Because of the absolute power he wielded autocratically when appointed general manager of the Rio Tinto mines in 1908, Walter Browning, a fluent Spanish speaker, became known as ‘el rey de Huelva’ (the King of Huelva). Spanish cartoons reflected the image, one describing him as ‘su majestad Riotinto’ (his Rio Tinto Majesty) and depicting him as a giant with two pygmies, the prime minister and a judge, in tow. Characterised by an explosive energy, he was also known as ‘el terremoto’ (the earthquake) and admired as ‘mucho hombre’ (all man) out of respect for his skilled horsemanship and iron will.
Experience as a lone gold prospector in Mexico and as the general manager of a copper mine, moulded his personality. An isolated life, frequently living only on what he could shoot and having to fight off attacks by hostile Indians fostered a confident self-reliance and an expertise in pistol and rifle.
The ‘kingdom’ he inherited had been purchased by an international consortium and forged by Hugh Matheson, the Rio Tinto Company’s principal founder and first chairman. A London-based banker, Matheson combined business acumen and a supreme confidence in the engineering prowess of Victorian Britain with a certainty that God was guiding him.
From the Western Highlands of Scotland, he was a devout Presbyterian. An austere teetotaller, church going and charitable, he worked among the London poor at night. During his chairmanship welfare facilities were considerably improved at Rio Tinto and schools built at his own as well as company expense, primarily to improve literacy and enable bible reading.
Under his leadership, the company became the greatest mining centre in the world. At the time of his death in 1898, Hugh Matheson was one of most powerful men in the economic life of Spain. The Rio Tinto Company was the biggest and most heavily capitalised commercial organisation in the country. It was the largest single employer of labour and provider of social services, paid substantial taxes and spearheaded the transformation of Huelva from village into industrial city.
Browning therefore ascended ‘the throne’ when the Rio Tinto Company exercised a powerful influence nationally and effectively controlled much of the political and economic life in Huelva province. He held court in the Casa Grande (Big House) in Bella Vista (Beautiful View), a replica British village in which about 120 mostly Scottish Presbyterian families lived in rigid segregation from the Spanish. Matheson had appointed a Presbyterian minister and later built a church resembling a Scottish Kirk in which he, as a Presbyterian lay-preacher, had sometimes conducted services and given sermons. The church is now derelict. Covered in graffiti, locked and boarded up, it is a poignant reminder of lives passed in a foreign land.
Life for the British centred on the club Inglés (English club) in Bella Vista where a photograph of Browning still hangs along with those of other past general managers. Entering the club today is to pass in to a vault of moribund memories fondly cared for by its Spanish inheritors. The bar entrance still bears a ‘Men Only’ brass plaque in English. Its wood-panelled walls are hung with prints of Royal Navy warships and in the hall cum theatre is preserved the Rio Tinto Company’s Union Jack and a display of silver cups and trophies – the relics of very British games. The walls are adorned with British cartoons and pictures.
A few minutes walk away, past a solitary and forgotten memorial to Rio Tinto employees who served in the Great War, is Atalaya, excavated in 1907 and exploited under Browning. It is one of the world’s largest open cast mines and is a stunning sight. Dazzling with colour, it dwarves the buildings that hug its rim. Rail tracks, part of a 300 kilometre system blasted and cut through difficult terrain, once spiralled to the bottom where, just discernible, is a rusting locomotive. It was not too fanciful to believe that I was looking into el Corazón de la Tierra (‘The Heart of the Earth’ – a novel by the Riotinto writer Juan Cobos Wilkins and adapted for cinema by Huelva director Antonio Cuadri).
Medical and welfare services continued to improve under ‘the king’. A new hospital, now the mining museum in Minas de Riotinto, was built in 1927 and in Huelva the Barrio de Reina Victoria, architecturally a piece of Britain transported to Spain, was started in 1916 to house the company’s Spanish workers.
Huelva’s Gran Teatro, inaugurated in 1923, is symbolic of the regional economic development generated by the Rio Tinto mines under Browning. He also initiated a scheme to assess the damage done to surrounding land and farms by sulphur fumes. The first eucalyptus trees were planted on mine property, a company forester employed, the large scale planting of pine, oak and cork trees recommended and pasture farming introduced.
But Browning ruled during a period of tumultuous change. The workforce expanded to almost 17000 and he wrestled with the consequences of inter-union and political turmoil as well as an anti-British movement during the First World War when he created an unofficial counter-intelligence network to track German and Bolshevik funds.
The longest series of strikes in the history of the mines occurred in 1920 with bitter conflicts during the early months of 1921. There were frequent stoppages with violence, deaths and the destruction of company property reminiscent of the riots of 1888 when troops had fired into a mob of miners and villagers, killing or wounding 48, although legend puts the deaths at between 100 and 200.
Daily, Browning personally led blacklegs through striking workers to the Rio Tinto Company pier in Huelva. Today the pier has been carefully restored and though it still juts aggressively into the Rio Odiel, it stirs up images remote from the acrimonious past. I walked it on a bright but breezy March morning. In contrast to the heady days when queues of steamships awaited loads of ore and locomotives trailing a string of hoppers rattled noisily back and fourth, I could hear only the soothing sound of water lapping against the pylons. The pier was tranquil and deserted except for three lads fishing from the end.
Browning’s ‘reign’ ended in 1927 when, having discovered that he had ‘lived like a king’ at company expense, he was asked by the chairman to resign immediately. He died in Kent, England in 1943 aged 77 years.
It was an unexpectedly peaceful end to the life of a man against whom there were at least four assassination attempts while he was at Rio Tinto. Always heavily armed and with a bodyguard, tradition has it that he carried a Winchester repeating rifle with a bullet in the breach and kept half-cocked ready for action. On his right hip and slung low was a revolver he had used in Mexico. At times of industrial trouble he wore a second one. And inside his jacket he also concealed an automatic pistol.
In 1954 the Rio Tinto Company was sold to Compañia Española de Minas de Rio-Tinto SA, a Spanish consortium. Today the Riotinto mines have ceased production but the brooding stillness of a haunting landscape still evokes a sense of wonder at the vastness of Browning’s ‘kingdom’.
A ride in the tourist train, swaying and rattling through a kaleidoscopic panorama of strangely sculptured and multicoloured valleys, is like a journey on another planet. The brilliant blues and greens of copper-stained earth mix with the reds of metal bearing rocks oxidised over millions of years. And the ominous blood-red water of the Rio Tinto slices a path through a scattering of derelict buildings, locomotives and machinery.
The British have gone, leaving behind their dead in the small cemetery in Bella Vista. It is a sad place. Graves ravaged by vandals, time and weather drown under waves of vegetation. And buildings constructed and once occupied by the Rio Tinto Company in the nearby village of Minas de Riotinto are now put to other uses.
Of the several railway stations built by the company, the one at Zalamea la Real, with its spectacular views of the village below, is intact but closed up. And at San Juan del Puerto the former station on the edge of the marshes has been restored. Estacíon de Sevilla, the neo-Moorish style RENFE station in Huelva, was built by the company in 1880.
Also in Huelva Casa Colon, erected in 1883 as a luxury hotel but sold to the Rio Tinto Company in 1892 as offices, housing and a recreation centre for mine staff, is now used as a conference centre, exhibition rooms and municipal offices. And Punta Umbria owes its origins to the Rio Tinto Company who chose it as the site on which to build a sanatorium for British staff. By 1892 it had largely become a company weekend and holiday resort. Today a couple of the colonial-style bungalows remain in this now very Spanish resort, empty and spectral reminders that once there was a British ‘King of Huelva’.