Whytehead, William Keld (c. 1810–1865)

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Whytehead, William Keld (c. 1810–1865)

William Keld Whytehead (b. c. 1810; d. July 1865), British engineer active in Paraguay. When Paraguayan president Carlos Antonio López decided to launch a major modernization program for his country in the mid-1850s, he turned to British experts—a natural choice, considering that he had already cemented good relations with Britain thanks to the 1853–1854 visit of his son, Francisco Solano López. Thus, the younger López applied to the firm of John and Alfred Blyth of Limehouse, who agreed to supply Paraguay with more than a hundred trained machinists and engineers. To act as engineer in chief, the Blyth brothers selected their most talented man, a Scot named William Keld Whytehead.

Though only in his early thirties, Whytehead had proved himself as an arms designer and arsenal operator in France. He even held several patents for improvements in the steam engine. When he arrived in Asunción in January 1855, Whytehead was given a measure of power unheard of for a foreigner: he directed hundreds of Paraguayan laborers as well as all of his European colleagues. Over the course of a decade in rustic Paraguay, he supervised the construction of a modern arsenal, an iron foundry and industrial smithy, a railroad, new port facilities and government buildings, and a shipyard that, during Whytehead's time, produced a half-dozen steamships. Such tremendous changes in such a short time were rightly regarded as a marvel.

While paying close attention to these projects, Whytehead also had to mediate disputes between the various engineers and the Paraguayan government. For all of this, he received the handsome salary of 600 pounds annually (a sum second only to that of the president) along with many other perquisites. His myriad responsibilities notwithstanding, he still found time to maintain a voluminous correspondence in several languages (including Swedish) and to contribute articles to European technical journals.

The coming of the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) placed new burdens on Whytehead. He received orders to place all of the state projects on a war footing. Not surprisingly, he began to feel the pressure of overwork. A bachelor, he had no opportunity to find solace in family life, and in the end homesickness, physical exhaustion, and repeated bouts of illness drove him to a state of depression and ultimately suicide.

See alsoIndustrialization; War of the Triple Alliance.


Josefina Plá, The British in Paraguay, 1850–1870 (1976).

John Hoyt Williams, The Rise and Fall of the Paraguayan Republic, 1800–1870 (1979), pp. 180-190.

                                  Thomas L. Whigham