School children in the British Council library in south America
School children in the British Council library in south America ©

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Few regions in which the British Council has worked have presented such diverse circumstances as the Americas.  

In South America, English teaching was a key activity; whereas in North America and parts of the Caribbean English was a state language. 

Poverty and political instability in some parts of the region was in stark contrast to the enormous wealth evident elsewhere. 

In some places the UK had established interests as a former Colonial power, and in others had no influence at all. 

As a result, the Americas has seen some of our most unique and innovative approaches to cultural relations.

Special partnerships in South America

Attracted by trade opportunities, many British citizens emigrated to South America in the 19th century. As a result many Anglophile societies, known as ‘cultura’ were in operation across the continent by the time we started work there in the late 1930s.

This provided us with a unique collaborative opportunity; rather than establish our own institutes, we formed partnerships with these societies. In exchange for grants, teaching staff and equipment, we used their facilities to lecture, conduct film showings and hold exhibitions. 

Integration with home-grown institutions meant low running costs, and provided stability to our operations during times of political unrest and military regimes, allowing us to retain relative consistency in our work. 

The widespread cultura network provided facilities to teach and examine thousands of English language students. During the 1940s we taught 3000 students a year in Mexico, and by the 1970s we administered over 20,000 exams a year in Uruguay.

Technology of the time was used in the centres to connect with students; from radio lessons in Brazil in the 1940’s to state-of-the-art language laboratories 25 years later.

Although the cultura have ceased to be the main focus of our work, they were key to our success in Latin America for over 50 years. Today we continue to enjoy excellent collaborative relationships with the cultura across the continent in support of our joint objective to build closer ties with the UK. 

Caribbean Library Schemes

We began operating in the British West Indies in the early 1940’s; its remoteness from the scenes of the Second World War made it possible to work there in relative safety. 

Funds were made available for British Colonies approaching independence during the 1940’s. We used these to develop public libraries, beginning in Trinidad in 1945, followed by Jamaica a year later. 

A joint funding agreement was made with the host governments, whereby we provided training and resources, whilst they subsidised running costs. This programme allowed people to freely access information for the first time. 

Fifteen years later our work within libraries remained popular; in Jamaica alone 200 outlets provider over 580,000 books to our 300,000 members. 

Funding cuts led to a 20 year absence on the islands. However, we returned in 1989, with a representative based primarily in Jamaica, funded by both government grant and sponsorships. 

The Arts

The arts have been a key means to reach and engage new audiences in the Americas. We selected British artworks to be exhibited at the 1939 New York World Fair, and later sponsored the Royal Opera and other artists to perform during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

The work of Henry Moore was particularly popular in South America, with numerous exhibitions taking place over the last seventy years. The 1982 exhibition in Mexico was inaugurated by the President, and had over 428,000 visitors whilst touring the county.

Performances were carried out by our own Shakespeare troop in the 1960’s and 1970’s, in various countries in the region. We also assisted with shows by Benjamin Britten, the Halle Orchestra, the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Old Vic, and the Royal Ballet.

In addition, we supported numerous smaller exhibitions across North and South America, promoting the work of native artists in the Caribbean.  

Assistance and collaboration

In our early years, we were responsible for recruiting British teachers to work in schools throughout the region.

Teachers from the UK were sent to train their Jamaican counterparts in the 1960’s, alongside 30 volunteers teaching under the Voluntary Services Overseas scheme, a programme that we administered. 

Financial restrictions initially limited our work within the USA, which was sometimes seen as a competitor in the field of overseas cultural relations. However, forming collaborative aid partnerships allowed us to build relationships with the educational and aid agencies of the USA. 

Our partnership with the Overseas Development Ministry (now DfID) opened new avenues for work in the Americas. We collaborated on a wide range of funded projects, particularly in the areas of science and agriculture.

As the decades continued so did our varied work; by 1990 we were delivering over 30 joint research agreements in Brazil, with a continued emphasis on environmental programmes. 

In Venezuela, we delivered projects with the University of Cambridge and the Universidad Metropolitana de Caracasto, supporting women in the poorest districts of cities. 

There was a limited need for aid projects in countries like Canada, however, our skills as experts in English language teaching provided grants for Canadian teachers of English to attend study tours in the UK in 1980s.