Saturday, 11 January 2014

Day 295: Humberstone

Even if you're not intimately acquainted with the Spanish language, you might be aware that the town of Humberstone, around 47 kilometres, or 29 miles, from Iquique in northern Chile, isn't exactly a Spanish-sounding name. That's because it's named after James Thomas Humberstone, an English chemical engineer. Why name it after an English chemical engineer? Well, because he was the founder, and also the inventor of something called the Shanks System, an elaborate system of tubes, steam and cauldrons, which was great at extracting nitrate, also called saltpeter, a fertiliser. Originally called the much more Spanish-sounding La Palma, it began life in 1872 as a small Peruvian industrial town dedicated to extracting nitrate. The Pacific War of 1879 to 1883 saw the area fall into Chilean hands. It peaked in the 1930s with a population of 3700. By 1961, the population was zero.

Northern Chile had about 270 nitrate fields in the early 20th Century - business was booming. But a shadow was slowly drawing over it. In the early 20th Century a synthetic fertiliser - ammonia - was developed. This was progress, and progress killed the nitrate industry. After being bankrupted in 1929, a new company took over Humberstone. Business boomed again for a while, but in 1958 this company too disappeared. The industry was dead: Humberstone was emptied of its inhabitants. And for decades, it became derelict. Sand, wind, earthquakes, looting, and time took its toll. It was declared a national monument as early as 1970 but it wasn't really till the 1990s that somebody said, "Hey, this is pretty cool, we need to stop this totally disappearing." And in 2005, the big boys of UNESCO got on board. The gutted, disintegrating town of Humberstone, together with the neighbouring and equally derelict site of Saint Laura, became a World Heritage site.

UNESCO don't believe in "cool" - they're very po-faced to be honest (if you've ever tried to read their dry-as-dust magazine World Heritage Review you'll surely agree). But they are the saviours of all the world's great stuff: they are in charge of saving the world's coolest places. Their reason for making Humberstone a World Heritage site is: Humberstone and Santa Laura works contain over 200 former saltpeter works where workers from Chile, Peru and Bolivia lived in company towns and forged a distinctive communal pampinos culture. That culture is manifest in their rich language, creativity, and solidarity, and, above all, in their pioneering struggle for social justice, which had a profound impact on social history etc etc. Well, that's fine. My reason for visiting Humberstone was much more simple. A ruined ghost town in the Chilean desert, with industrial plants, accommodation, a hotel, a big shop, a theatre, a basketball court, a church, a swimming pool, and lots more, all falling to pieces. Pretty cool, in other words.

Danielle and I visited during our second day in Iquique. Finding a shared taxi outside the market, we arrived at Humberstone early in a scorching afternoon. But all afternoons in Humberstone are scorching. And so for a few hours, we wandered round the eerie, dead town, the only noise being the wind shaking the buildings and loose shards of corrugated iron flapping around. If I was ever to fall asleep and wake 1000 years later to an empty world, Humberstone is kind of what I'd expect to see.

Some parts, such as the hotel and the theatre, have been sympathetically restored. But most has been left to the elements.

Humberstone, no doubt, is a fine snapshot of the nitrate industry and its community. But it's also a very visual example of what happens when man gives up. Nature quickly reclaims. We can see this around the world, and with many of my Wonders. The jungle reclaims Angkor Wat, the desert covers Abu Simbel, the undergrowth turns Borobudur into a hill. And many more. I am profoundly, deeply impressed by the achievements of mankind over the ages, but the glory is always fleeting. Nature always wins. No matter how we battle, nature wins, without even trying. And as glories fade and as the once-pretty town of Humberstone decays, no doubt that's a great shame. But hey, it's also pretty cool.

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