Part of The Forgotten Crimes Series
The horrendous atrocities that were unleashed on the Indian people of the Amazon during the height of the rubber boom were like nothing that had been seen since the first days of the Spanish Conquest. – Wade Davis, Anthropologist, Explorer and Professor at the University of British Columbia
What crimes will men not commit for greed? The many diverse tribes of the Amazonian interior had lived in isolation for centuries. Protected by great impenetrable forest, they were largely spared of the devastation wrought by the Spaniards, when they first arrived on the shores of the New World. However, this was not to last. Driven by the lust for easy money, the Amazon rubber boom would bear witness to near destruction.
By the late-1800s, rubber had become an essential raw material for a number of industries such as automobiles, apparel, paint, and adhesives. As the demand for rubber grew in the rapidly industrializing West, entrepreneurs, foreign and locals alike, capitalized on the boon to make their fortune in the trade.
Large scale European colonization began of the Amazon and permanently changed the demography of the area. Rubber plantations began to spring up across the region and with it, arose the demand for greater manpower. This need was met by the capturing and enslavement of the local indigenous tribes. To maximize profits, the natives were worked as much as possible until they simply died from exhaustion or disease. It was always cheaper to capture new slaves than to properly take care of existing ones working on the plantation. As a result of the systematic brutality and diseases, nearly 90% of entire native communities were wiped out in some areas. In one plantation, of the 50,000 original natives enslaved, a mere 8000 were still left alive when authorities visited the estate.
But of all the ‘rubber barons’ and their crimes, none could match the sheer cruelty and sadism of those Arana brothers in charge of Peruvian Amazon Company. Under their business operations, torture, mutilation, and murder of the enslaved natives were rife. The remoteness of the activity, far away from the oversight of authorities, meant that overseers had little in the way of worry as they pressed entire villages into forced labor. This wave of barbarism continued until one American engineer, W. E. Hardenburg, wrote his first-hand account of the atrocities he witnessed to the British magazine, Truth.
The agents of the Company force the pacific Indians of the Putumayo to work day and night… without the slightest remuneration except the food needed to keep them alive. They are robbed of their crops, their women and their children… They are flogged inhumanly until their bones are laid bare… They are left to die, eaten by maggots, when they serve as food for the dogs… Their children are grasped by the feet and their heads are dashed against trees and walls until their brains fly out… Men, women and children are shot to provide amusement… they are burned with kerosene so that the employees may enjoy their desperate agony. – W.E Hardenburg
Hardenburg’s heart-rending account quickly created a huge scandal in London. Many members of the British elite had invested in the company and it was officially listed on the London Stock Exchange. This prompted a debate in the Parliament and reports sent by the consul-general, Roger Casement, affirmed Hardenburg’s account. Mounting public pressure compelled the British government to act and the Arana brothers were forced to liquidate the company.
Many of the ‘uncontacted’ tribes of the Amazon rainforest are in fact survivors of such past atrocities. Acts of massacre, enslavement, and diseases have all become ingrained in their collective memory and thus, they today shun contact with the outside world at all costs.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Amazon rubber boom was ending. A few decades ago, the British had successfully managed to smuggle some rubber tree seeds out of Brazil and now were growing their own plantations in their colonies of India, Ceylon, and Malaysia. By offering rubber at larger quantities and at lower prices, the British effectively undercut the Amazon rubber market. The rubber barons followed where the money flowed, investing in the new enterprises in Asia, and left the Amazon in a state of economic decline.
Yet the story does not end here. Nearly three decades later, the region would again bear witness to a new wave of materialistic cruelty. This time by the Brazilian government. With Great Britain unable to supply rubber due to its war with the Axis powers, the US shifted its attention to its own backyard to find markets to supply the much-needed rubber for the Allied war effort. To this end, it made an agreement with the Brazilian government, paying them $100 for every worker delivered to the Amazon for rubber extraction. As a result, a projected 100,000 men were to be shipped from their home to the forest heartlands.
Many would not return, succumbing to death from disease, animal attacks, and sheer exhaustion while extracting the “white gold”. Of the survivors, they were left abandoned by their government to fend for themselves, once demand fell again after the war. It is estimated that only about around 6,000 workers managed to return to their homes, at their own expense.