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Dr. John Hemming,
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25/07/2006 14:00

Lecture to ‘Religion, Science and the Environment’ Symposium by Dr John Hemming
Rio Negro near Manaus, July 2006

To me, the most turbulent and flamboyant period in the history of the Amazon was the nineteenth century. So, in the short time available this morning, I am going to give you a rapid look at three aspects of that period: the Cabanagem Rebellion of the 1830s; the arrival of scientists among the Amazon’s amazing flora and fauna; and the great rubber boom.

By the 1830s, the underclasses of Amazonia were in a desperate state. During two centuries of colonial rule, every indigenous people living on the main Amazon and its navigable tributaries had been destroyed. The diseases brought by European settlers – smallpox, measles, influenza, and later malaria - had annihilated tribe after tribe. The few survivors were mercilessly brought down the river in slaving expeditions; or ‘descended’ from their forest homes to fill denuded mission villages. Slavery of Indians (but not of blacks) was officially abolished in the 1740s; but it continued in all but name. The Marquis of Pombal, strongman of Portugal in the mid-eighteenth century, expelled first the Jesuits then the other monastic orders. He tried to replace them in the mission villages with lay Directors, under the crazy impression that these laymen would be disinterested towards their Indian charges. Hardly surprisingly, the Directors were appalling oppressors. They forced men and women to work ceaselessly for them, and often abused girls in harems that shocked visiting ecclesiastics.

Pombal’s Directorate was abolished in 1798; but exploitation of the poor did not abate. By that time, the total population in villages under government control throughout Pará and Brazilian Amazonia had fallen to under 20,000. The European ruling class needed native labour for every aspect of life: paddling canoes, farming, hunting, fishing, construction of buildings and forts, shipbuilding, gathering forest produce, plantations, and all domestic service. There were few black slaves, because Amazonia was generally too poor to afford them.

When Brazil achieved Independence in 1822, conservative elements in this remote backwater Amazonia were unhappy about the change. There were other conflicting passions: hatred of Portuguese (as opposed to local Creoles), and of Freemasons. Some French Revolutionary ideas were acquired when soldiers from Belém captured the French colony Cayenne during the Napoleonic wars. There were disturbances and mutinies during the 1820s.

It all erupted into full-scale rebellion in 1835. A coalition of poor caboclos – mestizos, Indians and blacks - stormed Belém do Pará and killed the provincial President sent from Rio de Janeiro. This became the greatest rebellion by the lower classes in all Brazilian history. It is known as the Cabanagem, after the cabanos who lived in huts on the mudflats around the city.

The Cabanagem was led by young white men, but they were not from the upper class. One was a liberal ecclesiastic and editor, who accidentally killed himself while shaving; another an irascible junior officer; three brothers called Vinagre, who were woodsmen in the timber business; and the best was an ardent young revolutionary called Eduardo Angelim. As so often in such spontaneous risings, the revolutionaries fell out with one another: during its brief duration, the Cabanagem had four presidents. There were heady proclamations, but the movement lacked a coherent creed or attainable objectives. Its leaders were ambiguous about loyalty to the Imperial government of Brazil, and about the extent to which they wanted to help the poor.

Where the Cabanos were successful was in using their skills in the rivers, forests and swamps of Amazonia to defeat government troops sent against them. The rebels held the city of Belém for sixteen months; and they captured almost every town and village throughout the immensity of Amazonia. This included the small fort and town of what is now Manaus. They also enlisted some indigenous tribes as their very effective allies: none more so than the Mura, a riverine people who were invincible in the labyrinth of channels and lagoons between the Madeira and Solimões rivers, just across the Amazon from here.

Some foreigners were appalled by the Cabanagem. A German botanist, Professor Poeppig, called the rebels ‘hordes of robbing and bloodthirsty mestizos, mulattos and negroes… They pressed from place to place… killing whites with indescribable cruelty and plundering and burning settlements or passing ships.’ An American Methodist called it ‘a reign of terror… Anarchy prevailed throughout the vast domains [of Amazonia]. Lawlessness and violence became the order of the day.’

The imperial government fought back. It sent several thousand soldiers under a tough general called Andrea, and he gradually defeated the rebels – first recapturing the city of Belém, and then hunting them down in their forest hideaways. Andrea was ruthless. He reported that ‘it was necessary to suspend the formalities by which the law shields criminals’, so that his men could kill anyone they suspected of rebel sympathies. Andrea then decreed that ‘any coloured man who appears in any district without valid motive will immediately be arrested and sent to the authorities to dispose of him.’ Hundreds died in prison hulks; others were sentenced to forced labour in public works.

Here on the Rio Negro, there was a psychopathic government sympathizer who went by the nom-de-guerre of Bararoá. The Cabanos had taken almost every village upriver from what is now Manaus. But Bararoá’s gang steadily recaptured these places and took delight in torturing and massacring the insurgents. Bararoá then led his men into the labyrinth of lagoons to tackle the Mura; but they defeated him and killed their hated enemy.

The great historian of the Cabanagem was Domingos Raiol. Although his father had been killed by the rebels, Raiol condemned General Andrea. He wrote: ‘People speak only of the savagery of the cabanos and forget the brutality of the self-proclaimed legalists… I calculate that over thirty thousand men were sacrificed to the fury of demagoguery and the reaction of government emissaries. Their repression degenerated into racial hatred. The slaughter was general and, for the most part, unrecorded.’ All historians agree with Prince Adalbert of Prussia, an explorer who was here just after the Cabanagem, that ‘these disturbances were the fruits of the ceaseless oppression which the white population had, from the very first, exercised on the poor natives, and in no part of Brazil more than here.’

The last word on the great rebellion should go to a lady who lived through it in the riverside town of Óbidos: “How we suffered, because of men who wanted something, but none knew what – not even they themselves! The Cabanagem was a scourge sent by God to punish us. It was a plague that ravaged the land where I was born. Everyone suffered from it.’

* * *

Let us now turn to a more cheerful episode: the arrival of naturalists, let loose in the world’s richest ecosystem like children in the proverbial sweetshop. Tiny Portugal had fought off most European powers to capture Brazil; and in the Treaty of Madrid of 1750 its diplomats effectively secured Brazil’s modern boundaries – which embrace half South America. So Portugal was paranoid about protecting this jewel in its colonial crown from prying foreigners. Captain Cook was not allowed to set foot on Brazilian soil when his ships watered at Rio de Janeiro. When the great German polymath Baron Alexander von Humboldt in 1800 made his way up the Orinoco and crossed to the remote headwaters of the Rio Negro, he was refused entry into Portuguese dominions and forced to retrace his route through what is now Venezuela. All this changed during the Napoleonic Wars, when in 1808 the Portuguese court escaped to Brazil; and in 1822 the Bragança prince Dom Pedro declared Brazilian independence.

The first foreign scientists allowed onto the Amazon, in 1818-20, were the Bavarians Von Spix and Von Martius. Other German, French and Austrian travellers followed, but I do not have time to talk about their achievements. Instead, I want to mention three remarkable young English naturalists. Alfred Russell Wallace and Henry Walter Bates scraped up the money to sail to the Amazon in 1848 – when aged 25 and 23 respectively. They were followed a year later by the Yorkshire botanist Richard Spruce, who was in his early thirties. Remarkably, all three came from humble origins and had no higher education. Wallace was a struggling schoolmaster with socialist beliefs that he retained throughout his life. Bates left school at thirteen to work in his family hosiery business. The two met in Leicester, collecting insects on Sundays. Spruce was the son of village schoolmaster, and he also started by teaching; but his heart was in botany. Spruce published papers about Yorkshire plants. The head of Kew Gardens was impressed and recognised him as a potentially great botanist.

For a while the three young naturalists roomed together in Santarém, and each then sailed far up the Rio Negro and Solimões, sometimes together but more usually alone. They collected constantly, passionately and prodigiously – for selling their specimens to European museums and collectors was their sole means of support. They were dazzled by Amazonia. Bates wrote to a friend: ‘The charm and glory of the country are its animal and vegetable productions. How inexhaustible is their study! It is one dense jungle: the lofty forest trees, of vast variety of species, all lashed and connected by climbers, their trunks covered with a museum of ferns, Tillandrias, Arums, Orchids, &c.’ When Bates finally left after eleven years of non-stop collecting, he was heartbroken to leave ‘the glorious forest for which I had so much love, and to explore which I had devoted so many years. It is a region which may fittingly be called a Naturalist’s Paradise.’ The others were equally staggered by the size and exuberance of everything. Spruce wrote: ‘The largest river in the world flows through the largest forest. Fancy if you can two millions of square miles of forest, uninterrupted save by the streams that traverse it.’

Wallace left the Amazon after six years, in 1855; but he went on to achieve fame researching in the forests of South-East Asia. Bates left in 1859. Spruce returned to England in 1864, after 15 years of arduous exploring. The three young naturalists adored the Amazon and generally got on very well with Brazilians and other South Americans. They of course had tremendous adventures – near drowning, getting lost, hunger, near-fatal malaria for each one of them, terrible bites and illnesses, almost killed and robbed, and suffering loneliness and depression. But their achievements were utterly amazing.

In the preface to his charming book A Naturalist on the River Amazons, Bates gave a scientific breakdown of the 14,712 zoological species (not specimens) he had collected, and he wrote modestly: ‘The part of the Amazons region where I resided longest being unexplored country to the naturalist, no less than 8,000 of the species here enumerated were new to science and these are now occupying the busy pens of a number of learned men in different parts of Europe to describe them.’ Bates observed how some species of insect defend themselves by looking like gaudy poisonous insects although they themselves are harmless. This theory is named after him, as Batesian Mimicry.

Spruce’s collections of plants were equally magnificent, and hundred of species – particularly palms, mosses and liverworts, and hallucinogenic plants – were discovered by him. Spruce was a botanists’ botanist, with encyclopedic knowledge, understanding of every plant, tireless and meticulous in his collecting. He is an icon to modern botanists. The founder of the discipline of ethnobotany, Professor Richard Evans Schultes of Harvard, and many others rate Spruce as one of the greatest botanists of all time. I think that my friend Iain Prance would agree. Spruce also exported quantities of Cinchona trees to England, for the quinine in their bark is a malaria palliative. Planted in India, these saved many lives – and they gave rise to the cocktail ‘gin and tonic’.

Back in England, each of these three self-taught naturalists achieved fame. Bates was for thirty years the first paid head of the Royal Geographical Society (a job I took on 80 years after him – for 21 years I had a portrait of Henry Walter Bates above my desk, and my leaving present was a first edition of his book). Bates and Wallace were both elected Fellows the Royal Society. The King later made Wallace a Companion of Honour, because, when he was in Borneo, he had elaborated the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace knew that Charles Darwin was also working towards this, so the younger man humbly sent his paper to Darwin – who had not yet published his Origin of Species. But both behaved impeccably. They presented a joint paper to a meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858; and Wallace never claimed primacy for the famous theory. Spruce was even more modest. He retired to a cottage close to his birthplace in North Yorkshire, where he continued to publish splendid academic works, was awarded honorary doctorates and respected by discerning botanists. His great fame came posthumously.

* * *

Now, the Rubber Boom. When Richard Spruce returned to Manaus in 1853, he saw a social revolution in progress. He wrote: ‘All the way down the Rio Negro smoke was seen ascending from recently opened seringales… Throughout the Amazon… the mass of the population put itself in motion to search out and fabricate rubber.’ This was the start of the rubber boom, a phenomenon that transformed Amazonia during the next sixty years.

Indigenous people had been using rubber for millennia. It is a milky-white fluid in the inner bark of many tree species, apparently intended to protect against insect predators, and it is elastic because its molecules are in long chains. In Brazil it is called seringa, because tribal people used it to make syringes for inhaling hallucinogenic snuff. Upriver in Spanish-speaking countries (and in French), it is caucho – from the Mainas people’s word for ‘tree that weeps’. Its English name ‘rubber’ was coined in 1770 by Joseph Priestley (the scientist who discovered oxygen) - simply because the gum was used to rub out pencil marks! Hence: ‘rubber’.

In its raw state, rubber darkens on contact with the air, but it becomes sticky when hot and rock hard when cold. The great rubber boom was caused by three factors:

1. A series of inventions that transformed rubber into the strong, stable, elastic, waterproof, incorruptible, and insulating material that we all value so much. These inventions were: applying it to cloth (by Macintosh), adding sulphur and then naphtha, and firing it at great heat so that it ceased to become sticky or solid (Goodyear’s invention).

2. New uses for rubber: in pumps, drive belts, gaskets and other mechanical TYPEering purposes, in waterproof clothing and boots, and then in pneumatic tyres – first for bicycles after 1880 (invented by Dunlop), and then for motor cars in the 20th century.

3. The fact that Amazonia had a world monopoly of the trees that yield the best rubber, particularly the Hevea brasiliensis species that flourishes on the southern tributaries of the upper Amazon – notably on the Purus, Juruá and their Acre and other headwaters.

Driven by these factors, the world’s demand for rubber grew exponentially. The Amazon’s output also increased hugely, to meet this insatiable demand. In the 1850s Brazil exported 1,500 tons of rubber a year; by 1900 it was exporting 21,500 tons; and by 1910, 42,000 tons. And the price paid for rubber also went up, because of Amazonia’s monopoly and its inability to keep pace with demand. So the bosses who controlled the seringales (rubber forests and depots) and the trading houses became multi-millionaires. It was the world’s greatest boom based on a living plant product.

Brazil opened the Amazon to international shipping in 1867. So ocean-going freighters could sail 1500 kilometres up the mighty river to Manaus, a deep-water port that was conveniently near the mouths of the rubber-producing rivers. In that year 1867 a German TYPEer described Manaus as ‘an insignificant little town of about three thousand inhabitants, with unpaved and badly-levelled streets, and low houses or cottages of the most primitive construction.’ Twenty years later, Manaus had 10,000 people, and by the turn of the 20th century 50,000. A dynamic governor, Eduardo Ribeiro, was largely responsible for transforming it into the glamorous ‘Paris of the Tropics’. He boasted: ‘I found a village and turned it into a modern city’, with a grid of streets and boulevards, handsome buildings (whose stone and marble came as ballast in rubber ships), the Scottish-designed floating dock, the ponte flutuante, hinged to rise and fall 14 metres to cope with the annual flooding of the Amazon, and of course the famous Teatro Amazonas opera house. This theatre’s ironwork came from Glasgow, its tiles from Alsace, marble pillars from Carrara, mirrors from France, and chandeliers from Venice. It was opened in 1897 with a production of Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda. A French geographer exclaimed: ‘The most refined civilization has reached the Rio Negro!’ Manaus was one of the first cities in Brazil to have electric lighting, telephones, and a tram system of green American streetcars. In its heyday it boasted three hospitals, a zoo, a racecourse, bullring, a Grand Hotel that claimed to be ‘the finest in Christendom’, 23 department stores, 11 elegant restaurants, modistes, gentlemen’s outfitters, and of course innumerable bars and even more cabarets and brothels. One of the latter was a floating palace that advertised: ‘Frequent sailings to all parts of the river, with champagne on ice and a gramophone all included’.

I have not got time to tell about Manaus’s flamboyant millionaires, with their marble palaces, grand pianos, horses watered on champagne, motor yachts plying these rivers, pet lions, Babylonian orgies, and laundry sent to Europe. The richest of all – the ‘Rockefeller of Rubber’ was the Bolivian Nicolás Suárez. He started barefoot, and never really took to shoes. He had flamboyant mustachios that were a trademark of rubber barons. Suárez eventually dominated three rubber rivers, had ten thousand employees, owned several towns in the Bolivian Beni, ruled Indian tribes (he exterminated a group of Karipuna who killed his brother), controlled eight million hectares of forests, ranches with 250,000 head of cattle, a sugar mill, a power plant, an ice factory, and countless seringal depots.

There was a black side to all this wealth. The rubber-tappers lived brief and brutish lives. Thousands were recruited from the drought-stricken North-east of Brazil. They were given passage, to Belém and then up rivers to their seringals, and were supplied with basic necessities – a pot and pan, an axe and machete, a gun with two hundred bullets, some fishing line and needles. But all this was supplied on credit at exorbitant prices. So a seringueiro started in debt to his boss; and most never emerged from debt-bondage throughout their lives.

Seringueiros had a grueling routine. They had to set out before dawn in pitch darkness, clambering along their forest trails with hurricane lanterns. They cut incisions and fixed cups on between 70 and 100 wild rubber trees. They then walked the ten-kilometer trail again to collect the latex before it congealed in the midday heat, and haul the heavy load back to their hut. Their afternoons were spent smoking the latex milk over small ovens – a dangerous task, for inexperienced tappers could be asphyxiated by poisonous creosote fumes. They collected the rubber in balls on wooden paddles. A seringueiro emerged from a dry-season’s collecting, exhausted, emaciated, wracked by disease and coughing, and probably still heavily in debt. Writers compared life in this ‘green hell’ to that of workers in Europe’s satanic mills. The Colombian José Eustacio Rivera wrote that ‘labourers in rubber know full well that the vegetable gold enriches no-one… Slavery in these regions becomes life-long for both slave and owner… The forest annihilates them, the forest entraps them, the forest beckons in order to swallow them up. Those who escape, carry the curse in body and soul. Worn out, grown old and deceived, they have only one desire: to return, to return to the forest – well aware that if they return they will perish.’

Some indigenous peoples were drawn into this system. A few tribes, such as the Mundurukú of the Tapajós, took to rubber-tapping on their own; and they still do it. Others were forced into debt-bondage or slave labour at gun-point, like the Apiaká, the Juruna of the lower Xingu, and peoples of the headwaters of the Purus and Juruá. The Bolivians press-ganged workers from docile, missionized Karipuna and Chiriquito. But Indians were not as reliable seringueiros as caboclo migrants from other parts of Brazil. So, many indigenous groups escaped into the depths of their forests, and a few like the Kawahib (Parintintin) of the middle Madeira fought back successfully and kept their rivers free of rubber men.

Western Amazonia, below the Andes, has only an inferior type of rubber from latex of Castilloa trees. These grew on the Putumayo-Içá river, that now forms the boundary between Peru and Colombia. In the first decade of the twentieth century, a Peruvian called Julio César Arana came to dominate this lawless no-man’s-land. His river-boats had a monopoly of transport down to Manaus: this is his flagship, ironically called El Liberal. So he rapidly acquired all the Colombian rubber stations – either by debt-enforcement, purchase, extortion, or armed seizure. Arana could not afford to hire seringueiros to gather his poor-quality latex. So he forced local indigenous peoples – Witoto, Bora and others – to do this work. Arana soon had an evil empire that literally worked Indians to death with impossible labour quotas, no food, and gruesome tortures and executions of any who underperformed. This hideous system was enforced by native boys trained as trackers and killers, and by black overseers imported from Barbados. There was an international outcry about these Putumayo Atrocities, which involved the Irish humanitarian Roger Casement. But what actually brought them to an end was the collapse of the Amazon rubber boom.

In the 1870s, the British managed to get several hundred live Hevea brasiliensis seeds across the Atlantic. They went first to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and then to Ceylon and Malaya. After a slow start, Malaya’s tea planters switched to growing rubber trees. They could do this in plantations, since there were none of Amazonia’s parasites and blights that attack trees here that are not scattered. So the Malayan planters did not have to have seringueiros tapping trails of wild trees. They had plenty of Chinese labour to work their plantations and also enjoyed deep-water ports. But they succeeded because they improved every aspect of the rubber process through careful husbandry.

The first Malayan rubber reached London in 1900. Within twelve years, rubber from those plantations vastly exceeded the Amazonian product, in every sense – five times as much, of far better quality, and much cheaper. The Amazon rubber boom crashed with terrifying speed. Manaus’s trading houses went bankrupt, some millionaires committed suicide and one ended as a street lottery-ticket vendor, the contents of the mansions were auction off in panic sales, the adventurers and adventuresses decamped, and most of the worn-out seringueiros migrated back to other parts of Brazil. For fifty years, Amazonia reverted to being a poor backwater, and the surviving indigenous peoples enjoyed several decades of tranquility in their forests and rivers.