Integrating the Frontier and Standardizing the State: The Chilean Telegraph System in the Araucanía, 1870–1900

Friday, January 6, 2012: 10:30 AM
Wrigleyville Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Samuel J. Martland, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology
The telegraph came to the Chilean frontier in the 1870s with the settlers and soldiers who “pacified” the Mapuche of the Araucanía and set up “Chilean” towns. Telegraph wires and workers helped integrate the frontier into Chile, consolidate the Chilean nation, and expand the role of the Chilean state. Frontier merchants and landowners offered workers and poles to build telegraph lines that they wanted for their businesses. Local boosters and national telegraph administrators debated each proposed line’s value for the national interest. Intendants and governors, appointed by and famously loyal to Chile’s presidents, nevertheless often advocated the views of the provinces and towns they governed. Together, central and peripheral players, negotiated new meaning for the nation.  Military officers eagerly adopted fast communication, not just for emergencies—and not always for official business. Some telegraphers faced rebukes and punishments from two sets of hostile superiors as military and technical hierarchies clashed over the proper role of the telegraph and its staff in frontier administration. Conflicts in the Araucanía challenged telegraph Inspector-General Ramón Vial’s plans for an autonomous, professional state telegraph service. Fast communication along the frontier and with Santiago was so useful to the occupation of the Araucanía that ministers supported Vial even when he clashed with generals. The fact that highly trained telegraphers and linemen operated an ideal technology for central control helped; the telegraph service became more uniform than the postal service – or than the intendants and governors. Telegraph offices marked the most important new towns. They not only extended the power of the central government, but also justified its authority by offering valuable services. Thus, a civilian agency with special training, detailed regulations, predictable career paths, and uniform national operations came of age on the highly militarized frontier of the 1870s and 1880s, and helped consolidate Chile.
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