no longer so indispensable. Just as remarkable is that SAH has only had five editors since its first edition in 1924 - one of whom served for nearly 40 years. Born in the shadow of declining British influence in Latin America and the Caribbean (it did not limit itself to the southern part of the region despite its title), SAH survived the Great Depression, the adoption of imperial preference within the British Empire, import-substituting industrialisation in Latin America, the Second World War, the post-war dollar scarcity and - above all - the relentless fall in the share of Great Britain in Latin America’s trade and foreign investment. It is truly a magnificent record and one of which the publishers and all those associated with it can be proud.

On the eve of the First World War, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (UK) was still a very important country in trade with Latin America. It was the leading source of imports for Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay with roughly the same share (25 percent) as the United States of America (US) for Latin American imports as a whole. It was also the most important market for exports from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, although its share of Latin American exports as a whole (20 per cent) was less than that of the US (30 per cent) and a very large part of the British share was due to Argentina (the UK share as a destination for exports from other Latin American countries was by contrast much smaller).

It was a similar story with portfolio and direct foreign investment. The UK held two-thirds of the public external debt of Latin America (for the US it was less than 15 per cent) and nearly half of the stock of direct foreign investment. UK direct investments were heavily concentrated in railways and public utilities (those of the US were to be found in agriculture, mining and oil) and there was still no suggestion as hostilities approached that British investments might be overtaken in importance by other countries or, indeed, become candidates for expropriation. Once again, Argentina accounted for the bulk of British investments (both portfolio and direct), but UK investments were still important in most countries.

The British business community could therefore regard its presence in the region with some satisfaction. Yet the war would change everything. British trade links with the republics were soon at risk from the needs of the war effort as well as German naval operations, while the US - neutral like the other American republics until April 1917 - was quick to take advantage. The US therefore emerged from the war at the end of 1918 in a much stronger economic and financial position than the UK, which was also about to lose most of Ireland to become a smaller country (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).

Representatives of the British business community with links to Latin America were therefore understandably concerned by the situation after the war and none more so than William Henry Koebel, who had spent a lifetime writing about the region in general and Argentina in particular. At the request of the British Federation of Industries, he therefore edited the magnificent Anglo-South American Handbook whose first edition came out in 1921. With more than 1,000 pages including hundreds of advertisements, it covered all the republics of Latin America except the Dominican Republic and Haiti (both under US military occupation at the time) as well as British Honduras (now Belize), the three Guianas (British, Dutch and French) and the Falkland Islands. There was even a separate section for the Panama Canal Zone - sovereign US territory at the time.

The 1921 edition of the Anglo-South American Handbook was so successful that it was followed by a second edition in 1922. Yet this edition of the Handbook, like the first one, was not for the faint-hearted. With more than 100 pages devoted to a Financial, Industrial and Commercial Directory, more than 30 pages on Breed Societies in the United Kingdom and more than 20 pages on Argentine Estancieros, it was a weighty tome for the serious business person in the UK (and in Latin America as well) interested in trade and investment with the region and anxious to reverse the damage done by the war years. There was even a long British Engineers’ Association: Report of Activities in South America, 1919-20.

A third edition in 1923 might have been expected, but William Koebel had other ideas. Following conversations with the venerable Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (founded in 1839 and making regular sailings since 1850 to Latin America and the Caribbean), Koebel helped to establish a subsidiary of the shipping company with the main purpose of publishing a guidebook on the region modelled on the Anglo-South American Handbook. The publisher, at first called South American Publications Ltd., then invited Koebel to edit a new publication to be called The South American Handbook. The original intention, as the minutes of Board meetings make clear, was to publish the first edition in 1923 with Koebel as editor, but this soon slipped to 1924 as a result of the inevitable delays associated with setting up the new subsidiary and preparing the new publication.

Sadly, Koebel died in 1923 at the young age of 51. This was a shock to all concerned as, in the weeks before his death, he had persuaded South American Publications Ltd. to issue a new book he was writing called All Aboard. This would have been about Latin America and would have been available to passengers on the ships sailing to the region on the ships owned by Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Yet plans for the new South American Handbook were so advanced that the publisher decided to press ahead despite the death of Koebel. This, of course, required a new editor.

The choice was J. A. Hunter, about whom very little is known (he should not be confused with the big game hunter of the same name and initials who wrote books about his exploits in Africa). Even the publishers were unsure about their choice and gave him at first only a very short term contract. The first edition of The South American Handbook was then published in 1924 (hence the centenary in 2024) by South American Publications Ltd. with a print run of about 4,000 copies. The new editor acknowledged his debt to William Koebel on the very first page, but he also made it clear that The Handbook would be different in certain respects to the one edited by Koebel.

The first difference was cost (it was much cheaper), although it was not in fact much shorter - nearly 700 pages including advertisements. It was more a matter of emphasis with The Handbook being pitched as a guidebook rather than a work of reference. There were still all the details needed by the commercial traveller, but there was also a recognition that not all users of The Handbook were going to Latin America purely for business. In addition, Hunter noted (p.xiii) that ‘the uncommercial traveller has his interest in the economic life of the countries, and the commercial traveller is interested in many other affairs than his immediate business’. Thus, The South American Handbook recognised right from the beginning that some visitors to Latin America from the UK (and no doubt elsewhere) were going for leisure purposes and not just on business.

This explains the small changes made by Hunter to Koebel’s format. The country coverage remained similar, but a chapter was added on ‘Porto Rico’ (the US spelling of Puerto Rico forced on its colony until 1932). The importance of the British colonies was emphasised by the fact that British Guiana received no less than 20 pages (more than any other country except Brazil (42), Argentina (36), Chile (32) and Mexico (26)). There was a chapter on Sport in South America, while another was devoted to Animals and Birds. There was also a Bibliography of Works in the English Language on South America since 1870 that, being chronological, showed the variety of material still being published in each of the war years. There were long sections on Steamship Services, Cables and Wireless, Railways and Banking Facilities, while - as with its predecessor publication - the advertisements were a mine of information about companies (not all British) operating in Latin America. Finally, there was an interesting note at the end on how children born of British parents in ‘the Argentine’ could ‘retain or assure their position under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1922’.

Hunter would also put his own idiosyncratic stamp on The Handbook, which made it different from its predecessor and which would become a hallmark of the new publication in years to come. Writing about Brazil (p.116) - and remember this is 1924 not 2024 - the editor wrote ‘The peculiar system of taxation in Brazil, with taxes and duties on almost every article of ordinary utility, causes the prices of articles to pass through a mill of vicious increment, so that when reaching the public they become preposterous.’ Many Brazilians today would have a great deal of sympathy with the editor’s views a century ago.

Hunter proved his worth and gradually the Board of South American Publications Ltd. (in practice two men with close links to the parent company) came to appreciate his contribution despite the need for a regular subsidy from Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Indeed, when Hunter announced in 1928 he was ready to leave, by which time the print-run had increased to 10,000, the Board pleaded with him to continue. However, he had by then received another job offer. We do not know what it was, but it probably paid better than the £400 a year he received for editing The South American Handbook.

The last volume of The Handbook edited by Hunter was the one for 1929 (it would have gone to press in late 1928). There were a few changes compared with the first in 1924. ‘Porto Rico’ was dropped, ‘Salvador’ was now correctly listed as the country of ‘El Salvador’, a long list of insurance companies was added to the section on banking, there was a useful glossary of Spanish and Portuguese terms (including ‘evening dress’ and ‘curling tongs’) and a reproduction of the Monroe Doctrine (pronounced in 1823) was included on the grounds that it ‘was destined to become an historical event of the highest international importance’.

Significantly, when writing about Latin America as a whole, the editor was able to show that the UK was still a major partner for the region in foreign trade and the most important country when it came to the stock of foreign investment. Indeed, he produced figures to show that the UK accounted in 1925 for a quarter of the foreign trade of South America (a smaller share for the rest of Latin America can be assumed) while imports from South America still represented nearly 10 per cent of total British imports in 1927 (exports were 8.9 per cent and re-exports 1.3 per cent).

This was the last volume before the Great Depression, but the 1930 edition (prepared and sent to press in 1929) gave no hint of what was happening in the global economy. This was the first volume edited by Howell Davies, who would go on to edit The Handbook for some 40 years - an astonishing record. Davies was born in 1896 in Wales and joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers on his 18th birthday in 1914. He served through the First World War, being wounded twice and becoming Captain Davies. He was educated at the Sorbonne, Oxford and Aberystwyth and worked as a freelance journalist before he took on the editorship of The Handbook.

Davies was offered the editorship of SAH in 1929 despite the fact he had never been to Latin America (he did, however, speak Spanish). He was also asked by the publishers to edit a new publication called The Traveller’s Guide to Great Britain & Ireland and, as a result, was able to secure a salary of £600 per year. The publishers expected great things from their new publication, for which there was also a Spanish version. And, as a proud Welshman, Davies was happy to include in the Spanish edition the following:

Gales es un país aparte de Inglaterra, con lengua propia y distinta característica nacional y de rica y variada hermosura. El interior es magnífico e inspirador.

[Wales is a country apart from England, with its own language and distinct national characteristics, and a rich and varied beauty. The interior is magnificent and inspiring.] 

This, however, was the only edition of The Traveller’s Guide to Great Britain & Ireland as the publisher was sued by Baedeker (the publisher of the Blue Guides) on account of plagiarism (Baedeker won the case). South American Publications Ltd. thought they had then reached an ‘amicable agreement’ that would have allowed them to sell the remaining stock. However, they had not in fact done so and eventually all remaining copies were pulped (no more editions ever came out). After this humiliation, Davies was left only with the editorship of The South American Handbook and his salary was correspondingly reduced. He would now be paid the same as Hunter.

The change of editorship coincided with a change in the name of the publisher from South American Publications Ltd. to Trade and Travel Publications Ltd. The Board of this publishing subsidiary remained exactly the same. However, the publisher’s owner (Royal Mail Steam Packet Company) would now give responsibility for printing The Handbook to the Mendip Press in Bath, Somerset. This company was owned by Dawson and Goodall, which forty years later would come to play a key role in SAH (see below).

Meanwhile, Royal Mail Steam Packet Company had its own problems with which to contend. It had taken over the White Star Line in 1927 to become the largest shipping group in the world, but soon international cargo trade started to collapse with the onset of the Great Depression. The Directors had then fiddled the accounts in 1930 in order to give a better impression of the company’s financial circumstances, but they had been rumbled. A court case followed in 1931 and Lord Kylsant, one of the Directors, was gaoled for 12 months. The company was then liquidated and reconstituted as Royal Mail Lines Ltd. with the backing of the British government.

Despite these shenanigans, Howell Davies ploughed on and the 1931 edition was the first real chance for him to leave his mark. This he duly did, although the opening of the Preface was a good example of the kind of wishful thinking that would bedevil British relations with Latin America in more recent decades with Davies writing (lxv):

The Sheffield Mission to South America, the British Empire Trade Exhibition at Buenos Aires during March and April 1931….are all important signs of the great revival of British interest in South America. Business men are beginning to realize the vast potentialities for increased trade presented by South America and are prepared to capture their proper share of the market when the present depression lifts.

The new editor used the 1931 edition to include a new feature (‘Additions and Corrections’) that would be invaluable in years to come. The book section was simplified with books grouped around countries and regions rather than chronologically, with a brief index added for each country separate from the general index. All maps and sketches were revised and the chapter on Dutch Guiana completely rewritten by an expert on that country. A sign of the times was the section added on ‘Employment in South America’ warning potential immigrants of the pitfalls and doing so country by country. Thus, the General Secretary of the British Society in the Argentine Republic warns (p.16) ‘It is no use coming here at all unless (1) one has at least a working knowledge of the Spanish language and (2) a small capital to live on while looking for work’, while in Chile the Commercial Secretary of the British Legation observed (p.17) ‘As in the case of practically all Latin countries, the few experiments of importing British emigrants and manual workers having no technical knowledge have been a complete failure’. As for Brazil, in the opinion of the British Chamber of Commerce, ‘Except for men whose special qualifications render them valuable, Brazil has little to offer the adventurous young Britishers who wish to try their luck. For a married man, with or without family, to arrive without satisfactory employment previously arranged is madness.’

It was not all gloom and doom, however, in the 1931 edition. The chapter on Venezuela revealed (p.525) ‘The Venezuelan Government has announced that the whole external debt of the country will be cancelled as a tribute to the memory of Bolívar on the occasion of the first centenary of his death.’ This did indeed happen, making Venezuela - rich from oil exports - a notable exception to the widespread default among Latin American countries in the Great Depression. In addition, Davies took note of the surge in import-substituting industrialisation made possible by higher tariffs and quotas - albeit at the expense in part of imports from the UK. Thus, Argentina was estimated (p.97) to have 61,000 manufacturing establishments giving employment to some 600,000 workers.

As the Great Depression deepened Davies, like most other British commentators at the time, continued to look for ‘green shoots’ where none existed. He even expressed a high degree of insouciance in regard to political upheavals in the region when he noted in the 1933 edition (p.iii):

So far as the outside world is concerned the past year [i.e. 1932] has been noteworthy in Latin-America [sic] as a year of revolutions and civil war, of falling presidents and changing cabinets. It is not sufficiently realised that this is a passing phase coincident with world depression, and that in any case a revolution in a Latin Republic is a comparatively unimportant affair, viewed with calm indifference by the majority of the populace and creating comparatively little disturbance.

In the 1934 edition, perhaps conscious that this lack of concern was clearly inappropriate, Davies omitted any reference to political change in his Preface and instead focused once again on the ‘green shoots’. However, it was not until the 1935 edition, largely based on data for 1933/4, that Davies was able to inform his readers (and this time with some justification) that ‘it is confidently predicted that 1935 will prove a year of comparative prosperity.’ This would turn out to be accurate, but the sections on each republic also revealed the extent to which British exports to the region had collapsed and the degree to which the British presence in Latin America had become even more reliant on Argentina - a country which had been pressured to sign the Roca-Runciman Treaty in 1933 in order to secure a quota for beef in the UK market in return for tariff concessions on British exports that created a great deal of resentment (Davies does not mention the treaty).

The remaining editions before the Second World War retained their usual jaunty optimism, backed up by an astonishing range of advertisers including one from India offering ‘Indian hand made lace (Crochet) goods: Round Doyleys, Ovals, Squares, Oblongs, Duchess-sets, Luncheon-sets, Table borders, Jackets, Body tops, Yokes, Collars, Baby-coats, Bonnets, Bibs, etc., etc.’. That the average reader of SAH was still assumed to be of a certain class was confirmed by the information that ‘it is now possible to arrange for a special service from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso….five first-class tickets must be taken’. Meanwhile, in the section on Sport in South America, much attention was given to shooting partridges on the Pampas, hunting guanaco in the Andes, killing alligators in British Guiana and angling in the Southern Cone.

War broke out in Europe in September 1939 with an immediate impact on European colonies in the Americas. The 1940 edition of SAH at first glance appeared to pay no attention. Visitors to Chile, for example, were still being encouraged to visit ‘Robinson Crusoe Island’ (i.e. Juan Fernández island 365 miles west of Valparaíso) while someone has written in the margins of my copy that in Montecristi in Ecuador ‘best Panama hats made here’. And the section on air services made clear that the intrepid traveller from Europe could fly to Latin America and the Caribbean either with the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) via North America or with Air France via Dakar in Senegal.

Yet all was not as it seemed and Davies revealed in the Preface that the outbreak of war had nearly resulted in the cancellation of the 1940 edition. He noted that:

[The edition] was being revised when War broke out. The difficulties of collecting information were so great that there was a moment of doubt as to whether the edition could or should be produced at all. The importance, however, of continuing a reliable guide to the trade and commerce of Latin America soon became apparent.

Given the disruption to trade between the UK and Latin America caused by the war, that might seem a strange decision. However, all the republics were neutral until the entry of the US into the war in December 1941 and some (notably Argentina and Chile) even after that. Thus, business ties between North and South America were strengthened with the statistics in the 1941 edition reflecting this thanks to the intrepid efforts of the editor to collect all the relevant information from wherever he could find it (only French Guiana failed to supply data beyond 1938).

SAH was published in every year of the Second World War although not without difficulties due not least to the shortage of paper. One footnote (in the 1943 edition) also warned:

We cannot guarantee the complete accuracy of a book about a continent which is so alive and changeful, but nothing has been set down in or omitted in malice. The fact that goods made of raw materials in short supply owing to war conditions are advertised in this book should not be taken as an indication that they are necessarily available for export.

By 1945, however, despite the edition being prepared the previous year, the editor felt emboldened to claim that The Handbook ‘appears when the German war is over and won’. By way of celebration, the edition ran to an astonishing 841 pages of which no less than 214 were devoted to Brazil. Argentina, which had still not entered the war when The Handbook was prepared, was downgraded to a mere 103 pages although in fairness a large part of the section ‘Meat from South America’ was also devoted to the republic. Understandably, the average reader was still assumed to be a commercial traveller as was made clear by the description of ‘apparel’ in the glossary of Spanish and Portuguese words.

The postwar years were not without their difficulties for SAH. The editor continued to complain of paper shortages for many years and, as a result, the font size on some pages became extremely small. Meanwhile the price of The Handbook kept rising. It had been two shillings and sixpence (equivalent to 12.5p) just before the war, but by 1950 was seven shillings and sixpence (37.5p), 10 shillings and sixpence in 1955 (52.5p) and 22 shillings and sixpence (£1.125) in 1969. This was not due to an increase in the number of pages (it remained around 800), but perhaps to the growing difficulty in finding advertisers for a region where the British share of imports and exports continued its brutal decline as well as the postwar inflationary conditions in Britain.

This decline (British exports to Latin America, for example, as a share of total UK exports had fallen from eight per cent in 1938 to 4.5 per cent in 1960) was above all due to the collapse of Britain’s privileged status in the Argentine market. British exports to Argentina had accounted for more than half of all British exports to Latin America in 1938, but this would soon change - a change highlighted by the nationalisation of the British railways in the southern republic in 1948. Davies, as editor, tried to put a brave face on these changes as he celebrated 20 years as an editor in 1950 (a separate edition for Brazil was in fact mooted at the time, although it did not come to fruition), but it soon became clear that the decline in British-Latin American trade was structural and not cyclical.

The 1953 edition was the last calendar year edition as the next one was 1954/5. By 1960 SAH had reverted to a calendar year, but this meant that one edition had in effect been omitted. Meanwhile, the rise in the importance of the non-commercial traveller was becoming apparent both in the text (a long section on Argentine tours, for example, was added in 1953 and a few years later an extensive account on the Argentine Lake District), although the depth of knowledge of the tour operators was called into question by an advertisement from Thomas Cook informing anyone going to South America that they knew the ‘country’ [sic] backwards!

Despite these changes, SAH was showing its age as Davies edited what he thought would be his final edition in 1969. The contents page looked remarkably similar to the one for 1924, although it did have a section on ‘British-Latin American Organizations in London’ that gave pride of place to both ‘The Hispanic Council’ and ‘The Luso-Brazilian Council’ before commenting:

Canning House, the Headquarters of the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Councils, is the focus in Britain of the commercial and cultural interests of the Spanish and Portuguese speaking nations. The Councils [author’s note: the two Councils merged in 1973] spread knowledge throughout the United Kingdom of the culture, languages and economies of the countries.

Davies also highlighted the joint publication of the two Councils entitled ‘British Bulletin of Publications on Latin America, the West Indies, Portugal and Spain’ (price £1 per annum), a reminder of the sterling role performed by the Canning House library in those days.

Howell Davies retired in 1969 (he was 73) after editing 38 editions of The Handbook. Although he had never been to Latin America when he became editor, he knew a lot about the region by the time he finished. He would combine his time as editor with writing novels under the pseudonym Andrew Marvell, one of which (Minimum Man) was published in 1938 and became widely serialised. He also wrote Congratulate the Devil, published in 1939. This science fiction novel was not as far removed from Latin America as might be thought, as one of the key characters is a man in Mexico who works for the government and helps to provide a route for mescal to be exported to the UK.

A new editor had been found before Davies retired (Davies was only told of his replacement when he left hospital after an illness). This was Andrew Marshall, who had been born in 1917 in Santos in Brazil and who had taken over editorial control of The Handbook as early as 1968. The 1970 edition carried the name of the new editor, who introduced many changes signalling that a fresh era had begun. These included a new introduction to Latin America entitled Twenty New Worlds; and a section devoted to ‘another new world, a world of holiday makers, of new opportunities for investment and enterprise, and of sanctuaries for the retired and for the refugees from drizzle and fog amid the scent of flowers and sea spray: The West Indies.’

Marshall was highly qualified for the post of editor. His father had been manager of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in Santos. As a child, he was sent to Wales to school, but he had a serious football accident which left him physically handicapped for the rest of his life. During the war he was attached to the British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro and was then briefly an intelligence officer in Europe. He joined Reuters after the war and became head of its Rio bureau in 1947. He was then appointed correspondent of the London Times in 1950. He might have expected to serve as editor of SAH for a long time, but sadly the 1971 edition would be his last as he died suddenly at sea on a visit to South America to gather material for The Handbook.

The printer of The Handbook, John Dawson of Dawson and Goodall, was now left with a mass of uncorrected proofs and work in progress for the 1972 edition. In the words of his son, James, who had recently joined him in the business:

He [John Dawson] visited Royal Mail [the publisher] at their HQ in Leadenhall Street in the City of London to enquire what plans they had for the book. He was informed that there was far too much to think about with their shipping business to worry about SAH. On the spot, he then made a ‘silly offer’ to buy Trade & Travel Ltd, the Royal Mail owned publishers of the book, which was accepted. On a shake of the hands, he came away from that meeting a publisher as well as a printer.

In June 1971, therefore, the publisher of SAH, Trade and Travel Publications Ltd., was sold by its owner Royal Mail Steam Packet Company to John Dawson whose family firm had been printing SAH for so many years (John Dawson’s ‘silly offer’ was in fact £5,000, as the Minutes of the Board meeting make clear). With the death of Andrew Marshall, a new editor was urgently needed and Dawson turned once again to Howell Davies for the 1972 edition. Thus, Davies, whose reign had begun with the 1930 edition, finally bowed out 42 years later. His name had appeared on forty volumes.

For the 1973 edition John Dawson engaged John Brooks, a banker who had worked for many years for BOLSA (Bank of London and South America). John would combine his work at BOLSA (later Lloyds Bank International) with the editorship of SAH until his untimely death in 1989. By then he had been responsible for no less than 17 editions. His wonderful wife, Sylvia, would maintain her passionate interest in SAH until her own death in 2023 and was a stalwart supporter of the biennial John Brooks Lecture and dinner set up in her husband’s honour after his death and organised by London University’s Institute of Latin American Studies.

John Brooks' long tenure could not rival that of Howell Davies. However, John made the changes that had long been needed in SAH as a result of jet travel, the rise of the tourism industry and the continued decline in the importance of trade and investment in the relations between Britain and Latin America (by the time John died, British trade - both imports and exports - with Latin America was little more than one per cent of the UK total). This meant that The Handbook’s correspondents needed to change the information they provided with less emphasis on trade and investment statistics and more on the joys and pitfalls of leisure travel.

An army of loyal readers (‘voluntary contributors’ as they were known) was built up, providing not only up to date information on such things as prices and availability of transport, but also quirky comments on the best ways for visitors to get the most out of their visits. An article in The New York Times (May 15, 1983) captured the new vibe brilliantly. Referring to the 1983 edition, distributed in the US by Rand McNally, Edwin McDowell wrote:

It is hard to think of another guidebook that warns readers never to offer a bribe unless they are fully conversant with the customs of the country, or to beware inebriated immigration officers on Sunday at the border crossing between Guyana and Brazil.

Not surprisingly, sifting through all these contributors required a considerable amount of time and effort, so Joyce Candy was brought in as Associate Editor in 1980 and Ben Box a few years later, while Sarah Cameron became Economics Editor. SAH was rewarded in 1980 by winning the first Thomas Cook Best Guidebook Award, at which point it was selling about 25,000 copies a year (10,000 of which were distributed by Rand McNally in the US). And, alongside the large number of contributors (now mentioned by name at the end of the relevant section) was an increase in the size of each edition of SAH (nearly 1400 pages in 1989) and a big increase in the number of maps.

By the time of John Brooks’ last edition (1989), SAH was unrecognisable from the one edited by Howell Davies twenty years earlier. The distinctive red cover with a dust jacket had been dropped in favour of a glossy picture. The guidebook was no longer The South American Handbook, but became just South American Handbook. It was no longer a guidebook to be carried by the commercial traveller in the hope of winning contracts, but one dedicated to the relatively young and adventurous tourists who were heading to Latin America and the Caribbean in increasing numbers from North America, Europe and now parts of Asia. The volume of correspondents had increased dramatically, but this had its downside as so many of them tended to emphasise the risks of travel for the unwary. This led to a distinctly gloomy tone to many parts of the Handbook, which was often unwarranted. The section on Belize City (p.1107), for example, was particularly unfair as I can attest from personal experience at that time:

Take good care of your possessions. Cars should only be left in guarded carparks…The city is not safe by night; be especially careful in some side streets….The market is notorious for drug-pushing (beware of drug-planting). Do not trust the many self-appointed “guides” who also sell hotel rooms, boat trips to the Cayes, drugs etc. Local advice is not even to say “no”, just shake your head and wag your finger if approached by a stranger. Street money changers are not to be trusted either. Smoking cigarettes on the street is taken as an open sign of affluence and may lead to begging.

In fairness, John Brooks was aware that some of these comments were exaggerated, but defended them in the Preface on the grounds that ‘our warnings are intended to help establish efficient defence mechanisms to preserve the safety of the reader and his or her valuables, not to lead to paranoid reactions. In the last analysis, common sense is the best defence.’

After John Brooks’ death, the publishers - with sons James and Patrick Dawson playing an increasing role (their father John died in 1999) - needed a new editor. Ben Box, already an Associate Editor, was an obvious choice - especially as John Brooks had introduced him to readers of the Handbook through selective quotes from his translations of Spanish classics (Ben graduated from London University with a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese studies, while also being able to speak French). At the same time, Joyce Candy retired after many years as Associate Editor.

Ben Box’s editorship saw a big increase in the number of maps and further expansion in size so that the Handbook, printed on wafer-thin ‘biblical’ paper, had grown to 1800 pages by 2009. This would prove to be the limit, as there was no more expansion in size. However, the quality and accuracy steadily improved as a result of an exclusive focus on South America in SAH and none on countries north of Colombia (these other countries and regions - Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean - would all be covered by separate guides from 1990 onwards). Thus, 1800 pages were now being devoted to nine South American republics and the three Guianas (Guyana, Suriname and Guyane) rather than a smaller number of pages devoted to 20 Latin American republics and some thirty Caribbean countries (independent and non-independent). The only geographical exception to the focus on South America was the inclusion of the ‘Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas’ together with South Georgia and Antarctica.

Ben Box has recently retired after a tenure of some 35 years (a new editor will be announced in due course). Between them, he and Howell Davies edited SAH for some 75 years. And, although Ben did not have to contend with a geopolitical crisis like the Second World War, he had to deal with the rise of the internet and the changes this has brought to the publishing industry. During his time as editor Trade and Travel Publications changed their name to Footprint Guides with a new livery from 2000. And, despite the decision by the publisher from 1990 to issue guides to sub-regions and single countries, South American Handbook retained its preeminent role by virtue of its long history and title. However, there were now new kids on the block with which the grand old man had to compete. And, of course, there was fiercer competition from other guidebooks and the summaries easily available for free from the internet. Inevitably, sales fell from their peak in the 1970s.

The Dawson family eventually sold Footprint Guides and it passed through several hands before it was bought by Bradt Guides in 2019. The stable of guidebooks was retained, but the difficulty and cost of updating the guidebooks every year had already become too onerous. In October 2017, even before the transfer of ownership to Bradt Guides, a new edition had been published but this time without a date (it would normally have been expected to carry the year 2018 in the title). Undated handbooks make it much easier to update information as and when required, but it does mean that the 2017 edition with its print run of around 4,000 was the last to carry the year of publication on the cover. A proud tradition had been broken, although the South American Handbook can still enter its centenary year with his head held high as it is still in print, still relevant, still informative and easy to read. Indeed, the publishers are planning a new edition for 2025, although it will not carry the year of publication.

I bought my first copy of SAH in 1967 after returning from a year in the region. I was sufficiently impressed and intrigued to start to buy other copies when I saw them in second-hand bookshops. Later, as my finances improved, I bought the new edition as it was published each year. Eventually, I was able to plug the final gap in my collection when I found the last missing one (for 1933) in California. I made frequent use of all of them during my academic career as a specialist on Latin America and the Caribbean and promised John Brooks, on one of the many occasions when we met, that one day I would write a history of this venerable guidebook that has been praised by such literary luminaries and travellers as Graham Greene, Michael Palin and Paul Theroux. This article, published in the centenary year, is therefore the fulfilment of a promise made to John some forty years ago and I am grateful to Canning House for allowing me to post it on their website.

Victor Bulmer-Thomas CMG OBE

Victor is Professor Emeritus of London University, Honorary Vice-President of Canning House, Honorary Professor of the Institute of the Americas (UCL) and Senior Distinguished Fellow of Chatham House. From 1992-8 he was Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies, London University, and from 2001-6 he was Director of Chatham House.

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