Bouncing Around - Global Trade Magazine
  April 20th, 2015 | Written by

Bouncing Around

HOW RUBBER CHANGED THE WORLD

In the early hours of March 28, 1876, in Santarém, Brazil, Henry Wickham loaded a cargo of seeds onto the London-bound British freighter Amazonas. Wickham—a colorful world trader given to self-promotion and not, perhaps, the most reliable source—would later tell eager audiences that he secreted the contraband seeds on board in sight of a menacing Brazilian gunboat and then later slipped them by Brazilian customs agents in the capital city of Belém. Once in London, botanists quickly planted the seeds in the Kew Gardens. Nature handled much of the rest: The seeds sprouted, giving birth to rubber trees, heretofore confined to South and Central America. Some were transplanted in Malaya and, later, in other European colonies in the East Indies. By the outbreak of World War I, these colonies had seized control of the world rubber market from its former leader, Brazil.

The story Wickham told earned him a British knighthood and the eternal enmity of Brazilian nationalists. Whether or not the British adventurer’s exploits were as swashbuckling as he painted them, the transfer of rubber across the world certainly had dramatic consequences, only one of which was the decline and fall of the Brazilian rubber empire.

But until the Scotsman Charles Macintosh found a solvent for rubber in 1820 and the American Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process in 1839, no one much cared where rubber grew. The ancient Maya and Aztecs had kicked rubber balls in their ceremonial games and Europeans had long noted rubber’s peculiar characteristics. But before Macintosh and Goodyear, rubber was too weather-sensitive. It melted in the heat. It became brittle in the cold. After Macintosh’s process and vulcanization, rubber’s impermeability made it ideal for raincoats (known as “mackintoshes”), boots (“rubbers”) and more personal waterproof wear. But it took the bicycle craze and John Dunlop’s pneumatic tire at the turn of the century, and later the automobile, to create the enormous demand that would revolutionize production and bring far-flung populations into its orbit.

Initially, rubber production could not increase rapidly enough to meet worldwide demand. That provoked a dizzying rise in prices. Nor, at first, was there much rubber merchants could do to increase supply, because the rubber-tapping process itself was unwieldy. Rubber trees did not grow naturally in convenient, concentrated stands, but in isolation across the immense Amazon rain forest. Tappers, known as seringueiros, wandered trails several miles long to gather the rubbermilk. As a result, the tapping process was slow and inefficient.

One way to expand production was to hire more tappers. Rubber merchants did so, contracting with more and more of the independent seringueiros, and reaching into ever more distant tributaries of the Amazon. But finding tappers was difficult. Because of the climate, disease and the previous lack of valuable natural resources, few people lived in the Amazon area. Many who did were indigenous peoples uninterested in money or working for someone else. Rubber did not care. The native populations became victims of the Amazon’s integration into the world economy. This last bastion of pre-Columbian culture fell to the disease or arms carried into the jungle by the Europeanized seringueiros. Luckier natives sometimes suffered enslavement as coerced tappers. Survivors settled in ever more distant, isolated corners of the Amazon.

But Indian labor was the exception. More often rubber employed seringueiros from the arid, overpopulated and desperate Northeast of Brazil. A devastating drought between 1878 and 1881, followed by another in 1889, starved hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted additional hundreds of thousands. Their misery drove them into the rubber forests of the Amazon. Even malaria and other tropical diseases that hid in the jungle did not frighten men, women and children driven by hunger.

Although the rubber boom caused much suffering, it also brought unprecedented wealth to the main cities of the Amazon. Great, colorful mansions that captured the world’s imagination popped up in remote Manaus, 900 miles upriver from the coast. More fantastic yet was the ornate Manaus Opera House where Enrico Caruso sang opening night. So extravagant were the nouveau riche merchant princes of Manaus, that they reportedly sent their laundry out. To France.

The wealth created by the rubber boom changed international boundary lines. As the virtually uninhabited, uncharted expanses of the tropical forest now became valuable, neighboring countries laid claim to them. The most notable area of dispute was the rubber-rich Bolivian province of Acre. Ignored by the highland populations of Bolivia, the Bolivian government attempted to profit from its territory by leasing the area to a U.S. company, all but issuing them sovereign rights in return for rent. The neighboring Brazilians protested loudly. Since the area was settled de facto by Brazilian citizens, the Bolivian government had little choice but to renounce the agreement. This did not satisfy Brazilian squatters, who seized the area and proclaimed its independence. After brief skirmishes and diplomatic wranglings, the area became incorporated into Brazil.

A more picturesque episode occurred in the imaginary country of Counani. French adventurers unsuccessfully attempted in 1887 to create an independent country by force of arms in this steamy, godforsaken disputed territory between Brazil and French Guyana. A later group of “visionaries” succeeded with guile where the earlier group had failed with arms when they floated a 2-million-franc company on the Paris stock market to exploit a concession in Counani. This was only one of many swindles during the rubber boom.

The frenzy and euphoria of the “black gold” rush were doomed, by Wickham’s theft, to be short-lived. East Indian plantations financed by European capital, supervised by European botanists, and amply staffed by the abundant populations of Southeast Asia soon overshadowed South American production. Brazil’s labor-intensive cultivation of wild trees was no match for industrial plantation production. The First and Second World Wars gave great impetus to the creation of synthetic rubber, which today provides most of the world’s rubber needs. By 1960, Brazil produced only 2 percent of the world’s rubber and indeed imported or synthesized from petroleum most of its own rubber needs.

The story Wickham told earned him a British knighthood and the eternal enmity of Brazilian nationalists. Whether or not the British adventurer’s exploits were as swashbuckling as he painted them, the transfer of rubber across the world certainly had dramatic consequences, only one of which was the decline and fall of the Brazilian rubber empire.

But until the Scotsman Charles Macintosh found a solvent for rubber in 1820 and the American Charles Goodyear discovered the vulcanization process in 1839, no one much cared where rubber grew. The ancient Maya and Aztecs had kicked rubber balls in their ceremonial games and Europeans had long noted rubber’s peculiar characteristics. But before Macintosh and Goodyear, rubber was too weather-sensitive. It melted in the heat. It became brittle in the cold. After Macintosh’s process and vulcanization, rubber’s impermeability made it ideal for raincoats (known as “mackintoshes”), boots (“rubbers”) and more personal waterproof wear. But it took the bicycle craze and John Dunlop’s pneumatic tire at the turn of the century, and later the automobile, to create the enormous demand that would revolutionize production and bring far-flung populations into its orbit.

Initially, rubber production could not increase rapidly enough to meet worldwide demand. That provoked a dizzying rise in prices. Nor, at first, was there much rubber merchants could do to increase supply, because the rubber-tapping process itself was unwieldy. Rubber trees did not grow naturally in convenient, concentrated stands, but in isolation across the immense Amazon rain forest. Tappers, known as seringueiros, wandered trails several miles long to gather the rubbermilk. As a result, the tapping process was slow and inefficient.

One way to expand production was to hire more tappers. Rubber merchants did so, contracting with more and more of the independent seringueiros, and reaching into ever more distant tributaries of the Amazon. But finding tappers was difficult. Because of the climate, disease and the previous lack of valuable natural resources, few people lived in the Amazon area. Many who did were indigenous peoples uninterested in money or working for someone else. Rubber did not care. The native populations became victims of the Amazon’s integration into the world economy. This last bastion of pre-Columbian culture fell to the disease or arms carried into the jungle by the Europeanized seringueiros. Luckier natives sometimes suffered enslavement as coerced tappers. Survivors settled in ever more distant, isolated corners of the Amazon.

But Indian labor was the exception. More often rubber employed seringueiros from the arid, overpopulated and desperate Northeast of Brazil. A devastating drought between 1878 and 1881, followed by another in 1889, starved hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted additional hundreds of thousands. Their misery drove them into the rubber forests of the Amazon. Even malaria and other tropical diseases that hid in the jungle did not frighten men, women and children driven by hunger.

Although the rubber boom caused much suffering, it also brought unprecedented wealth to the main cities of the Amazon. Great, colorful mansions that captured the world’s imagination popped up in remote Manaus, 900 miles upriver from the coast. More fantastic yet was the ornate Manaus Opera House where Enrico Caruso sang opening night. So extravagant were the nouveau riche merchant princes of Manaus, that they reportedly sent their laundry out. To France.

The wealth created by the rubber boom changed international boundary lines. As the virtually uninhabited, uncharted expanses of the tropical forest now became valuable, neighboring countries laid claim to them. The most notable area of dispute was the rubber-rich Bolivian province of Acre. Ignored by the highland populations of Bolivia, the Bolivian government attempted to profit from its territory by leasing the area to a U.S. company, all but issuing them sovereign rights in return for rent. The neighboring Brazilians protested loudly. Since the area was settled de facto by Brazilian citizens, the Bolivian government had little choice but to renounce the agreement. This did not satisfy Brazilian squatters, who seized the area and proclaimed its independence. After brief skirmishes and diplomatic wranglings, the area became incorporated into Brazil.

A more picturesque episode occurred in the imaginary country of Counani. French adventurers unsuccessfully attempted in 1887 to create an independent country by force of arms in this steamy, godforsaken disputed territory between Brazil and French Guyana. A later group of “visionaries” succeeded with guile where the earlier group had failed with arms when they floated a 2-million-franc company on the Paris stock market to exploit a concession in Counani. This was only one of many swindles during the rubber boom.

The frenzy and euphoria of the “black gold” rush were doomed, by Wickham’s theft, to be short-lived. East Indian plantations financed by European capital, supervised by European botanists, and amply staffed by the abundant populations of Southeast Asia soon overshadowed South American production. Brazil’s labor-intensive cultivation of wild trees was no match for industrial plantation production. The First and Second World Wars gave great impetus to the creation of synthetic rubber, which today provides most of the world’s rubber needs. By 1960, Brazil produced only 2 percent of the world’s rubber and indeed imported or synthesized from petroleum most of its own rubber needs.

The story is not an unrelieved tragedy for Brazil. If world trade eventually stripped the country of its rubber industry, it has also provided Brazilians with markets for coffee, sugar and soybeans—the exotic crops that blazed the trails rubber followed later.


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