The random paths down which my curiosity take me often surprise me. In the past couple of days, I have done some cursory reading about the Peruvian Amazon Company and the abuses it committed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Apparently, the rubber industry took off in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A lot of the available rubber trees of the time were located in parts of the Amazon with little-to-no government control or oversight. An entrepreneur by the name of Julio Cesar Arana arose to take advantage of the rubber boom with his Peruvian Amazon Company. According to one entry:
Starting in 1850 rubber became a hot new commodity in the industrializing countries of Europe and North America, and the Amazonâ€™s monopoly on â€œblack goldâ€ tapped from Hevea brasiliensis trees scattered in the rainforest spawned what the contemporary Brazilian writer called â€œthe most criminal organization of labor ever devised.â€ A Peruvian rubber baron named Julio Arana founded the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company and grew fabulously wealthy by exploiting the Bora, Witoto, Andoke, and Ocaina Indians on the Putumayo River, which forms the border between Peru and Colombia. Reports of systematic torture, an orgy of sadism, the perverted mutilation of men, women, and children, women being kept as concubines by the Indian and Barbadian muchachos or captains, of the rubber gangs, reached Roger Casement, who had exposed similar atrocities ten years earlier in the Congo. By the time Casement got there, three-quarters of the population on the Putumayo had been wiped out in the previous six years, and there were only 8000-1000 left.
One account I read described “Suarez of Bolivia” (I believe this is Nicolas Suarez Callau) keeping a harem of native women for use of him and his friends to create a reliable labor pool. Less spectacular was the process of a sort of de facto enslavement of rubber workers. They would have access only to company stores to buy supplies and staples. They would have to buy these things on credit and then could never seem to get out of debt through their labor collecting rubber.
When I read of episodes in human history such as this, I become more convinced of the proposition that there is nothing “natural” about natural rights. In the absence of an effective government, there are no rights. And unfettered capitalism, like an unchecked fire, certainly has the capacity to do more harm than good.
Roger Casement is also a name of which I had been unaware. He was a British civil servant who reported the abuses in the Congo and then Peru, was made a knight in 1911 for his efforts, but was subsequently hung for treason in 1916 due to his efforts supporting Irish independence and collaborating with the Germans during World War I.
Incidentally, I stumbled across this aspect of early 20th century history while reading about Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who ultimately disappeared in the Amazon – quite an interesting character.