LAFONE, SAMUEL FISHER

1805 - 1871 from England (also Uruguay)


merchant was born in Liverpool on 6 August 1805, son of Samuel Lafone, broker and tanner of Huguenot stock, and Mary Lafone, née Ellison. He was one of a large family and his younger brother Alexander LAFONE and his sister Martha's second husband John Pownall DALE also feature in the Falklands story. His Liverpool childhood was marred by the death of his mother when he was seven years old but neither that nor his father's re-marriage two years later seems to have caused any rift in the family. Indeed, when he sailed to Argentina either in 1823 or in 1825 it seems likely that this was with the full support of his family. He was never to return to his native soil.

0208
208 Merchant of Montevideo.
To South America

In view of the speed with which he began to trade, and to acquire land, after he arrived in Buenos Aires some of his home support may have been financial. He may also have mortgaged the land on the basis of servicing the loan from future income from it. This is a good way of investing if the income is as projected but can be costly, as with his Falklands investment, where the calculation is incorrect. It is known that some of his land was at a place called Gibson on Argentina's Atlantic coast. The arrival of his younger brother Alexander was a help in the business, and no doubt provided some welcome companionship. In 1832, however, his prospering business was put at risk as a result of his choice of a companion for life. He fell in love with Maria (Mariquita) Quevedo y Alsina, a name suggesting the upper strata of colonial society, and while he had the full support of his future mother-in-law, Mariquita's father was deeply upset with the match which was a 'mixed' Protestant/Catholic union. Despite this the marriage went ahead in Maria's mother's home with a number of witnesses including Maria's mother and Alexander Lafone. The service was conducted by William Torrey an American Presbyterian minister but it was annulled by the Bishop of Buenos Aires, and mother and daughter were sent to the 'House of Spiritual Exercises' for a month 'to repent'. Lafone and Torrey were fined 1,000 pesos, and the other witnesses 500, but worse all were arrested pending expulsion. There followed intense pressures from several directions: on Samuel to convert to Catholicism (pressure which he steadfastly resisted) and diplomatic and business pressure on the City authorities to release the men. The latter was the more successful: a pardon ended three months of confinement, and on 13 June 1833 they were married for a second time in a Roman Catholic Church and six days later for a third time at the Anglican Church of St John. Lafone was only baptised as an Anglican six months after his wedding - his family in Liverpool were Baptists. (The Lafone marriage was still technically illegal since the law was only changed in the following year as a result of this case). The couple enjoyed 34 years of marriage and had three sons: Samuel Alexander Ernest (Samuelito, 1835-1920, who became Director of the Natural History Museum, La Plata, Argentina), Hope (1841-1919, who gave his name to Hope Place in Lafonia) and William Edward (1846-1897) and six daughters Maria Enriqueta (1837-1891), Martha Videla Lucy Emily (1840-1884), Mercy Annie (1853-1945), Grace Julia, (b1855) and two who died in infancy.

Someone not present at the second wedding was Alexander Lafone who had already travelled to Montevideo as part of the process of transferring the Lafone business interests away from any future problems in Argentina. Samuel Lafone was not expelled and freely entered Argentina, without hindrance, in later years. In Uruguay expansion was rapid and spectacular until the land-holding included all of the land around Punta del Este but only after some legal battles apparently to prove those rights. Other investments related to the processing of the cattle ranched on this land and from other landholders. Slaughter yards, a jerked (dried) beef factory, and a salt beef plant (saladero) were built and operated profitably. In 1834 John Pownall DALE arrived to manage the saladero, having taken as his second wife Samuel's sister Martha Seacombe Lafone. In England the family were closely involved with the tanning industry so it is no surprise that Lafone was a shipper of cow hides to Europe, but he was also involved with sealing at the Isla de Lobos, and in business with General Justo Jose Urquiza, the Governor of the Argentine province of Entre Rios.

Lafone may have had large landholdings but the General's approached a million hectares, sustaining 300,000 cattle. Lafone entered into a partnership with Urquiza to process these cattle through his factories. There is no suggestion that this or his other business ventures were not profitable but since his policy was to invest in more land and cattle, cash liquidity might have been a problem. Meanwhile expansion continued via a series of partnerships with British settlers who, having purchased large tracts of land, could not afford to stock them. The Lafones provided the stock as their part of the partnership. It has been suggested that Lafone used a partnership proposal with Louis VERNET in 1837 to gain the information he needed for his Falklands venture but this seems to be Vernet's embittered comment. By 1843 Alexander Lafone had been back in Britain for some years but was still helping his brother, and alert to new business opportunities in which Samuel Lafone might wish to invest.

The Falklands

So Governor MOODY's ideas for the expansion of settlement and trade between the recently re-established colony of the Falkland Islands and the Coast seemed to align with Lafone's cattle interests. Alexander Lafone's information prompted the despatch to the Islands in January 1844 of Don Marcellino Martinez, Lafone's agent, to inspect, and report back. The choice of a non-English speaker may not have been wise but Martinez should not be blamed for the mix-up over the area of the land to be leased. This was primarily the result of inadequate mapping. The report, however inaccurate, sufficiently interested Samuel Lafone to write with a proposal on the 16 March 1844, delivered by Martinez to the Islands that May. It seemed the work of an odd combination of businessman and romantic coloniser. As well as terms specifying the land to be leased (he wanted everything south of the Wickham Heights), the supply of beef and cattle to the colony, the right to slaughter wild animals anywhere on the East Falkland for six years and produce set numbers of cattle and sheep at certain intervals, it promised a clergyman, a church, and education. It also promised the right mix of workers (out of every nine, five were to be Shetlanders, one a River Plate gaucho, two from southern Chile to keep the gauchos in order, and one Basque to build the houses). But like most of his promises this was to be a pipe dream.

Negotiations proved protracted, and an agreement was not signed until 16 March 1846 by Alexander Lafone in London. Even then it was not until May 1847 that Lafone's manager, RA WILLIAMS, arrived with 102 men, horses and stores. Some have seen the Siege of Montevideo, which had taken placeat that time, as just an excuse for inaction but since General Urquiza was a main protagonist in the conflict Samuel may have had real difficulties. Williams, then and now, has been seen as an incompetent troublemaker but the Hope Place saladero was soon in operation and he quickly saw that what was on the ground did not match what had been promised. Lafone sought a renegotiation of the contract but could not agree with the alternative land offered to him by Moody, and asked for the contact to be cancelled with the return of the £10,000 he had paid as well as his expenses. Although in 1848 Lafone took the opportunity to meet the incoming Governor, RENNIE, in Montevideo, and sent an in-law, Don Juan Quevedo, to negotiate with Moody, there was stalemate, and when Williams reneged on the promise to repatriate workers who wished to return home in 1849, Rennie closed down the saladero for a year.

This was one Lafone deal that was not self-financing, and the lack of cash in his businesses did not help but such problems can be overstressed. Finance had been provided by a firm, Ricketts, Boutcher and Company, with whom the Lafone's had close links - his step-brother, Alfred, married Jane Boutcher in 1852, and was manager of the company a few years later. So Alexander could be safely left to negotiate a refinancing package. However stretched he might have been Samuel Lafone could afford to wait for a better deal. The contract signed on 9 January 1850 was wholly favourable to him. The price was reduced by half to £30,000 (the sum he had already paid and ten instalments of £2,000), he could build corrals anywhere on East Falkland and had rights over all wild animals for another ten years. Five years after that he had to prove there were still 20,000 cattle and horses, and he still had to supply set numbers of animals and beef as required to Stanley but the government could not farm in opposition to him or permit other farmers to interfere in his operations. The contract was so one-sided that complaints were inevitable, and they soon came, about Williams, about the supply of cattle, about the gauchos, and about the extermination of the cattle.

The Falkland Islands Company

The solution, at least as far as Samuel Lafone was concerned, was found in London and not the Falklands. It is obvious that from 1849 Alexander Lafone had been trying to find ways of injecting fresh capital into the Falklands venture. The Royal Falkland Land, Cattle, Seal and Whale Fishery Company, for which he issued a prospectus, did not materialise but it prompted enough interest for a committee to meet in January 1851 to consider buying out Lafone's interests. From there events moved swiftly, and the first meeting of the Falkland Islands Company took place on 24 April 1851. Samuel had his cash but retained a substantial interest in the Company, and the Islands, subscribing to over 200 of the 1000 shares of £100 on offer as well as being a director and 'Manager at the Falklands'. Alexander Lafone had pulled all the right strings but serious problems lay ahead. The whole edifice was based on a grossly inflated valuation of the assets taken over (£212,000) without any attempt to audit them, and whatever his title Lafone was anything but an on-site manager. The board even ignored one piece of sound advice from him and excluded store partnership with JM DEAN from the purchase. Over many years it proved a costly mistake.

Williams was replaced by John Pownall Dale, who experienced at first hand what Governor Rennie called the 'blind confidence' of the board. Whilst it considered plans for a newspaper, a lighthouse, and other marks of civilisation, Dale found himself living in a shack with no money and his supplies dumped in the snow. Both colonists and the colonial government found fault with Dale's management, and with the Company, but as long as the Company was in control, and his brother-in-law the local manager, Lafone must have felt he could concentrate on his other business interests. It was, however, taking it to extremes to send no remittances, account and inventories to London for nearly two years. By 1854 the Company could stand no more, and Dale was dismissed, Lafone's bill, drawn on the Company for his expenses was not honoured, and, in April, a bill was presented in the Court of Chancery claiming 'fraudulent representation' against the Lafones.

The Dispute with FIC

However much Lafone might complain to HAVERS, the incoming manager, that the Company had caused most of the problems by trying to control everything from London or that they had not followed his sensible advice, there was misrepresentation and mismanagement to lay at his door. Yet was it sensible for a company to sue its major shareholder (nearly 30% of the 976 issued shares, admittedly with payment on a call in arrears)? To be fair to the Company they did not leave matters to drag on through the courts but endeavoured to settle the dispute by arbitration. Part of the reason for the four year delay in reaching final agreement was undoubtedly due to their suggested mediator, Mr B Field, dying before agreement could be reached on his appointment, and the Lafones' refusal to agree to the appointment of another referee to consider 'all the questions at issue, whether moral or mercantile'. Samuel Lafone's brother Alexander had been included in the Chancery proceedings because of his considerable role in the formation of the Company, and it was he who wrote the response to the Court early in 1857. By that time, however, matters had dragged on long enough, and the brothers finally accepted arbitration. The court case was withdrawn with each side paying their own costs. It is said that Samuel agreed to pay arrears of £13,000 on the Company shares, and that he offered to subscribe for £15,000 more shares. The Company agreed to pay the Lafones' outstanding expenses. The figures given for the arrears are hard to reconcile with the Company's own records of its issued capital. In 1855 when the dispute had just started there were arrears of £3,475 in respect of a call of £12/10s on 278 shares. These arrears were settled in 1856 but in 1857 the Company made another call for the same amount, and this call was unpaid on 244 shares. At the time the dispute was settled the latter arrears of £3,050 were paid, and the next transaction involving the shares was another call in 1861. If Samuel's default on the shares seems never to have been as high as was stated, neither were the new shares purchased. Whether he withdrew the offer or it was refused (the extra 200 shares would have given him 40% ownership of the Company, and perhaps the offer was seen as a direct threat to the existing Directors) no new shares were issued. The share capital was only increased in 1889.

Later Years

From the resolution of this dispute, the Lafone family had no direct role in the Falkland Islands although Samuel Lafone has one further footnote in its history. The re-supply of the missionary Allen GARDINER in Tierra del Fuego was mismanaged, and despite Lafone three times ordering supplies to be sent on from Stanley (where they had been sent because of a lack of shipping) nothing was done. He finally chartered Captain SMYLEY to sail direct from Montevideo but by then it was too late. Interestingly Lafone and Gardiner had arranged for ships to sail monthly from the Falklands on logging expeditions to Tierra del Fuego - Lafone ever alert for new business opportunities. But this was 1851 and in the chaos of events no one thought to put the supplies on board. This interest in missionary work should not however surprise us for Lafone continued a staunch supporter of the Protestant church in South America. His greatest benefaction was the land and building costs of Holy Trinity Church in Montevideo (the original buildings were demolished in 1934 and rebuilt on the other side of the road, including the 'Lafone Hall' named in his honour). His son Hope was for many years conductor of the choir of this Church.

It is said that Lafone had further financial difficulties stemming from the Crimean War (1854-1856) either from loss of ships or deliveries made after the War ended. But it is hard to believe that, short of the loss of an entire fleet of ships, the former could hurt him greatly and the War Office must have paid in the latter case. Considering that three years later he would offer the equivalent, in today's money, of a million and a quarter pounds to settle his dispute with the Falkland Islands Company we can probably discount this story, although it is perfectly credible that he should be a supplier of salt and cured meat to the British Army. The event that caused his retirement is more understandable: the death of his wife, Mariquita, on 30 April 1866 would have been a shattering blow. Five years later, on a visit to Buenos Aires, he died of 'cerebritis' during the massive outbreak of yellow fever in that city.

The Lafone interest in the Falkland Islands Company or the Falkland Islands did not end then. His stepbrother, Alfred, a leading authority in the British tanning industry and an MP became a director of the Company, and on his death (1911) his eldest son, AW Lafone, was a director at least until 1920. The latter, with his younger brother Harold, made substantial donations to the Falkland Islands Battle Memorial Fund in 1919.

Typically Lafone is described as a 'merchant from Montevideo' or a 'Uruguayan businessman' conjuring up a picture in stark contrast to the steadfast Protestant, third generation Liverpudlian which he was. For a man who never visited, and probably had no time or intention to visit, the Falkland Islands, Samuel Fisher Lafone had a pivotal role in laying the foundations of their economic growth. It is easier to see this devout and conscientious man as having a vision that it was not in his power to implement; rather than as one whose self interest and greed led him to deliberately mislead the colonists, the British Government, and his fellow directors. But no one can look at the history of this period without some sense of frustration that Samuel Lafone could not find time to visit the Islands, and without feeling that had he done so matters would have turned out very differently and much better than they actually did. His name is commemorated by the large tract of land called Lafonia in East Falkland, and, by transference, was the name of at least four ships. The Lafone Hall is the church hall of Holy Trinity Church in Montevideo and a Lafone Street runs to Southwark docks in London. Members of the Lafone family served on the board of the FIC until the 1970s.

Authors

Bill Featherstone