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Brazzil - History - September 2003

Brazil: When El Dorado Was Here

The food arrived on the steamships from Europe and North
America. Trade between Manaus and the rest of Brazil was
not much. Who wanted anything from Rio when you could get
it from Paris? And as Manaus had hopes of becoming the next
capital of Brazil, it should have the best of everything.

Rita Shannon Koeser


"Rubber dazzled them, as gold and diamonds have dazzled other men..."
- Theodore Roosevelt

The rubber barons brought their wives sweltering in their fur coats to the fabulous new opera house with its Baroque style interior. In their huge and sumptuously decorated houses off Praça São Sebastião (San Sebastian Square) they talked about Manaus soon supplanting Rio de Janeiro as Brazil's new capital. They liked to show off by lighting their cigars with bills of large denomination and sending their laundry to Paris. By the end of the 19th century, Manaus was one of the main sources of rubber in the world.

The rubber boom brought in so much money that one diamond merchant estimated that more diamonds were sold in Manaus than anywhere else in the world. The governor of Amazonas state, Eduardo Gonçalves Ribeiro, boasted, "I found a village. I made of it a modern city". It was no idle boast. The inhabitants enjoyed some of the first electric street lights in the world and the first electrically operated trolley system in Latin America. There was piped gas and water. A glorious modern city had arisen in the middle of the Amazon forest, and even steel tycoon, Andrew Carnegie, supposedly said with sadness, "I ought to have chosen rubber".

Everybody thought it would last forever. No one thought about the Englishman who had already "stolen" the source of the rubber barons wealth in 1876. This "theft" would bring an end to Brazil's world monopoly in rubber within several decades. The rubber boom would be nothing but a memory in Manaus.

Hevea Brasiliensis

Europeans knew about it as far back as Christopher Columbus. Other travelers observed the Indians bouncing it and using it as waterproofing on their feet. But it was the French scientist, Charles Marie de la Condamine, who was the first to send it to Europe. He coined the word "latex" (after the Spanish word for milk) for the milky substance that exuded from the tree when it was cut.

He spent four months on the Amazon river in 1743 exploring and observing the strange plants, animals, and customs of the native Indians. He kept a journal which would later fascinate Europe. He observed a tall tree (later given the scientific name of "Hevea brasiliensis") with high limbs from which the Indians were extracting a milky liquid. When the liquid coagulated it produced a malleable elastic material.

The Indians had many uses for this material. They made syringes, boots, bottles, toys and many other items. La Condamine sent some of the material back to France and later published a book which was the first scientific account of the Amazon. Dr. Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, would later give it its English name, "rubber" after realizing it was ideal for erasing (i.e. rubbing out) pencil marks.

Despite its potential, rubber's use was somewhat limited until 1823 when Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh discovered a way to coat fabric with rubber to make it waterproof. But his "Macintosh" coats had the problem of hardening in the winter and melting in the summer. The boom in the Amazon began after 1839 when American, Charles Goodyear, invented the process of vulcanization which prevented rubber from becoming sticky in heat and brittle in cold. Soon rubber became a major ingredient in many products including rainwear, steam engines, bicycle tires, electrical insulation and finally automobile tires.

Although latex was found in trees in other parts of the world, the best quality rubber could be produced from the wild Brazilian trees, the "Hevea brasiliensis".

The Boom

Many foreigners arrived in Manaus to cash in on the rubber boom. Speculators from France, England, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Syria and other parts of the world searched for rubber trees on the Amazon and its tributaries. Tapping rubber was not an easy process, and many indigenous people were recruited for this work. Some were shamelessly exploited and suffered and died under horrible conditions.

One in twenty Manaus citizens were from elsewhere. There were, among others, bankers from Stuttgart, merchants from Lisbon, engineers from London. As the worldwide demand for Brazilian rubber rose, the prices of rubber rose steadily. Rubber exports grew rapidly, and the government of Amazonas state put a 20 to 25 percent export tax on rubber. With these profits, the governor, Eduardo Gonçalves Ribeiro, a former military engineer, made incredible changes in Manaus.

Founded as a fort by the Portuguese in the 17th century and located almost 1000 miles up the Amazon river from the Atlantic Ocean, Manaus, a small tranquil town, was transformed after becoming the capital of the rubber industry. By late in the 1890's, during the apex of the rubber boom, the capital had streets one hundred feet wide, an electrically operated trolley system, piped gas and water, and electric street lighting. But aside from utility, governor Ribeiro desired beauty. He built beautiful public buildings parks, and gardens.

On humid evenings under the equatorial heat, the city's elite went to the parks for concerts by the Governor's band, they strolled or sat in the cafes on the broad Eduardo Ribeiro Avenue, or they went to their magnificent opera house to see a performance by the latest European opera company visit to Manaus. Manaus now also had a racecourse, bullring, twenty four bars, thirty six fashionable doctors, eleven fancy restaurants, and seven bookshops.

The locals who were very proud of their city used to quote the German explorer, Baron Friedrich Alexander von Humboldt who had said a hundred years earlier, "There (in the Amazon Valley), sooner or later, the civilization of the world will be found" A rubber baron was heard to say at a banquet, "No adult heart can feel that Manaus is anything less than fabulous"

The lifestyles of the rubber barons were extraordinary by any measure. Waldemar Scholz had a lion, a yacht, motorboat, and servants dressed in livery. Commandant Frotta commissioned a palace to house his race horses, then made some changes to it and liked it so much, he decided to move into one wing of the house himself! Others burned money to light their cigars, sent their laundry to Europe, and ordered their food from Europe. Victor von Hagen, who wrote a book about the quest for El Dorado put it this way,

"Manaus had actually become El Dorado. Gold flowed like water through its streets. The whole city throbbed to the...dream of wealth. One had "pâté de foie gras', Crosse and Backwell's jams, Huntley and Palmer's biscuits, imported wines. One could sit down to dinner at which the butter came from Cork, the biscuits from Boston, the ham from Oporto, and the potatoes from Liverpool"

The food arrived on the steamships that had come from Europe and North America to collect rubber. Trade between Manaus and the rest of Brazil was not much. Who wanted anything from Rio when you could get it from Paris? And as Manaus had hopes of becoming the next capital of Brazil, it should have the best of everything.

The crowning glory of all this luxury and extravagance was the Teatro Amazonas the famous, if not notorious opera house. Governor Ribeiro commissioned a Portuguese architect to build an Italianate opera house that would have cobbled streets with elegant houses, plazas and gardens surrounding it. What started as a modest project wound up costing two million dollars, which was an enormous sum at that time.

Architects, painters, sculptors, and builders arrived from Europe to work on the new opera house. Built almost exclusively from materials imported from Europe, the iron framework was from Glasgow, Scotland; the 60,000 tiles in its cupola were from Alsace Lorraine; and the crystal chandeliers from Italy. The main material used in the construction was stone but the entrances and supporting pillars were finished in Italian Marble. In keeping with the" spare no expense" attitude, some locals thought the cupola should be of gold rather than tiles. The governor wasn't worried. He said before the theater was even open "When the growth of our city demands it, we'll pull down this opera house and build another".

The interior of the theater was brilliant with gold leaf and lush red velvet. The decorations, painting and sculpture had as their theme the classical Greek and Roman mythological figures together with the Indian legends of the Amazon. Indian heads were on the balustrade of the staircases, and there were murals of the gods and goddesses playing in the Amazon.

On opening night, January 6, 1897, the Grand Italian Opera company played Ponchielli's La Gioconda. The elaborate opera house in the middle of the Amazon forest became a symbol of the incredible extravagance of the elite during the rubber boom and became a legend in itself. Through the years stories were told of the famous performers who came to Manaus. It was alleged that the tenor Enrico Caruso, the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt had performed at the Teatro Amazonas. But these luminaries never came to Manaus.

The "Seed Snatch" and the Decline

In 1876, Dr. Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in England commissioned Henry Wickham, an English adventurer to collect seeds from the "Hevea brasiliensis" trees in the Amazon. Wickham who was living in the Santarém region of the upper Amazon, was interested in and had already published some information about the rubber trees. He was able to collect 70,000 seeds from the forest to send to England. Luck was on Wickham's side, as unbeknownst to him, the Amazon forests had seventeen different varieties of wild Hevea, but just by chance, he found the one tree that was the gold mine for the rubber barons, the botanists "Hevea brasiliensis".

The story of how he brought the seeds out of Brazil to England became a classic tale of derring-do and became known as the "seed snatch". There are still many mysteries about this story. The first is how he and a few helpers were able to collect 70,000 seeds in a short period of time. The "Hevea" trees were wildly scattered in the forest and not in neat plantation rows. The seeds don't drop from the trees but are catapulted up to 40 yards away.

Wickham liked to encourage the idea that the seeds he took were illegal and loaded aboard his ship under the nose of a gunboat which "would have blown us out of the water had her commander suspected what we were doing". Though the customs authorities did not know what he was taking, Brazil had no law against the export of rubber seeds. However 70,000 seeds would probably not have been looked on favorably by the authorities.

The seeds were delivered to the Botanical Gardens at Kew in June 1876. They were planted in seedbeds the day after their arrival, and in a few weeks more than 2000 or them had germinated. These were sent to the British colonies of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malaya where they survived and were planted in rows on plantations. Labor costs were much less than in the Amazon, and there was a lack of natural enemies for the plants. The first rubber trees flowered in Asia in 1881, and after twenty years of effort by the British botanists, the Asian plantations began to produce rubber in large amounts.

As a result, by 1910 the price of Brazilian rubber began to decline putting the rubber barons into a panic. No one had foreseen the drastic impact the plantations in Asia would have on the wild rubber trade in Brazil. The collection of wild rubber in the Amazon required exploration of more and more remote areas because the older areas were declining in productivity. Recruitment of laborers was difficult and there was a limited supply of them.

By contrast conditions on the plantations in the British colonies were very favorable. There was a lot of land, the export taxes were low, transport was inexpensive, and labor was cheap and plentiful. In 1914, the commercial plantations of Ceylon and Malaya were yielding as much rubber as Brazilian wild rubber but at lower prices. Asian rubber had broken the Amazon world monopoly and the rubber boom was over.

Instead of blaming their own inefficient methods of production, the rubber barons accused the federal government of concentrating on coffee to the detriment of rubber. They called for a "Convention of the Amazon" with the goal of stabilizing the prices of rubber. Consequently, the Rubber Defense Law of 1912 was passed and encouraged the creation of plantations in the Amazon, improvement in transportation, and a 50 percent reduction export taxes. This was all to no avail, and the rubber boom was truly over. Manaus again became a sleepy backwater, the foreigners moved away, the opera house, the docks, and the warehouses all deteriorated.

There were belated attempts at creating rubber plantations in the Amazon, but this was never successful. Diseases often attacked the plants, and even Henry Ford's project, known as Fordlândia was an enormous failure in the 1920's. By 1922, 93 percent of world sales of rubber came from the plantations in Asia.

Manaus went into a long decline. But it would eventually rally to become a free trade zone, a center for eco-tourism and electronics, and the seat of many organizations studying the Amazon rain forest. Even the opera would eventually come back to the Teatro Amazonas. But Manaus would never reach its former glory.

Henry Wickham was knighted for "Services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East"


Rita Shannon Koeser is a freelance writer who specializes in the history and culture of Europe and Latin America. She has been a Brazilophile since her first visit to Rio de Janeiro many years ago. At present she is amusing her Brazilian friends with her newly acquired but still imperfect Portuguese! Since her visit to the Brazilian Amazon region in the spring of 2001, she has been interested in researching and writing about different aspects of the area. She is enchanted by the warmth and charm of the people who live there and is delighted that some have become good friends. Rita can be reached at Ritashko@earthlink.net




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