Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Rubber Boom and the Rubber Barons of the Amazon Slave Trade (Part One)

Iquitos, Peru is the city it is today because of its previous short-lived glory as a world class centre of the rubber boom circa 1879–1912. Today, Iquitos is a resurrected city on the banks of the Amazon reliant on oil, forestry, and, in large part, tourism centred on the drug trade, i.e. on ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant used by shamans in the jungle to attune themselves with the gods in the hope of enlightenment concerning illnesses of patients they would then hope to cure. Iquitos, a city bounced back, as it were, it is a city on the move.

From oft times frightening automobile trips in a mototaxi to hippie drug trips on ayahuasca, Iquitos is about movement. It is about movement from the jungle in search of work; the historical movement from Europe to the jungle in search of cash money; the current movement from Modernity to the jungle city in search “enlightenment” of some sort. This movement of people into contact with disparate lives and cultures brings the good as well as the bad to a sometimes universal good, sometimes to a universal evil; this movement brings a relatively recent freedom-- via car tyres-- from the “tyranny of distance,” as British historian Paul Johnson writes in Modern Times1. ["The term was invented to describe Australia in the age of sail"*]; and this movement brings us to outright slavery in the rubber plantations from where the rubber was drawn; and now, cultural decay and flight from Modernity in pursuit of Gnostic wisdom at the expense of the binding of the communion of souls that is our better nature. Movement. Iquitos was and is in its small way significant to the rapidly changing world at large.


Iquitos is “the only [city] in Amazonia to have named a street after Charles - Marie de La Condamine....”

That would interest us because?
Charles Marie de La Condamine (B. 1701 – D. 1774) was a French explorer, geographer, and mathematician. He spent ten years in present-day Ecuador measuring the length of a degree latitude at the equator and preparing the first map of the Amazon region based on astronomical observations.
On 16 May 1735, La Condamine sailed from La Rochelle accompanied by Godin, Bouguer, and botanist Jussieu. ... His associations with his principals were unhappy ... and finally La Condamine [went to] Quito, Ecuado, ... becoming the first Westerner to encounter  rubber. ...
Maurice Quentin de la Tour (French, 1704–1788). Portrait of Charles Marie de la Condamine, 1753. Pastel on paper. Frick Art & Historical Center 1970.40.

As I understand it, we use the word "condom" in his honor. With that bit of trivia thrown in for free, what follows must be a trick question.

What was the first practical use of rubber?

In England, Joseph Priestley, best known for his discovery of oxygen, noted that pencil marks could be "rubbed out" by the substance. From this early use, rubber derived its name.
Joseph Priestly

 The literate world is probably more grateful to Priestly for inventing the eraser than to whomever invented the condom. I know that, as a writer, I am; and the reader would be too if only he knew....

What discovery marked the beginning of modern rubber technology?
Prior to 1839, the properties of rubber were dictated by the surrounding temperature. During the hot summer, rubber was sticky and malleable, while it became hard and brittle in the colder months. This was finally remedied by the discovery of the process of vulcanization. A mixture of rubber, white lead and sulphur was dropped accidentally upon a hot stove. When it was removed, the material was no longer affected by temperature. Despite stretching, it always returned to its original shape. This process of vulcanization made it possible to use rubber in raincoats, overshoes, and eventually many other products, including tires.

Today more than 90% of the natural rubber supply comes from Southeast Asia. As rubber trees require a hot, damp climate, they grow only in the "Rubber Belt," an equatorial zone that stretches around the world. In 1876, the English, in recognition of the difficulties of securing quality rubber from the jungle, hit upon the idea of growing rubber on plantations. From their efforts, the cultivated rubber tree plantations of Southeast Asia and Africa have developed.

What accelerated the development of synthetic rubber?
The United States was cut off from virtually all of its sources of natural rubber in the Pacific during World War II. In order to meet the nation's needs for this vital material, the government built synthetic rubber plants and the industry operated them. Synthetic rubber production jumped from 8,000 tons in 1941 to 820,000 tons in 1945. After the war, the government sold the plants to the industry.

The story of Iquitos rests on a foundation of rubber, as it were.
According Genaro Herrera, in 1866, Iquitos had a population of 648 people. For 1876, again the same author reports a population of 1,475 inhabitants.
In 1903, in the middle of the rubber boom, Iquitos had 9,438 inhabitants (census of Benito Lords), of which 542 were foreigners, most of them were from Spain (95), Brazil  (80), China (74), Portugal (64) and other nations.

Today the city of Iquitos, Peru has a population of close to half a million people. Iquitos owes its existence to the Rubber Boom of 1879-1912, but the rubber boom burst and the city rose again of its own accord. Still, the city has its rubber legacy that lives on in many ways, from period architecture to the mototaxi tyres to flip-flops I wear while walking around the city to sitting at a sidewalk cafe on Condamine street having coffee by the river. But the story of rubber itself would have been little to any of us were it not for:

Charles Goodyear (B. 1800 – D. 1860) an American inventor who, in 1839, invented the "vulcanising" treatment for rubber.
Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process accidentally after five years of searching for a more stable rubber.
While imprisoned for debt due to failed experiements he mixed magnesia with indian rubber "which produced a beautiful white compound and appeared to take away the stickiness."

Next he "compounded rubber with magnesia and then boiled it in quicklime and water. ... At once it was noticed abroad that he had treated India rubber to lose its stickiness, and he received international acclamation." But this too was a failure. "Exposure to harsh chemicals adversely affected his health, and once nearly suffocated by gas generated in his laboratory. Goodyear survived, but the resulting fever came close to taking his life."

Getty Images
Some say (Damian Francis Mullin, circa Feb 1865) that Goodyear experimented  material over an open flame.... Other sources claim that Goodyear accidentally spilled the rubber mixture on a hot stove. The key discovery was that heating natural rubber and sulfur created vulcanized rubber. This process was eventually refined to become the vulcanizing process.

The inventor himself admitted that the discovery of the vulcanizing process was not the direct result of the scientific method, but claims that it was not accidental. Rather it was the result of application and observation.

Now that Goodyear was sure that he had the key to the intricate puzzle that he had worked over for so many years, he began at once to tell his friends about it and to try to secure capital, but they had listened so many times that his efforts were futile.
 Goodyear died July 1, 1860 at the age of 59 in New York City. He is buried in New Haven, Conn. In 1898, The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. was founded and named after Goodyear. On February 8, 1976, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Rubber boots and rain coats are one thing, but the rubber industry became significant because of the automobile industry's need for tyres. Thus, when in 1908 Henry Ford created the first personal automobile affordable to working class people, automobiles that required rubber tyres, the demand for rubber increased beyond all previous measure. It also spelt the doom of the Amazon rubber boom, though this was not clear at the time. The need for rubber meant the rubber monopoly in the Amazon would be broken, and when that happened, the boom at Iquitos went bust. 
Henry Ford did not invent the car; he produced an automobile that was within the economic reach of the average American. While other manufacturers were content to target a market of the well-to-do, Ford developed a design and a method of manufacture that steadily reduced the cost of the Model T. Instead of pocketing the profits; Ford lowered the price of his car. As a result, Ford Motors sold more cars and steadily increased its earnings - transforming the automobile from a luxury toy to a mainstay of American society. The Model T made its debut in 1908 with a purchase price of $825.00. Over ten thousand were sold in its first year, establishing a new record. Four years later the price dropped to $575.00 and sales soared. By 1914, Ford could claim a 48% share of the automobile market.

Iquitos Model A

The rubber for those early car tyres came in great volume from Iquitos, Peru, as well as other parts of the Amazon, attracting adventurous people from Europe and locally to harvest the rubber and the fortunes to be made therefrom. Some such adventurers left behind not only home and family but all human decency in their pursuit of money. They enslaved the local population as rubber plantation workers. One such man in Iquitos was Julio César Arana del Águila, (1864–1952) “a Peruvian entrepreneur and politician." We'll look in some detail at Arana in a further installment on The Rubber Baron.
An all too true portrayal of a Rubber Baron monster
A major figure in the rubber industry in the upper Amazon basin, he is probably best known in the English-speaking world through Walt Hardenburg's 1909 articles in the British magazine Truth.... accusing [Arana] of practices that amounted to a terroristic reign of slavery over the natives of the region. His company, the Peruvian Amazon Company [also called the Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Co.] 

Arana's Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Co. "was a rubber boom company that operated in Peru in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was investigated by a [British parliamentary] commission in 1910...” and was out of business by 1913."

The Amazon rubber boom collapsed, as did the fortunes of the greedy; but Iquitos survived, and today is a tourist destination of immense attraction and Amazonian charm-- even for those whose trips are nothing to do with drug taking. Many of the more beautiful buildings in the city center are houses of the wealthy rubber barons of the last centuries. Much of the city itself is due to their energy and investment and even their brutality. The city rises from the lowest mudflats of Belen district to the heights of the Iron Building, for example, a large mansion created by Gustave Eiffel and shipped in pieces to adorn the city to this day.  

Casa de Fierro (Spanish for the Iron House) was designed by Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower, ''who built the original house in Paris for an exhibition of 1878.'' 

Rubber made this city, but today the Rubber Boom is a just memory, the city itself having moved on long since. The roots in rubber are here and they hold together the past and the current in this city by the river. We'll look more closely at the Rubber Boom soon. 

1. Paul Johnson, Modern Times Revised Edition: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. New York: Perennial Classics; 2001. C. p.800+.

* Of all the incredible coincidences, I just now read the very phrase, "tyranny of distance" and find Johnson did not coin it. Cf. Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History (1966)
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:


truepeers said...

On the tyranny of distance, is Iquitos where it is because it is the furthest point reachable by ocean going vessels, or is there a more exact reason for its location?

Dag said...

Iquitos is at the confluence of two big rivers, each able to carry ocean-going boats, I think, and other rivers almost as big that can probably do the same at high water. I think the reason for settlement and growth here is that it's the main junction that creates the Amazon River proper. From here one can go in any number of directions up smaller rivers to dead-ends, but one can go directly from here to the Atlantic.

It started as a Jesuit settlement in 1750, likely because there were enough people settled on the bank to make it worth the effort to build a church. There were likely other settlements as big, i.e. a few people in huts, but this is a natural for a city settlement in the Modern age.

Even so, it is only recently that Iquitos has grown to its current size of close to half a million people. The rubber boom brought men and money here, but when that ceased just prior to WW1 the city sank back into obscurity, in which it remained till the fairly recent oil discoveries made it again a good hub in the Amazon.

Otherwise, aside from tourists looking at alligators and drug hippies wanting instant enlightenment and old guys who flee the Freak Show for some personal space in which to live a private life, there is little here to draw the attention of the greater world.

If not for oil I think this city would easily slide back to obscurity. There's no point in being here for commercial reasons otherwise if not for the massive amounts of money outsiders bring here that allows the locals to import nearly everything. Left to its own devices, the city would have fish and logs. There are better places along th river for that.

There is however more to the city than what I describe here. There is a peace and sensitivity to living that sustains the city that I don't find elsewhere. Yes, there are some blocks in the city at night where one is sure to be murdered by gangs; but outside such few places there is immediately a sense of the good in that one must trust others driving close to a million mototaxi on the city streets without much traffic regulation beyond the simple idea of not hitting anyone. Drivers swerve around each other and pedestrians. People thus want to be here among such people.

I have been to terrible places and have experienced terrible things in cities smaller than this where traffic kills and no one cares, leaving bodies to be driven over to mush for however long it takes to be ground to dust. Here there is a common concern, even in the gang areas, of others, if in the latter case only for ones own specifically. It's "people" place.