The Enslavement of Amazon Natives During the Rubber Boom
By Mike Collis

Thousands of Amazon Indians were enslaved and killed during the rubber boom

During the latter part of the 19th century rubber was discovered here in Amazonia. The Rubber Boom had begun. During the 1880s the countries of Peru and Ecuador sent samples of rubber to England and the United States. Rubber was very much in demand then because it was being used in many products, but it was not until Goodyear developed a process called vulcanization that the rubber boom really got started. This process made the latex rubber harder and therefore could be used to make tyres for automobiles. Foreign companies surged forward to invest in companies capable of securing vast amounts of latex (the raw rubber). One of the biggest rubber companies was the Peruvian Amazon Company.

The elite "mestizos" who were of Spanish descent were recruited as caucheros or rubber barons. The work of the caucheros was to recruit, by whatever means, workers to harvest as much wild latex from the vast jungle as possible. The Amazon people were not used to working long hours but fished and hunted for the food they needed and then did not work again until they got hungry. Working all day, every day was not in their agenda. The caucheros found the docile and obedient temperament of the natives easy to overcome and easily made them into rubber slaves. The caucheros did not go out and find the rubber slaves, instead they recruited black men from Trinidad and Jamaica in the West Indies. They were paid to capture as many slaves as possible and to make sure the slaves collected sufficient amounts of rubber. These West Indian men were called muchachos and they captured natives from the rainforest. The muchachos were well armed and always acted in an aggressive manner. The natives they enslaved would be required to collect rubber during 3 or 4 expeditions every year. Every 4 months they were required to bring into the rubber stations a fabrico which weighed at least 50 kilos. To get paid they had to do this at least 3 times a year. They were not paid in cash but one fabrico would provide them with a hammock, a cup, a machete and a pair of trousers. If they brought in 2 fabricos they were given a gun, but with very little ammunition it was not much use. If the natives failed to collect sufficient latex they would be punished severely. This punishment increased in its severity until they were killed. Women were also enslaved and rape was the usual penalty for low performance. If a male slave escaped his wife and children were raped and tortured until the slave returned or they themselves revealed were the escapees could be found. Women and children were also sold to brothels where they were raped and tortured in bestialic ways.

A young Amazon native slave bares horrific scars of the Rubber Boom

Around 1920 the Rubber Boom ended and with it the enslavement of native people. Some researchers tried to estimate the loss of indigenous peoples in Peru and Brazil and came to a figure of 250,000 souls lost in connection with the rubber trade. They were members of the native tribes of the Amazon region such as Witotos, Androque, Huitoto, Matses, Yagua, Karipuna and Boras amongst others. An example: In 1940 the entire Bora tribe consisted of only 500 people but back in 1910 there were more than 15,000. The Huitoto tribe decreased from 50, 000 to 7,000 between 1900 and 1912. Some smaller less known tribes were completely wiped out

Witoto slaves in the Putumayo region
During this time foreign investors made fortunes and the City of Iquitos prospered. At any time steamships could be seen anchored on the Amazon River. They were bringing in all the requirements the rich merchants needed for their millionaire lifestyles and the ships took away huge amounts of latex rubber. It was said that Iquitos was so awash with money large wooden cases filled to overflowing with English silver sovereigns could often be seen on the street unattended. Fortunes were made and it is said some of the merchants lit their Cuban cigars with $100 bills. The wives of the merchants did not like their clothes washed in the Amazon water so their fine linens were sent on the steamships to Europe for laundering. Foreign governments also collaborated in the enslavement, the U.S. government in particular paid Brazil $100 for every worker delivered to the areas where they were needed. It seemed that many local officials, missionaries and others turned a blind eye to the atrocities, perhaps fearful of the powerful rubber barons.

An old photograph showing the opulence during the rubber boom

If you want to learn more about this dark period in South American history W.E.Hardenburg wrote the book "Putumayo, The Devils Paradise". It tells of the abuse and atrocities of that time. Hardenburg actually witnessed some of them with his own eyes. In 1910 the British Government sent Roger Casement to investigate the abuse of native workers in the amazon. His heart wrenching report can also be read in Hardenberg's book. Also worth reading is the story of the 2 rubber boom slaves who were taken to England by Sir Roger Casement to give evidence against the rubber barons. The 2 boys never returned to the Amazon. Click here"The Lost Boys of the Amazon", this is their story.
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