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History of Mar del Plata

The first European navigator to visit the beaches and cliffs of what one day would become Mar del Plata was Sir Francis Drake in his 1577 circumnavigation voyage. He introduced the name Cape Lobos in the cartography of his time, due to the large colony of sea lions (lobos de mar in Spanish) around the cape today known as Cabo Corrientes.

Just four years later, the Spanish Governor of the River Plate, Don Juan de Garay (second founder of Buenos Aires) explored the area by land, and paid tribute to the beautiful landscape by describing it as a muy galana costa (a very elegant shore). This is today one of the city's favourite mottos.

In 1742, during the War of Jenkin's Ear, eight survivors of the HMS Wager, part of Admiral Anson expedition, lived through a ten-months ordeal before being decimated and captured by the Tehuelches, who eventually handed them to the Spaniards.

In 1746, by order of the Spanish Kingdom, a Jesuit Order's mission was established near what is now Laguna de los Padres, some eight miles west of the city, but it was abandoned after a series of northern Tehuelches attacks, led by native chieftain Cangapol. It was not populated again by Europeans until 1856, when a meat-salting facility was built, and a stable population remained there.

Foundation and Development (1874-1930)

The town was founded on February 10, 1874 by governmental decree, and by initiative of Patricio Peralta Ramos. It is said that Pedro Luro, a Basque merchant, had the idea of turning the growing town into a European-style bathing resort three years later. As the railway began to expand into the province, previously isolated settlements became accessible to visitors from the capital; the first passenger train arrived here from Buenos Aires in September 1886. The subsequent opening of the town's first hotel - the luxurious Hotel Bristol - in 1888 was a great occasion for the Buenos Aires elite, many of whom travelled down for the opening on an overnight train.

The railroad also paved the way to the arrival of European immigrants, mainly Italians, Spaniards and French. Among the Italians, Sicilians and Calabrians started the first fishing activities in the 1890s, although the port of Mar del Plata would only be built in 1916 by a French company. The project was designed and directed by the local engineer Federico Beltrami, son of a Swiss-Italian immigrant, Francesco Beltrami, himself the first recorded builder in the town. Mar del Plata's initial success aside, the richest of Argentina's very rich continued to make their regular pilgrimages to Europe. It took the outbreak of war in Europe to dampen Argentine enthusiasm for the journey across the Atlantic and to establish the town as an exclusive tourist destination. Indeed, the building industry also began in this period, in order to satisfy the demands of the new resort. The different guilds were led mostly by residents originally from Northern Italy, but the next generation included people of Spaniard and Southern Italian stock.

This social background increased the tensions between the elite and the established population. The political intervention of the central power, held by the Conservative Party, in the Municipality's institutions prompted a 1911 [[:Image:Manifiesto.jpg|Manifiesto]] from some residents seeking to diminish the national oligarchy influence over local affairs. The following moves brought the Socialists to power in 1919 (see Government in the main article about Mar del Plata), an audacious shift in the summer residence of the Argentine aristocracy. The national Government was also taken over by the Radical Civic Union, its leader, Hipolito Yrigoyen becoming President of the Republic.

Mass Tourism (1930-1970)

The first military coup in Argentina's history took place on September 6, 1930, restoring the conservative hegemony in all levels of Government, including the local one. Although unpopular and fraudulent, this old new order brought some progress and investment to an ailing country in the climax of the great depression. Mass tourism began to arrive in this decade, helped by improved roads, but it took off in the 1940s and 1950s, when the development of union-run hotels under the Peron presidency put the city within the reach of Argentina's middle and working classes. Peronism, even if elected by overwhelming popular vote, kept some of the Conservative hegemonic practices. This was especially noted in Mar del Plata, where the internal disputes inside the party led to a succession of Comisionados; de facto Mayors imposed by the provincial Governor. None of the Peronist Mayors elected by vote completed his term in office in this nine years period.

On the other hand, the social changes promoted by Peron boosted Mar del Plata's economy and middle class as never before.

But allegations of populism, corruption and mismanagement reached the point of no return. The Revolucion Libertadora, a combined military and civilian uprising, overthrew Peron on September 16, 1955. In Mar del Plata, as in other places of the country, the Navy supported the rebels and the Army remained loyal to the Government. The naval base outskirts and some points of the city were subjected to heavy shelling from the sea, before the loyalist forces could be dispersed. The action was executed by the cruiser ARA Nueve de Julio, a squadron of destroyers and the corvette ARA Republica (former HMS Smylax), the latter inside the port itself. Two fishing boats (Miguel Angel & Corsario) evacuated non essential personnel from the base, the latter running aground in the process.

If the '50s were years of economic boom for Mar del Plata, the '60s saw a skyrocketing development of the building industry, which reached the peak of its activity. The rate of construction per square feet was the highest in the world, surpassing even that of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Like in the '30s, the growth took place during a period of political turmoil. Peronism was proscribed by the military, but there were some constitutional intervals, all of them dominated by the Socialists at local level. It was certainly one of the most successful decades in Mar del Plata's history.

Crisis and Recovery (1970-2000s)

The '70s and '80s showed some decline. Newer resorts became more and more attractive for so-called alternative tourism, and the high-profile visitors of the past shifted their attention to the beaches of Uruguay and Brazil. The success of each the summer season's hinged on the financial fluctuations of the currency, amid periods of inflation and crisis that discouraged the middle-class to invest in Mar del Plata. As a result of internal immigration from depressed regions of the country, the first villas miseria (shanty towns) made their appearance in these decades.

By contrast, these years marked the taking-off for the fishing industry and the birth of metal-mechanics factories. The Nacional University was also founded in 1975. In 1978, the town hosted some matches for the football (soccer) FIFA World Cup 1978 organized by Argentina. The Stadium Jose Maria Minella was specially built for the occasion.

The Falklands War

Army and Navy groups based in the town participated in the Falklands War of 1982 with Britain.

Elite troops (Comandos Anfibios & Buzos Tacticos) from Mar del Plata's Naval Base forced the surrender of the Naval Party 8901 and the British Governor of the Islands, Rex Hunt, on April 2 that year (Operation Rosario).

The British reaction, Operation Corporate, prompted the build-up of an Argentine garrison in Stanley (renamed Puerto Argentino by the Argentine Government).

The Argentine submarines, also based at the naval docks, saw some action too; one of them, the old 'Guppy' class ARA Santa Fe was lost in the South Georgia Islands. Another one, the Type 209 ARA San Luis harassed the British Task Force for several days.

The Antiarcraft Artillery Group 601 (GADA 601), its permanent headquarters located north of Mar del Plata, was responsible for the troops anti-aircraft defense. They accounted for four British aircraft (two Sea Harriers and two RAF GR.3 Harriers), forcing the rest of them to fly well above 10,000 feet , to avoid the 35-mm Oerlikon Contraves guns and Roland missiles threat.

A small detachment (34 men) from this group, deployed in Port Darwin and armed with two twin Oerlikon 35-mm cannons, also played a key role in the Battle of Goose Green, May 28, inflicting several casualties to the 2nd Para battalion before surrendering the next day.

Thirteen personnel from Mar del Plata lost their lives in the conflict, among them the first Argentine casualty of the war, Captain Pedro Giachino, one of the commanders of the elite troops that seized Port Stanley. A memorial was erected to commemorate them in 1986.

Democratic Process

The Socialists were replaced by the Radicals as the main political force in the 1983 election , after the Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional, when a military dictatorship ruled the country. The city had been affected by both the leftist militant organizations' campaign and the brutal overreaction of the armed forces, resulting in 10-30,000 desaparecidos across the country, well over 200 of them in Mar del Plata alone. After the resigning of President Raul Alfonsin amid a financial quagmire in 1989, the Peronists returned to power. President Carlos Menem made a huge reform of the Economy, established a parity between the Peso and the Dollar and sold all the obsolete companies belonging to the Federal Government. The first years of his mandate brought some prosperity to the Argentine middle-class, and there was a rebirth of mass tourism for Mar del Plata. But the trade deficit, along with an increasing jobless rate harmed the city's investments, with the subsequent social crisis. For the first time in its history, Mar del Plata saw emigration and some pockets of extreme poverty in the environs of the city. But even in such a deep crisis, the Radicals, identified with the mid-classes, kept firmly in charge of the local Government. The Peronism was succeeded by an Alliance between the Radicals and other moderate leftist parties in the central power in 1999.

However, after the unpopular administration of President Fernando De la Rua, and a period of riots and Institutional mess, the country had a swift recovery under the lead of President Nestor Kirchner (in office since 2003). The new situation was also felt in Mar del Plata. The local economy grew for the first time in years and the renewed touristic offer attracted investment, reviving the ailing market and consumers confidence. International events and conventions returned to the city, triggering the remodeling of public spaces.

The Fourth Summit of the Americas is an example of the latter. The Summit took place on November 3 and November 6, 2005. The meeting of 34 countries in the Americas was marked by large-scale protests and a series of exchanges between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the U.S. President George W. Bush centering around the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The last U-boats and other WWII stories

On July 10, 1945, two months after V-E day, a fishing boat leaving the port of Mar del Plata was surprised by coming upon a rusty German submarine. This U-boat, the U-530, departed from Kristiansand, Norway, on March 3, with a complement of 54 men, under the command of 24-year-old Otto Vermouth. After a failed attack on an Allied convoy off New York, the boat received a clear message ordering the surrender at the nearest allied base. The situation looked suspicious to the confused Vermouth, who just a couple of hours before had heard on the wireless station the codename Regenbogen (rainbow), imparted by Admiral Karl Doenitz, which ordered the immediate scuttling of all operational U-boats. Facing these conflicting reports, he decided instead to continue on a southern course, finally reaching the Argentine coast during the early days of July. Unlike the usual procedures of the German military, the decision was taken by consensus. Before entering port to surrender to the Argentine authorities Vermouth threw overboard the codes and code machines, and discarded the 88-mm deck gun and torpedoes. The boat had been launched in 1941, and in 1943 had sunk the freighter Milos and the tanker Sunoil, and torpedoed and damaged the oiler Chapultepec. The crew was immediately interned by presidential decree and taken by bus to Buenos Aires.

On August 17 the U-977 (commander Heinz Schaeffer) was surprised on the surface, off the naval port, by the minesweeper ARA Py and the submarine ARA Salta. U-977 was boarded and towed to the military docks. Unlike Vermouth, Schaeffer released his U-boat intact, giving up to the Naval Authorities codebooks, code machines, guns and torpedoes, as a goodwill gesture. U-977 , launched in 1942, had been damaged on her maiden trip by collision and spent her days as a school ship in the Baltic. Schaeffer learned about the death of Hitler a few days after departing from Kiel. As with U-530, the crew were allowed to vote on their fate. The married personnel opted for return and landed in Norway; the other seamen decided to make the long and dangerous trip to Argentina. After sailing for more than 100 days, Schaeffer had the Argentine coast on sight. On August 22, U-977s 31-man complement was transported to the capital. There was speculation about the submarine carrying some of the Nazi Regime's prominent figures, but according to the Canadian historian Ronald C. Newton, this proved to be just a legend born largely before the surrender of any German unit in Argentina. Both commanders were interrogated about the landing of personnel before the surrender, with a young Argentine sailor of German ancestry acting as interpreter.

Analysis of U-977's logand the fuel consumption of U-530 left no extra time for the boats to have executed any suspicious activities before reaching Mar del Plata.

The German sailors and the submarines were eventually turned over to the US Navy.

This episode was not the only World War II affair involving Mar del Plata. A less well-known German landing had taken place the year before: early on July 3, 1944 the sloop Santa Barbara anchored a few yards off the coast near Punta Mogotes, then an are with extensive sand dunes, some two miles south of the port. The vessel had been chartered by the Abwehr (The German Combined Intelligence Office) with the mission of infiltrating two fully-equipped spies in Argentina and to repatriate another three. The operation was a complete success, and the Allies only learned about the Santa Barbara several months later. The sailboat had departed from Arcachon, France, on April 16. The D Day landings prevented the return to France, and the sloop delivered her passengers to Vigo, in neutral Spain.

Another WWII related action was the sinking of the German steamer Erlangen by the British Cruiser HMS Newcastle 36 hours after sailing from Mar del Plata with a cargo of tungsten and molybdenum

on July 23 1941. The vessel was scuttled by her crew.

From a wide point of view, the Second World War was an opportunity for the port of Mar del Plata to increase its commercial activities and for its incipient fishing industry to export much-needed shark liver oil to Allied countries. During the war Mar del Plata, like all of Argentina, suffered from a severe shortage of materials such as fuel and metals.


Unless otherwise indicated, all the sources are written in Spanish.

Anniversary Editions of La Capital newspaper: 1955, 1980, 1985, 2005.

Barili, Roberto T.: Mar del Plata, Resena Historica. Published by the Municipality of Gral. Pueyrredon, Mar del Plata, 1964.

Newton, Ronald C.: The Nazi menace in Argentina (1937-1947). The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University, 1992. ISBN 0804719292

Pastoriza, Elisa: Los trabajadores de Mar del Plata en visperas del peronismo. Biblioteca Politica Argentina series, Buenos Aires, 1993.

Ruiz Moreno, Isidoro: La Neutralidad Argentina en la Segunda Guerra. Emece Editores, 1997. ISBN 9500417626

Sebreli, Juan Jose: Mar del Plata: el ocio represivo. Editorial Tiempo Contemporaneo, 1970

Zago, Manrique: Mar del Plata, Argentina. Manrique Zago Ed., 1997. (Bilingual Edition).

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