Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Man Who Brought Down Manaus

by Leighton Gage

In the years before the First World War, Manaus was one of the richest places in the Americas – North or South. It was the first city in South America to install an electric grid; the first to have a telegraph link with Europe; the women wore French fashions; the children were sent to France to be educated; the per-capita consumption of champagne was higher than anywhere else in South America.

The opera house (above) was built with marble from Carrara and hand-painted tiles from Portugal. It featured chandeliers of Baccarat crystal and huge decorative vases from Sèvres. The rafters rang with the great voices of the age, Sarah Bernhardt and Jenny Lind among many others. All of which is pretty surprising when you consider where Manaus is located. It’s nine hundred miles from the sea, smack in the middle of the Amazon jungle.  Even today, there are no roads that will take you there from Brasilia, or Rio de Janeiro, orSão Paulo. You have to fly, or you have to take a boat.
So how come Manaus was so rich?
Back in those days Brazil had a monopoly on all the rubber in the world.

Rubber trees were native to the Amazon rainforest - and existed nowhere else. Naturally, the Brazilians wanted to keep it that way, To that end, they made it illegal to export the seeds or the seedlings of the rubber tree, and made it clear they’d classify anyone who did it as a thief.
Enter this man, Henry Wickham:

Wickam, in defiance of Brazilian law, stole 70,000 seeds and bore them off to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. They were planted the day after their arrival. Over two thousand of them germinated. 
The descendants of those seedlings were sent to Sri Lanka, to Singapore and to India. With them, the English established their own rubber trade, a trade that ended up being far more successful and lucrative than the Brazilian one.

And that for one reason: every other place in the world the trees could be planted in groves; but not in Brazil. The Amazon rainforest, you see, harbors a blight that exists nowhere else in the world, a blight that attacks rubber trees. If one tree is infected, the blight kills all the other trees in the neighborhood. The Brazilian trees, therefore, are always spaced throughout the jungle. The harvest of their latex is an expensive proposition, too expensive to compete with the plantations, and low labor costs, of the East.
Brazil’s loss.
England’s gain.
Henry Wickham got a knighthood.
Manaus got shafted. These days, it's no more than a backwater.

And is known for little more than the “meeting of the waters”, the place where muddy brown of the Rio Solimões meets the black of the Rio Negro and forms the beginning of the Rio Amazonas, the true Amazon.

And yet...and yet...there's a very good reason to go there: to see the place where most of the action takes place in my book Dying Gasp, the third in the Chief Inspector Mario Silva series.

1 comment:

Anne K. Albert said...

Fascinating history. Thanks for sharing!