Fray Bentos – Epicenter of the Uruguayan Industrial Revolution [English]

Por favor mirar el siguiente link para una descripción general del proyecto en Español.  Please check the following link for a project overview in English.  For more project images from Martin Herrera Soler, please check the Fray Bentos Gallery.  

 Photo: Anglo.  Photographer: Daniel Milnor.  


After working over nine months in the project Peñarol – un lugar donde conviven pasado y presente de manera singular y contradictoria (2010) (Peñarol – a place where past and present coexist in a singular and contradictory manner [2010]), we began, almost without wanting to, moving our gaze towards other emblematic industries linked to the British. Without really knowing why, we feel an unquestionable attraction to what we could barely conceptualize as ‘industrial historical heritage.’ Perhaps because of the imposing structures which represent a time of apogee, or their inevitable condition of decadent beauty.


Photo: Hooks.  There is an unquantifiable collection of hooks used to transport the beef along the productive process. Frigorifico (Slaughterhouse) Anglo, Fray Bentos, Rio Negro, Uruguay.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.


So, the thing is, without clear purpose and drifting, we arrived in Fray Bentos in January of 2012. This time reinforced by a special cast. Beyond the usual suspects (Diego Vidart and I, from the Dokumental collective), this time we were joined by Daniel Milnor and Larry Hayden, two friends from the North embarked in the adventure of getting to know Uruguay, and with the intention of producing collectively; giving free rein to individual creation and playing, through editing, to create a narrative covering the diversity of views on a theme in common.

Regarding the experiment of working collectively (which is the central axis of Dokumental and the theme that brings up the passion in their creators), much can be said. While we are still searching for a methodology that works, integrating documentalists scattered throughout the world, what we can assert without fear of being wrong is that the idea is worth it. It is enough to imagine four friends, a small car and ten days wandering around the roads of Uruguay in search of stories; your intuition will let you know that at least the search was fun (more on this later).

Video Interview 2 (Rough Cut): Pedro.   


Since then and until now, almost eight months later, I have continued to be involved with the subject, recently with a new visit to the venue with the intention of returning some of the images and multimedia stories recorded at that time. Among other things, I had the opportunity to learn much about the history of Fray Bentos, and to understand the huge impact that the Frigorífico (Slaughterhouse), in its various incarnations, had on the daily life and the idiosyncrasy of this unique place.

When we first approached this project I understood little of its long history, and even less did I grasp that, beyond the renowned Frigorífico Anglo, its tradition and industrial importance started brewing long before the birth of this institution in 1924. In fact, since as early as 1820, in the same location existed saladeros (salting rooms) that exported charque[1](jerky) for the slaves in Brazil, Cuba and the Southern United States. In order to appreciate the magnitude and importance of the meat industry based in Fray Bentos, it is enough to mention a phrase often heard at that time: “In Fray Bentos they get the grande (the big prize of the national lottery) twice a month”, referring to the biweekly payroll payments used at the time. For many years it was the most important industry of the country in terms of production and employment. In its heyday, the budget for the wages (more than 4500 workers) was greater than the combined national budget.

Photo: The Fridge.  An external view of the five stories fridge built by the British to conserve the meat before being exported. Frigorifico (Slaughterhouse) Anglo, Fray Bentos, Rio Negro, Uruguay.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.


That is why I stopped thinking about this project as focused on the Anglo and the British, and I expanded my look to Fray Bentos as the epicenter of the industrial revolution in Uruguay. Even today, decades later, it is striking to wander the over six hectares of buildings of the Frigorífico and learn about the complexity and sophistication of this industry, about the degree of innovation and evolution, and about its impact and trascendental role in the national and world history, placing the name Fray Bentos in a special place in the collective memory of the Europeans during the war.

While the better known portion of the story focuses on the British, the origins of the industrialization in the Frigorífico are different and are intrinsically linked to the lack of intestinal flora of a beautiful German young lady. It was in 1850 that the German chemist Liebig devised a process through which he could replicate the biological transformation the human body uses to extract the nutrients of the meat as part of the digestion. Thanks to this unique invention not only was he able to save his niece’s life, he also completely transformed the food industry and the future of warfare.

Video Interview 1 (Rought Cut): Antonio.  


Napoleon, in one of his riotous adventures of conquering, and after losing more than half of his army as a result of cold and starvation, talked about the need to find an efficient way of transporting food if someone really wanted to expand its conquering thirst to remote and foreign territories. It was then that his nephew Napoleon III who, seeking to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, launched a competition to reward he who was successful in such a great feat.

The process devised by Liebig, while working in the laboratory, was extremely expensive and was not viable in the scale required to achieve the production levels for massive consumption. In 1862, inpired by the process used in Brasil to extract sugar from sugarcane, and after reading an article published by the above mentioned chemist, Jorge Giebert, of Belgian origin, devised a method of mass production which allowed the efficient extraction of industrial quantities of beef extract. After sending a letter to Liebig, which went unanswered, he personally went to see him in his laboratory, The Big Royal Pharmacy of Munich, to convince him of the technical seriousness of his approach. Confronted with the effectiveness of the new technology and, according to the stories, with Giebert’s unbridled enthusiasm, Liebig decided without delay to cede to him the intellectual property of his invention, betting that in this way he could make his dream come true, and providing access to what was then a tonic (medicine) to anyone who, like his niece, needed it.

Photo: Archives.  Photographer: Diego Vidart


Giebert, besides being an engineer, proved to be a splendid entrepreneur and businessman. By early the following year he had already complete a prrof of concept in England, where cows were plentiful, and secured funding from a group of investors, among them a group from Belgium; that country specialized, at that time, in the processing of cowhides. Thus, in July of 1863, The Meat Extract Company Giebert and Company was founded. The engineer’s vision was becoming more real. At that time the system devised by him was capable of producing 4 kilos of meat extract in just two weeks of work (as a reference point, 1 kilo fed 132 soldiers). Shortly thereafter, realizing the magnitude of the opportunity, and even before returning benefits to the original investors, Giebert obtained £150 thousand of additional capital and, in december of 1865, in London, founded the Liebig Extract of Meat Company (LEMCo).

Fray Bentos proved to be the ideal ecosystem to develop the venture. Abundant raw material at lower cost than in Europe, fertile soils that reached high performance, cheap labor used to working with livestock, and an enviable location on the edge of the Uruguay River forming a natural deep-water harbor that guaranteed easy distribution to European markets.

The business grew rapidly. The business vision transformed the way the fields were managed, achieving a more intensive production and using between 100 and 200 thousand head of cattle per year. Production was optimized in order to take advantage of animal waste and create, based on another radical discovery of Liebig, the first production of organic fertilizer. Until then the British producers were fertilizing their poor and badly managed soils with guano, the defecation of a bird in Northern Chile and Peru. The high consumption drastically reduced the availability, and the prices increased rapidly, making it unviable. Adding to the new venture’s fortune, there was plenty of organic matter in the slaughterhouses of Fray Bentos, and thus the production was supplemented with more than 70 thousand kilos of fertilizer per day. It is documented that more than 1650 ships arrived to ports of the company each year, often loading three ships at a time by connecting them with moving walkways. In 1899 the company registered the brand Fray Bentos, which later became the property of the Oxo brand, which still exists in the UK and is currently owned by Premier Foods. The anecdotes say that the Oxo brand started with the 20 kilos cans of corned beef that, as they left Fray Bentos, were marked “Ox” (the name of the animal – buey – in English). Apparently the port workers, in their infinite quest for creativity and entertainment, rounded up the letters “Ox” with another “O” to make it look like a face: “OxO”. The cans arrived to the destination markets marked with the three letters, and consumers that appreciated the quality of the Uruguayan product demanded Oxo.

The unquestionable success attracted people from diverse backgrounds. Every day there were long lines in front of the main gate, with candidates from all over the country looking for the opportunity to be part of this miraculous system of production and, actually, this way of life. Curiously, the records show that in the Anglo worked a diverse group of foreign immigrants representing over 56 nationalities. Witness of the regional importance of this undertaking, the varied influx of workers transformed the culture of Fray Bentos; perhaps this place and this moment represent the most cosmopolitan expression that the country has had in its whole history.

Photo: Antonio.  Photographer: Larry Hayden.  


The advent of the First World War, the loss of competitiveness of Uruguay versus Argentina, and the bad image plus the postwar German debt, led to the sale of the operations in Uruguay, to be renamed Frigorífico Anglo and left in the hands of the British, both in what refers to capital and operation. These were years of great investment and growth, with the construction of cold storage, a building over 6 floors tall cooled by a circuit more than 70 kilometers long, driven by a redundant hydraulic system operated with three different sources of energy (steam, fuel oil and electricity). The production of canned exports exceeded 16 million cans in 1943, and it was a critical food source for soldiers during World War II. The slaughterhouse reached its heyday during the 50s. Later, it endured a decade of stagnation that convened with the terrible flood in 1959 that affected the area. The inability to maintain the technological leadership and the declining demand in the U.S. and European markets led to the inevitable decline; this phase ends with the sale of the Frigorífico to the Uruguayan government in 1971.

The ways the British are seen are diverse and extreme. There are those that rate them as exploiters, at best. However, many feel appreciation, respect and gratitude, beyond the peculiarities of a specific manager or another. Some recognize the fact that, in fact, the Anglo paid well. That “it gave me enough to buy a small house for myself and another for my parents, and a tiny car”; and there are some that recognize that “they paid well and the truth is that I drank it all”.

The presence of the British in Fray Bentos did not go unnoticed. Great is the legacy and even greater the indelible mark of the impact of their power. As if the construction of the first golf course in Uruguay were not enough, the Frigorífico marked the town of Fray Bentos in a very particular way. For many years it employed nearly all of its inhabitants, and the few who escaped the voracious production machinery created by the British, their daily lives depended indirectly on it. In a very unique way the town lived almost entirely “in the shadow” of the Frigorífico. And there was neither the need nor the vision to create other alternative and sustainable sources of work. As Pedro Irare, an Anglo employee well said: “the Frigorífico is finished, Fray Bentos is finished”.

Photo: Pedro.  Photographer: Daniel Milnor.  


What took many years to create, quickly started losing relevance. In just eight years of national management, under various brands and administrators, the lack of leadership –coupled with the declining European demand- led to the last slaughter in 1979. To be fair, history indicates that all is not the consequence of the already obvious poor local administration; the social, cultural and economic restructuring of the old continent, influenced by the creation at the end of the war of the European common market, pushed the consumption of domestic products over those from other sources.

Years later Fray Bentos claimed its second chance. With foreign investment exceeding one billion dollars, Botnia, a paper pulp processing plant from Finland, was installed on the edge of the town. Like once before, beyond the raw material –which is now trees instead of cows- Fray Bentos proves to be a privileged location for an industrial establishment. Technology arrives led by investors, the immigrants that possess its knowledge and, with them, the social and cultural changes that accompany such situations. History repeats itself, and this at least seems to be a constant of the model.

Although for a short period of time, particularly during the construction of the plant, it employs a large number of workers as manual labor, this bonanza is fleeting and ephemeral. As before, the town flourishes, hotels and various enterprises emerge, but the high technology and the automation require little labor, and those in demand need to be qualified and is, in general, alien to the skills of the local workers. Thus, in a short time, everything returns to the state of stagnation. This time, as before, significant and sustainable sources of labor were not created. History repeats itself. Botnia is finished, Fray Bentos is finished.


[1] Charque or charqui (in quechua chárki, “cecina”) as the Inca culture called it, refers to dehydrated meat covered with salt and exposed to the sun.


Photo: Pedro.  Pedro, an old time worker in Anglo. Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.

Photo: Slaughter.  A view from the slaughter area.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler

Photographer: Diego Vidart

Photographer: Diego Vidart

Photo: Preserves.  Preserves department.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.  

Photographer: Daniel Milnor.  

Photographer: Diego Vidart

Photo: Door 1.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.  

Photo: Door 2.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.  

Photographer: Diego Vidart

Photo: Grease.  Grease department.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.  

Photo: Tower.  A view from the grease department.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.  

Photographer: Daniel Milnor.  

Photographer: Diego Vidart

Photographer: Diego Vidart

Photographer: Diego Vidart

Photographer: Daniel Milnor.  

Photo: Shadows on the wall.  A view of the many buildings that make up this complex industrial revolution site in Uruguay.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.  

Photo: Broken Windows.  Grease department.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.  

Photo: Sunset.  Sunset at the Frigorifico slaughterhouse beach where the locals gather to fish.  Photographer: Martin Herrera Soler.