Mary E. Marcy

Morals of Rubber

(December 1912)

The International Socialist Review, Vol. 13 No. 6, December 1912, pp. 466–469.
Transcribed by Matthew Siegfried.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

WE are growing very suspicious these days. Whenever we hear of one of the Great Powers rushing an army and sending battle ships to attack some one of the lesser countries in the name of a great moral movement, we wonder who is out to grab some big concession.

We remember how England, in the blessed name of civilization and the “protection of her native sons,” entrenched herself in India and killed off the Indian native manufacturing industries. We recall the Crusade of the Great Nation that sent her troops into far-away South Africa, spurred on by alleged atrocities perpetrated by the Boers against the down-trodden natives – and gobbled up the priceless gold and diamond mines there. How often, Oh, how often have the rich nations sent their armies into the Orient “to protect their missionaries” and planted the home flag permanently, while they picked out everything valuable insight?

Even when our own hearts bled for the wrongs committed against the Cubans by the ruthless Spaniards, and we marched to “free Cuba,” we sent American battleships to seize Spanish islands in the Pacific and established a national coaling station in the Philippines, not to mention the many rich crumbs that fell to already overloaded individual tables.

It is all these events, these wars, these killings – in the name of God and home and country or some other moral sophistry spouted in press and pulpit, that have taught us to look behind the scenes when we hear “statesmen” and editors embarking on a great moral campaign. We have grown suspicious. We always wonder what the pie is and whom it is going to be divided amongst. We expect ulterior motives when the armies march forth with flying banners bearing the proud sentence, “For God and Country.” This usually means something like Rockefeller and Guggenheim. We are frankly skeptical when we find men spending money to protect the lives and limbs of unknown, distant black natives out of sheer goodness of heart.

We see men killed on the home railroads without the upsetting of a single church. We know of thousands of men being killed yearly in the mines of their own countries without a single capitalist newspaper daring to raise its voice in protest. And many of us have sought, in vain, to arouse a spark of enthusiasm against child labor at home, in the same men who shed tears and ink so copiously in the cause of the mistreated native that inhabits the jungle.

It seems to us that behind all this decrying and exposing, this marching and killing, these pages of vituperation and appeals to the imagination, there is always a strong Something to be gained by Somebody. We see somebody’s economic interests are to be served. In fact, we find the great patriots and the great moral propagandists are nearly always on the job for lands or mines, or railway concessions. They are not waging the campaign for a great public awakening for nothing. There is always something in it for them.

And so we read pages and pages of hysterical exposures of the barbaric treatment of the Putumayo natives by the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company with apathy. We wonder whether the tales of torture are true or whether some wily politician or multi-millionaire is trying to secure valuable rubber concessions. We wonder whether the campaign against the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company may not be started for the purpose of handicapping a successful competitor who is forcing down the price of rubber in the world market.

Several years ago a disclosure of certain hideous cruelties practiced in the rubber district of the Putumayo, Eastern Peru, were made by Sir Roger Casement. This was the British Government officer who, some years before, had startled the world with a report of atrocities in the Congo. He had been sent to investigate in Peru. His report was submitted to the British Foreign Secretary in January 1911 and is only now made public. The report was calmly suppressed for almost two years. All this time government officials knew that unarmed and inoffensive natives were being butchered and killed in the Putumayo district and nobody ever thought of raising his voice in protest. There was no stimulus, no great mines, or diamond fields in sight to reward the protector of the oppressed. But now all is changed. Statesmen who had long smothered their consciences, diplomats, who had been too much occupied with affairs of state, clergymen and editors who had neglected their duty, were all suddenly stricken with remorse. Each and all rushed to the press or the platform to demand a cessation of the cruelties being perpetrated by the notorious Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company in the Putumayo district.

These Indian natives are a mild and peaceful people split up into a number of tribes. Their mode of life is still primitive. The bow and arrow is still the most common weapon. The forest affords abundant material for the building of comfortable thatched huts, which are usually large and roomy. Food is to be had in plenty the year round for the gathering. Fruits of many kinds grow plentifully and there are always wild nuts of innumerable variety.

Dwelling in a land of plenty, at peace with their neighbors, surrounded by the beloved forest, it is to be readily doubted that the Putumayo Indians should willingly assume the yoke of a white boss without pressure of some menacing sort being brought to bear upon them.

It is the crying need for food, and clothing and a house to live in, that forces workingmen and women to sell themselves to work for a boss for wages. The natives in Peru had no such needs. It is but to be expected that some sort of physical coercion was used in Peru. Where land is free, food abundant, shelter available and clothing still a matter of ornament, men and women are practically free economically. It is the private ownership of land, food, clothing and houses that makes slaves of the non-owners. They are forced to work for wages to get money to buy these necessities.

Everywhere we find that capitalism on invading “uncivilized” lands, either grabs up the land and other natural resources, so that the natives are forced to find jobs in order to live, or the “civilized” intruders command the “heathen” by physical violence.

Collecting rubber is very hard work. Natives are driven into the forest whence they dare not return without bringing back the required amount of rubber under dire penalty. They must go through fever infested swamps, risking life and limb, in danger every moment from attacks of the beasts of the jungle. Through the long nights, alone and unprotected, the natives must hide in brush or trees ever on the alert to avoid unknown and unseen enemies.

The most careful tapping of trees gives only about twenty pounds of rubber per full grown tree, a year. Often a native will be compelled to search through several miles of forest to find a few trees. Cups must be placed before the gashes or openings cut in the tree trunks and the yield must be collected every day till the flow ceases.

In the Putumayo District natives were ordered to report every two weeks with their rubber supply. The sap is treated promptly in order to insure preservation.

Natives were originally promised from $9.00 to $15.00 per one hundred pounds of prepared rubber, “according to its quality.” This naturally left a great deal to the sense of justice (?) of the rubber company.

In the Putumayo District the Amazon Rubber Company possessing a monopoly for the sale of merchandise to the natives, was in a particularly happy situation. Rubber gatherers were refused payment in cash and compelled to accept company goods in exchange.

Since it is more than even the minds of educated men may do to solve the mysteries of high finance, it is hardly to be expected that the Peruvian Indians should be able to comprehend the intricacies of company bookkeeping. Hence it is not strange that the natives – as a result of this system – found themselves indebted to the company.

In such cases the rubber company seized the Putumayoans, taking them forcibly from their villages and transporting them to points where laborers were scarce. Many tribes have preferred to abandon their territories and move long distances across the equatorial jungle rather than be set to work by the rubber merchants.

It is reported that the English Rubber Company is solely responsible for the atrocities committed on natives in the Putumayo District. Sir Roger Casement declares that rubber gatherers have been subjected to tortures that baffle description, that arms and feet as well as ears and heads have been lopped off. Men and women have been burned alive and their children beheaded in a single bloody debauch by the rubber merchants. Thousands have been maimed and murdered with impunity.

To quote from the Review of Reviews:

“It may be only a coincidence, but the recent outburst of indignation in England took place five or six days after the Brazilian National Congress had voted an appropriation of $2,500,000 for carrying out a rubber valorization scheme similar to the coffee valorization. Brazil produces about 50 per cent of the world’s supply of rubber. The value of the Putumayo rubber forests is therefore increasing very rapidly.

“The Peruvian Amazon Company has no legal title to the Putumayo tract, having never paid a cent to the Peruvian Government.”

It looks very much to us as though some great syndicate was getting ready to seize the Putumayo lands in the name of the tortured natives of Peru. We wonder how it will stimulate a passionate fervor in the breasts of the Indians for rubber gathering.

Top of the page

Last updated on 31 May 2022