Historical Background

What's Rubber Boom Actually?

In the early 1900's a new Model T Ford would roll off the production line just about every hour. All those cars needed tires, and thus began the rush for rubber -- the black gold of the Amazon. It was the beginning of the 20th century. Amazon Forest was the center of attention for the giant industrialists. Rubber was very important for car tires and textile products.

The only source for the rubber was the rubber trees, which was only found in the Amazon Forest at the time. Since Rubber trees were randomly scattered in the deep jungle, collecting rubber meant a great challenge against wild animals and starvation.

Balls of Rubber outside a Seringueiro's Hut
Balls of Rubber outside a Seringueiro's Hut - Tap/Click to Enlarge

The South Amerindians first discovered rubber; sometime dating back to 1600BC. They used it in a ball in a game they called tlachtlic. The Amerindians in the Amazon rainforest developed ways to extract rubber from the rubber tree. [1]

Indians Play with Rubber Ball while Columbus is Arriving

Christopher Columbus had first reported seeing Indians bouncing a ball made from the strange, sticky substance that bled from tropical trees, but it wasn't until 1896, when B. F. Goodrich manufactured the first automobile tires in the United States, that rubber madness consumed the Amazon, which held a virtual monopoly on the highest-quality latex.

In 1912, Brazil alone exported more than thirty million dollars' worth of rubber, the equivalent today of nearly half a billion dollars.

Rubber barons had transformed Manaus, along the Amazon River, into one of the gaudiest cities in the world. “No extravagance, however absurd, deterred them,” the historian Robin Furneaux wrote in The Amazon. “If one rubber baron bought a vast yacht, another would install a tame lion in his villa, and a third would water his horse on champagne.”

And nothing was more extravagant than the opera house, with its Italian marble, Bohemian glass, gilded balconies, crystal chandeliers, Victorian murals, and a dome bathed in the colors of the national flag.

Palms in Amazon

Prefabricated in Europe and costing an estimated ten million dollars in taxpayers' money, the opera house was shipped in pieces more than a thousand miles up the Amazon River, where laborers were deployed around the clock to assemble it, working at night under Brazil's first electric lightbulbs. It didn't matter that almost no one from Manaus had heard of Puccini or that more than half the members of a visiting opera troupe eventually died of yellow fever. This was the apotheosis of the rubber boom.” [2]

The prospect of fortune had enticed thousands of illiterate workers into the wilderness, where they quickly became indebted to rubber barons who had provided them with transportation, food, and equipment on credit.

Wearing a miner's lamp to help him see, a trapper would hack through jungle, toiling from sunrise to sundown, searching for rubber trees, then, upon his return, hungry and feverish, would spend hours hunched over a fire, inhaling toxic smoke as he cooked the latex over a spit until it coagulated.

It often took weeks to produce a single rubber ball large enough to sell. And it was rarely enough to discharge his debt. Countless trappers died of starvation, dysentery, and other diseases.

The Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha called the system “the most criminal organization of labour ever devised.” He noted that the rubber trapper “actually comes to embody a gigantic contradiction: he is a man working to enslave himself!” [2]

Seringueiro Tapping a Rubber Tree

In the 1870s, former president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham” had engineered the smuggling of Amazonian rubber-tree seeds to Europe, which were then distributed to plantations throughout British colonies in Asia.

Compared with the brutal, inefficient, and costly extraction of wild rubber in the jungle, growing rubber on Asian plantations was easy and cheap, and the produce abundant.

“The electric lights went out in Manaus,” the historian Robin Furneaux wrote. “The opera house was silent and the jewels which had filled it were gone … Vampire bats circled the chandeliers of the broken palaces and spiders scurried across their floors.”

This was the end of the Amazon Rubber Boom.

The region lived a short revival during World War II; when the British Southeast Asian colonies were in the war territory, and the demand was huge. After a couple of years of revival, Amazon rubber region lost its popularity again. And after synthetic rubber is invented, the total demand in organic rubber diminished dramatically.

References

[1] Wikipedia
[2] David Grann. “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.”
[3] Col. Percy Fawcett, "Exploration Fawcett"

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