One of the most essential goods to come from the Amazon rainforest is rubber. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that rubber saw its first direct implementation in the industrialized world.
It all started when Charles Goodyear dropped rubber and sulfur on a hotplate by accident, causing form a leather-like substance that could also stay elastic. Thus, with the introduction of automobiles in the 19th century, the Amazon rubber boom began.
So, what exactly is the Amazon rubber boom? The Amazon Rubber Boom, which occurred primarily from 1879 to 1921 is been referred to as the production and commercialization of rubber, and it was a significant part of the financial and social history of Brazil and other Amazonian regions in the world.
As the demand for rubber increased, quaint river towns like Manaus, Brazil, were overnight transformed into thriving commercial hubs. This was harming the indigenous population in Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador but a sizable working population was needed for rubber production.
One plantation, for example, began with 50,000 Indians but when found, only 8,000 remained alive. Slave labor violence was widespread throughout the Amazon rainforest. Barons like Julio Cesar Arana, simply used terror to obtain and keep Indian slaves. Captured Indians usually surrendered because increased resistance meant more pain and misery for their families.
Those who opposed this were met with extreme brutality. Young girls were sold as prostitutes, while young boys were bound and had their genitals blown off. Production increased as the indigenous population declined: for Arana’s 12-year operation on the Amazon it went from over 30,000 to fewer than 8,000 individuals. However, he was able to export more than 4,000 tons of rubber and made over $75 million annually.
But as the British government had planted rubber trees in its former colonies in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, etc. the Amazon was already losing its dominance in the production of rubber. These rubber trees for the British grew from seeds smuggled out of Brazil by Henry Wickham in 1876. They proved to be more productive in terms of latex production so the British Empire consequently gained control of the global rubber market.
There was another rubber boom in the Amazon from 1942 to 1945, during WWII. However, fewer than 35,000 workers remained in the Amazon after the production of rubber decreased.
It is reported that the northeastern part of Brazil was experiencing a horrific drought making the farmers life very difficult at the same time. So, it was easier to hire new rubber workers from that region. The US government paid the Brazilian government $100 for each rubber worker delivered to Amazon.
In a clear allusion to the contribution of latex in providing the American factories with the rubber required to fight the war, these new rubber workers were given the nickname “rubber soldiers”. Unfortunately, nearly 30,000 rubber workers ended up dead in the Amazon, mostly from exhaustion, malaria, yellow fever, hepatitis, and animal attacks. Only about 6,000 workers are believed to have returned home at their own expense.