History of Fray Bentos

The City of Fray Bentos, capital of the Department of Río Negro, dates from the mid XIX century. Its original name was Villa Independencia. In the late XX century, it acquired great significance and experienced a high industrial development with the arrival of German and then English immigrants who raised booming factories from where food was exported to the entire planet. It came to be called "the great kitchen of the world”.

The name “Fray Bentos” entails a certain kind of uncertainty; nevertheless, it is generally agreed that it might derive from the surname of a Friar Bentos. It seems that this hermit religious monk settled down in the area today called Rincón de Haedo, where there is now a village bearing the same name. According to historians, he founded a settlement in this place which had to be abandoned in two opportunities due to the violent Indian raids led by a native called Iramundi. Historical versions lead us to justify the subsequent self-reclusion of the religious man in a grotto found in the area of Caracoles Creek, to the South of the site where the City of Fray Bentos stands today.

During the administration of Juan Manuel de Rosas in Buenos Aires, the Uruguay River was open for navigation and the export through waterways was fostered.

In 1855, the port of the City of Gualeguaychú could not cope with the existing trade flow and it was having difficulties with the different drafts. On the opposite bank, the cliffs of Fray Bentos offered an excellent natural harbor, but there was no settlement there.

Fray Bentos emerged as a city in 1858, when a group of Uruguayan, English, German and Irish businessmen coming from Montevideo bought the lands and donated them to the Uruguayan government so that the settlement first called Villa Independencia could be founded there on April 16, 1859.

The booming of Fray Bentos took place in 1861, when the German engineer called Georg Giebert brought to the city the idea of establishing a kind of industry that would change the world: the production of corned beef. This consisted in a joint venture that he would carry out along with the German chemist called Justus von Liebig. Thus, Giebert et Compagnie was founded in 1863. This product became so popular that during the two world wars, Fray Bentos was considered the world's slaughter house and one of the largest providers of corned beef for the allied forces.

Afterwards, world economy improved and the products from Fray Bentos ceased to be exported, which led to the definite shutdown of the factory in 1979.

At present, both Argentina and Uruguay are part of an ongoing conflict due to the settlement of a big cellulose processing plant which produces bleached eucalyptus pulp and belongs to the company named Botnia. The plant is located on Uruguayan territory and on the binational waters of the Uruguay River, close to Fray Bentos. The dispute is based on the alleged polluting nature of the cellulose plant, which could affect both countries. The conflict has been aggravated by the roads blockades organized in protest mainly by the population of Gualeguaychú.

Source: "Historiografía de la ciudad de Fray Bentos (1857-1890)", René Boretto Ovalle, 2004.