Rubber makes history

Part I-1: The conflict about the rubber monopoly

The history of rubber sounds like a novel, but there is nothing fictitious about it. It all started in the age of expeditions and voyages of discovery all round the world that were made by the European seafaring nations to increase their wealth and influence. Discoverers turned into conquerors, who used religion and weapons as arguments to “civilise” the countries they reached – sometimes in America, sometimes in Africa – against the wishes of the native peoples, often simply exploiting them for economic gain. What some historians call the “intensification of external contacts” gradually led to a worldwide network of trade relationships that had the effect of bringing the continents closer together. A kind of “Globalisation 1.0” that was characterised by an asymmetrical balance of power between colonised territories and their self-proclaimed “protecting powers”. Although we today may find this imperial approach repulsive, it has to be admitted that countries did and still do have an important job to do: as forces that make sure the market functions, they provide the framework for free trade and fair competition. It is therefore their responsibility to prevent the concentration of market power (formation of monopolies, cf. Topik/Wells 2012, 614 and 811). History demonstrates that countries fail to carry out this assignment or are only half-hearted in their attempts to do so. And that is not all: sometimes they give in to the temptation to manipulate and monopolise the market as soon as they start to pursue their own economic interests (ibid. 812) – a fact that is confirmed by the history of rubber. The following text, which continues our series about the history of rubber that started with “The Grand ABC of Rubber”, gives an insight into the battles associated with this. The henchmen of those enjoying the profits were perfectly willing to be thoroughly brutal in bullying the rubber tappers. This explains why wild rubber was decried as “red rubber” at the beginning of the 20th century when the rubber industry was booming. The red rubber era finally came to an end following the triumphal advances made with rubber plantations; the rubber monopoly, on the other hand, did not end once and for all until synthetic rubber was invented.


The global economy did not have any use for rubber for centuries. After America was discovered, the elastic resin from rubber trees was merely a curiosity that amused the Europeans. The flexible black substance attracted a great deal of attention, but was considered to be worthless, because no-one could think of a productive use for it. So the exotic souvenir from the New World soon disappeared with all sorts of other things and was forgotten (cf. Jünger 1942, 15). Rubber was not rediscovered (Fischer 1938, 10) until 1770, when the London optician Edward Nairne (1726 – 1806) invented the rubber eraser. 50 years later, British businessmen took advantage of the ability of rubber to repel moisture and started to produce waterproof boots and shoes – as the Indians had done long before. The Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh (1766 – 1843) invented a viable process for the production of raincoats impregnated with a rubber benzene solution and was granted a patent for it in 1823. They proved to be such a tremendous commercial success that the name “Mackintosh” (spelled “ck”!) became a synonym for raincoats (Jünger 1942, 26). The global economy was not enthusiastic about rubber for the time being even so (Fischer 1938, 10): the material was not very resistant to heat and cold, while it was not suitable for mass production either and it appeared to have very little economic potential. This changed fundamentally after an American, the mechanic Charles Nelson Goodyear (1800 – 1860) from Philadelphia, vulcanised rubber, i.e. turned it into a viable, hard-wearing material by adding sulphur at high temperature: “it now became possible to use rubber. No-one needed to be exasperated about it any more and no businessman who sold galoshes or rubber coats needed to be afraid any longer that his customers might sue him afterwards.” (Fischer 1938, 14)


Rubber becomes popular – thanks to Goodyear

Demand increased massively after vulcanisation was discovered in 1839 (see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”): in 1822, 31 tonnes of raw rubber were sufficient to cover worldwide requirements “and most were used to make rubber erasers rather than rubber shoes or raincoats” (Fischer 1938, 12). Global consumption already reached 10,000 tonnes by 1876 (Butze 1954, 179; see Table 1): people “are wearing [...] rubber coats and rubber shoes and they are using hard rubber for many different purposes; the electrical industry is discovering the good insulation properties of rubber and expensive combs made out of metal, horn or tortoiseshell are being replaced by hard rubber.” (Fischer 1938, 24) It would be wrong to talk about a boom at this stage: “Rubber collectors [...] still [...] do not need to exert themselves that much [...]. No-one anywhere in the world thinks that rubber could ever be in short supply.” (Fischer 1937, 24) “No-one has any idea as yet that a few decades later billions of marks will be earned with rubber and millions of people will lose their lives as a result.” (Fischer 1938, 14; cf. Klemm 1960, 16 – 17)

“Rubber started to develop triumphantly” (Fischer 1938, 15) when the car industry appeared on the scene; rubber switched “from being of minor importance to being a major industrial raw material” alongside coal and steel (Zischka 1936, 152; cf. Hoppenhaus 2013, 36).


Table 1: World production of raw rubber 1822 – 1939 (figures in tonnes)

1822 | 31
1830 | 150
1850 | 5,000
1870 | 9,100
1890 | 28,900
1899 | 49,804
1907 | 60,000
1908 | 65,000
1909 | 69,600
1910 | 90,500
1912 | 98,500
1913 | 108,500
1914 | 120,400
1915 | 100,000
1917 | 265,000
1918 | 326,000
1920 | 370,000
1922 | 380,000
1924 | 421,500
1925 | 516,000
1926 | 615,000
1928 | 649,000
1930 | 816,000
1931 | 800,000
1932 | 707,000
1934 | 1,008,900
1936 | 942,000
1937 | 1,152,000
1938 | 916,000
1939 | 1,097,000
(Source: Fischer 1938, Jünger 1942, Butze 1954)


The breakthrough was made in the final decades of the 19th century: in 1888, the Scottish veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop (1840 – 1921) invented pneumatic tyres for bicycles (link: "Small encyclopedia of the pneumatic tire" by Guido Deußing). Motor vehicles with pneumatic rubber tyres were also introduced in 1898; they were known as “pneumatiks” and were produced by the French manufacturer Michelin & Cie (Jünger 1942, 50, and Butze 1954, 176).

Small encyclopedia of the pneumatic tire

Insatiable hunger for rubber

From now on, the car industry and the rubber manufacturing industry were closely linked: “The rubber tyres that are driven on town roads and country highways [...] account for almost four fifths of total world rubber production.” (Fischer 1938, 26; cf. ibid. 136) The inferior quality of the tyres in the early stages and the fact that most driving was done on unpaved roads meant that a car wore out an average of eight tyres every year. The industry quite soon succeeded in developing tyres that lasted six times as long, however, thanks in part to the construction of paved country roads and city streets (cf. Topik/Wells 2012, 679). Demand for rubber from the car industry increased steadily even so: in 1914, the American car industry ordered nine million tyres; ten years later, the figure was 50 million (Fischer 1938, 131 and 140). And whereas a motor vehicle only had about five rubber parts in 1910 (sleeves and hoses, ventilator belts, horn ball, gaskets), the figure was about 130 25 years later, consisting not only of numerous profiles and gaskets but also of such products as rear axle bearings, vibration dampers and clutches (Fischer 1938, 166).

Quite apart from this: rubber was not the “raw material of choice” for tyre manufacturers alone; it was “also an irreplaceable insulation material for the [...] electrical engineering and cable industries [...], while the new tools operated using compressed air depended on rubber hosing to supply air from the compressor, in the same way that a surgeon depended on his rubber gloves. Rubber had an impact on technical development in hundreds of different areas. It became irreplaceable – nothing could take its place.” (Klemm 1960, 21, cf. also Zischka 1936, 145, and Topik/Wells 2012, 663 – 664)

Production had to be increased enormously to satisfy the demand for rubber. In 1850, about 5,000 tonnes of rubber reached the world market and were easily enough to meet requirements. At this time higher production would automatically have led to excess supply and would merely have increased the amount of rubber in stock. 50 years later, ten times as much rubber was produced around the world and all of it was in such demand in the meantime that it sold without any problems. A situation of relative shortage, with balanced supply and demand, and when rubber consumption exploded after the turn of the century, production soared to dizzying heights too: 100,000 tonnes were in sight in 1910, while the one million mark was reached for the first time in 1934.


The boom led to rising prices too: in 1910, 28 Reichsmarks had to be paid for a kilo of rubber, more than double the price twenty years before (see Table 2). The rubber produced in 1909 generated revenues of 1.9 billion marks on the world market, more than ever before.


Table 2: World market price per kilo of rubber (in Reichsmarks)

1890 | 13
1899 | 16
1906 | 20.75
1907 | 12
1909 | 26.50
1910 | 28
1912 | 20.50
1914 | 9.75
1915 | 9.36
1916 | 5
1917 | 5
1918 | 1.50
1920 | 1.80
1922 | 2.50
1923 | 4
1924 | 5
1925 | 6.50
1926 | 4.50
1928 | 1.38
1930 | 1.10
1932 | 0.32
1933 | 0.35
1934 | 0.59
1936 | 0.82
1937 | 0.95
1938 | 1.02
1939 | 1.21
(Source: Fischer 1938, Jünger 1942)


Geographical map / Jünger 1942: Main growing areas for plantation rubber in Asia

But who benefitted from the rubber boom and who made most money? Who managed to satisfy global demand for rubber by exporting most? The answer is clear: only countries in the equatorial zones of South America and Central Africa. Because this is where the climate and vegetation in the areas close to the huge Amazon and Congo Rivers created what was to all intents and purposes a natural rubber monopoly, because the tropical rainforests were the exclusive home to the trees that produced the resin containing rubber (latex) and only here were there the ideal conditions for these trees to grow. In the Congo, which was exploited economically by Belgium and was originally – on paper – a free state and later a colony, lianas from the Landolphia species, the Ficus elastica rubber tree, Kickxia elastica and Euphorbiaceae were tapped (Jünger 1942, 95). The Hevea brasiliensis in the forests of the Amazon provided higher-quality rubber (see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”).


The tree grew across five million square kilometres of South American territory, from the jungles south of the Amazon to the western slopes of the Andes. Three quarters of this area are in Brazil, while Bolivia, Peru and Colombia share the remaining quarter (cf. Jünger 1942, 71). This meant that Brazil took on the role of the main producer in South America, with Congo being its counterpart in Africa (see Table 3). Brazil soon developed into the world market leader; between 1900 and 1907, the country accounted for 80 to 90 per cent of global rubber production every year. In 1822, Brazil only shipped 31 tonnes of raw rubber across the Atlantic (Fischer 1938, 62); in 1910, the volume exceeded 50,000 tonnes. Congo as a country did not represent serious competition of any kind and was accepted as a minor rival, reaching a maximum of 6,500 tonnes per year – a volume that was, however, large enough to make it the biggest producer of rubber in Africa (cf. Fischer 1938, 107).


Table 3: The main sources of wild rubber (in tonnes)

South America in total Brazil Africa in total Belgian Congo
1880 | 9,800 | 8,500 | 1,200 | 450
1890 | 25,100 | 16,000 | 3,800 | 850
1895 | 26,500 | 21,200 | 4,000 | 1,600
1900 | 36,200 | 28,500 | 15,500 | 5,800
1902 | 41,100 | 30,100 | 12,300 | 6,200
1904 | 46,000 | 33,200 | 18,500 | 6,500
1906 | 46,200 | 38,500 | 19,500 | 6,000
1908 | 52,000 | 39,300 | 15,600 | 5,200
1910 | 62,500 | 53,200 | 19,800 | 4,800
1912 | 52,500 | 42,100 | 17,500 | 4,200
1914 | 42,800 | 33,500 | 6,200 | 2,500
1916 | 44,200 | 31,900 | 9,800 | 3,000
1918 | 33,700 | 21,600 | 7,200 | 1,800
1920 | 32,500 | 18,500 | 6,500 | 1,000
1922 | 22,200 | 16,200 | 2,800 | 800
(Source: Jünger 1942, 198)


The “rubber boom” (Jünger 1942, 93) on the Amazon soon turned remote jungle backwaters like Iquitos or Manaus into prosperous towns (see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”) with “rubber barons” who lived in luxury. The latter had “acquired wide-ranging licences from the state with the backing of European trading companies or for their own account. It was not unusual for such exploitation rights to be considered as objects for speculation, so that they were sold on. At the height of the boom, intermediaries operated in this system too.” (Jünger 1942, 75). The Peruvian Amazon Company, which will be covered in detail elsewhere in the course of this series, called the shots in the region around the Putumayo, a tributary of the Amazon.


Brazil takes its cut

The more cars were built, the more dependent manufacturers in the USA and Europe became on rubber imports from Brazil: “For all practical purposes, Brazil has a monopoly on rubber [...] and the world is having to pay for this monopoly.” (Jünger 1942, 57) The British complained about arbitrary export duties, via which the central Brazilian government and the provinces took their cut: “In 1875, the imperial government levied an ad valorem duty of 9%; the Amazon province added a surcharge of 12%, while the province of Par(á) made an additional charge of 13%.” (Jünger 1957, 57, footnote 1) This made rubber, for which increasingly high prices had to be paid anyway because supply was able to keep pace with the rapidly growing demand less and less effectively, even more expensive. There was no-one else to blame for the problems, however.


● “Brazilian rubber production was characterised by ruthless overexploitation of the trees harvested. It was very often the case that the lengthy tapping method was rejected. Cutting down the precious trees accelerated the flow of latex; it was the only way to obtain all the sap in the shortest possible time. [...] As early as the turn of the century, the easily accessible areas of the forests had already been exhausted to such an extent that regular harvesting was not feasible any longer. When prices increased even more, which was a natural consequence of this wasteful system, more drastic measures were taken. Expeditions of aggressive seringueiros secretly penetrated the productive areas of Bolivia and started to cover their requirements in the rubber-rich Acre region.” (Jünger 1942, 77 – 78; cf. Fischer 1938, 100 and 113; editor’s note: see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”)
● “There was always a noticeable lack of suitable workers in the Brazilian and Peruvian tapping regions. [...] Malaria and the yellow fever epidemics that depopulated entire areas killed more people than the small indigenous population was able to replace. For these reasons, regular attempts were made to use the native tribes that lived in the huge river basin to collect the valuable latex. Exploitation of these tribes was one of the biggest business opportunities available to the adventurers operating in the South American rubber territories. Even the slightest of rumours about the existence of an unknown Indian tribe was enough to send expensive expeditions off to try and find it.” (Jünger 1942, 92; cf. Zischka 1936, 148, and Olden 1977, 140) In spite of this, the most brutal of measures were taken to force the native population of both the Amazon and the Congo to work without pay. Corporal punishment involving whipping and various torture methods was standard procedure that was adopted in order to increase the rubber crop. The supervisors even resorted to mutilation and murder (more details about this will be provided in the next part of this series) – and thus counterproductively decimated the pool of workers available, which was too small to begin with.


The ongoing shortage of rubber, which was attributable to the strong demand as well as to the overexploitation of human and natural resources, guaranteed a high price, which enabled the suppliers to earn a great deal of money but was soon to spoil the business. Their customers, who felt that they were being fleeced and caught in a system of ever-increasing prices, searched for alternatives and did everything in their power to destroy the Brazilian rubber monopoly.


Attack on the monopoly

The British were so foresighted that they already made appropriate plans at a time when rubber was still of minor importance to the economy – when only raincoats, rubber shoes or insulation material were made from it (Fischer 1938, 75) and when “red rubber” was still an unfamiliar concept. In contrast to the USA, Great Britain had colonies in tropical regions like India, Ceylon and British Malaya, where the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, theoretically ought to flourish – even if it was not native to these areas. The same was true of Dutch East India (Java, Sumatra, half of Borneo), which is Indonesia today (see map). In January 1876, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 – 1911), director of the royal botanical gardens in London (“Kew Gardens”), therefore presented the idea to Benjamin Disraeli (1804 – 1881), the British Prime Minister at the time, of transplanting the “Hevea brasiliensis to the similar climate of our Asian colonies” (Jünger 1942, 58) and of cultivating it on plantations there. The British chemist Thomas Hancock (1786 – 1865) had already proposed such a project in 1855, but it had fallen on deaf ears – “the stands of rubber trees that were growing in the wild were said to be perfectly sufficient to cover world requirements for a long time” (Künne 1961, 172). Clements Markham (1830 – 1916), head of the geographical department at the “British India Office” received the same response in 1870.


Even though many successful attempts had been made to supplement existing endemic wild plants by growing them on huge plantations: “Coffee, which initially only grew in Abyssinia, has found a new home in practically all tropical countries. Cinnamon was obtained solely from trees that grew in the wild until the Dutchman De Koke tried to grow the plant in Ceylon in 1770 and produced such impressive results that the plantations expanded so quickly within a short time that the island is now in a position to supply the market with 400,000 pounds of cinnamon. Similar results have been achieved in transplanting clove trees and nutmeg trees, but the most instructive example comparable to rubber is perhaps the Chinchona tree” (Jünger 1942, 60): after plantations were grown on Java, in India and on Ceylon (Sri Lanka), “dependence on South America was so completely a thing of the past here that it was possible for this source of supply to be eliminated without having any impact on the trade” (ibid.).


There was a problem with rubber, however: “The Brazilian government had taken protective measures to maintain its monopoly. Long terms of imprisonment were imposed if young plants and seeds were exported and all the ships in the rubber ports were checked closely to make sure that the regulations were observed.” (Jünger 1942, 58) The only alternative was to submit an application for an official export permit and to hope that Rio made an exception and granted one. The Brazilian government “rejected” such an application “out of hand” (Fischer 1938, 75) and suspected that diversionary tactics were being adopted: it was thought that the British were secretly hiding activities that had been in preparation for a long time, involving the shipment of stolen Hevea seeds to England. Brazilian customs officers were therefore instructed “to inspect British ships particularly closely” (Fischer 1938, 75).


Across the Atlantic on the “Amazon”

And the British certainly were unscrupulous about obtaining the Hevea brasiliensis via “biopiracy” (Hoppenhaus 2013, 37). The botanist and big-game hunter John Farris had already succeeded in smuggling more than 5,000 Hevea seeds from the Amazon to England in 1873. Only a dozen sprouted in the Kew Gardens greenhouses, however, and all of the young plants died at sea when they were being shipped to India (Künne 1961, 173; see also Zischka 1936, 153, Fischer 1938, 68 – 74, Kropf 1949, 22, and Klemm 1960, 34 – 35). Now, three years later, Hooker suggested to Disraeli that he commission the British explorer Henry Wickham (1846 – 1928), who lived on a tributary of the Amazon (the Rio Tapajós) “to ship an unlimited number of seed capsules of the Hevea brasiliensis to England” (Jünger 1942, 64; see also ibid., 62). Hooker justified his suggestion with the argument that action needed to be taken before “the devastation in the forests of South America finally leads to eradication of the [...] Hevea brasiliensis” (Künne 1961, 172 – 173) and it was no longer possible to cover the rapidly increasing demand on the world market from Brazil. Disraeli agreed, but stipulated that Wickham’s mission was to be unofficial, so that the British government could claim to be innocent if the mission was discovered (Jünger 1942, 62). In May 1876, Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds, which he had collected with the help of Indios, across the Atlantic on board an English ship that was given the name “Amazon”. Following successful attempts to grow small trees at Key Gardens, about 2,000 of them survived the sea voyage to Southern Asia this time. 1,900 were planted in the Heneratgoda botanical gardens in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), 18 were taken to Buitenzorg in Java (see “The Grand ABC of Rubber”) and 50 were brought to Singapore (see; cf. Künne 1961, 234).


The significance of Wickham’s coup was not yet apparent in 1876. Only when the rubber boom developed after the turn of the century did it start to become clear exactly what the British had achieved: Fischer 1938, 79 says that “it was not just seventy thousand Hevea seeds that the ‘Amazon’ took with it; the ‘Amazon’ also brought [...] countless billions of marks to England”. It was to take until 1907 before a sizable amount of plantation rubber (6,000 tonnes) was to reach the world market for the first time (Zischka 1936, 155 – 156, and Butze 1954, 180). Although the market share attributable to plantation rubber stagnated at only between one and two per cent of the market initially (see Table 4), “this was, however, enough to cause complete dismay in the ‘wild rubber’ community” (Butze 1954, 180). This was because the “weapons that wild rubber and plantation rubber had available to duel with in 1907 were very badly matched” (Fischer 1938, 113); in other words, there were good reasons to fear the new competitor:


● On average, only eight rubber trees grow in one hectare of practically impassable tropical rainforest (Jünger 1942, 78). It goes without saying that plantations with trees planted close together made it possible to obtain a considerably larger yield in a substantially smaller area.
● “The costs of feeding a worker in the upper Amazon per day must be estimated to amount to six marks alone. A coolie in Ceylon, on the other hand, is a rich man when he earns wages of one mark a day.” (Fischer 1938, 113)
● “Anyone who [...] had thought that higher prices would be paid for Brazilian rubber than for plantation rubber found that he was disappointed in this case too. It was often even the case that higher prices were reached with the purer, Asian ‘best crepe’ than with the (Brazilian, editor’s note) ‘Par(á) fine hard’.” (Jünger 1942, 116; cf. Zischka 1936, 156)


Although the development of plantation rubber shocked the suppliers of wild rubber, it would be too simplistic to make this alone responsible for the “rubber crash” (Zischka 1936, 156; “rubber slump”) that occurred shortly afterwards: “In 1907, the rubber price halved. [...] The businessmen on the Amazon ran into trouble; dividend payments were discontinued and many companies collapsed.” (Fischer 1938, 114; cf. Zischka 1936, 156) The economic slump in the USA had greater impact than the new competition from Asia: “There was one bankruptcy after another, factories were closing down everywhere. Including 70 rubber factories that were now suddenly unable not only to pay their wonderful advances on wages but also to take delivery of the last consignments of rubber they had ordered.” (Fischer 1938, 112 – 113) The situation was aggravated by the fact that wild rubber was boycotted to an increasing extent after it fell into disrepute as “red rubber” (Fischer 1938, 120).


Economic experts urged everyone to keep calm, however – they calculated “that the Far East could at the very most supply a volume of 5,000 tonnes of plantation rubber to the world market in 1915” (Fischer 1938, 113). And the outlook really did appear to be good:


“In the summer of 1908, the rubber market recovered from its initial shock and the rubber operators redoubled their efforts to make up for the losses suffered in 1907. Brazil in particular took effective action and increased its production from 36,000 tonnes to 39,000 tonnes in 1908 and again to 42,000 tonnes in 1909. – All the rubber plantations around the world taken together supplied less than one tenth of this at the time. It looked as though the old status quo had been re-established [...]. Then the battle was over, however. The fate of “red rubber” was sealed in the apparent boom years of 1907 to 1910. Whereas it had been calculated as late as 1907 that the East Asian plantations would take eight years to increase their production [...] to 5,000 tonnes, 8,200 tonnes of plantation rubber came onto the market as early as 1910, with increases to just under 15,000 tonnes one year later and to as much as almost 30,000 tonnes in 1912. These volumes were not yet large enough to replace wild rubber, but they dictated the prices” (Fischer 1938, 115).


While the world was still experiencing “its biggest rubber boom” (Fischer 1938, 156), from which Brazil and the Congo benefitted too, in 1909, this situation soon changed again (Jünger 1942, 109): more and more plantation rubber flooded the market – and depressed the price. “The world now had an insatiable hunger for rubber, however, demand was much higher than supply. Prices recovered again and increased rapidly” (Butze 1954, 180 – 181). Since “rubber prices fluctuated by 300 to 400 per cent [...] within a few months” (Fischer 1938, 137), Brazil felt that “one of the main sources of its wealth was in danger” (Fischer 1938, 115) and took countermeasures: exports were restricted to reduce supply and to stabilise prices (cf. Fischer 1938, 115 – 116). Efforts were at the same time made to obtain considerably more wild rubber from the forests on the Amazon and to operate more efficiently:


“Suppliers were by no means willing to give in without a fight. Experts who were particularly good at figures calculated that Brazil was home to roughly 300 million rubber trees. If it proved possible to tap only half these trees within a few years, this would correspond to a rubber volume of about 500,000 tonnes. This would be sufficient to cover the world’s entire consumption. It unfortunately became clear within a short time that this bold calculation was not completely accurate. The majority of the 300 million rubber trees that grew in Brazilian forests were in areas that were so difficult to access that they might as well be eliminated from the statistics completely. In addition to this, a wasteful trading system like the one that was standard in Brazil was never in a position to compete seriously with the efficient plantation operations.” (Jünger 1942, 113 – 114) “In the final analysis, this system was reflected in a comparison of the production costs, which amounted to 600 marks for 100 kilograms in Brazil in 1913, whereas they were between 250 and 300 marks in the Asian tapping regions. All the action taken by the Brazilian government came to nothing due to the fast growth in plantation production volumes. [...] The enormous quantities of rubber with which the plantations flooded the market covered all of global consumption. While the drop in prices that kept pace with the increase in production also meant that it was hardly worthwhile tapping wild trees any more.” (Jünger 1942, 115 – 116)


Plantation rubber overtook the Brazilian market for the first time in 1913 and already accounted for 59 per cent of global rubber production in 1914. (Jünger 1942, 111) In 1915, the plantations in South and South-East Asia already supplied three times as much rubber as the whole of Brazil; wild rubber was “condemned to insignificance” (Fischer 1938, 113). The proportion of world rubber accounted for by Brazil dropped from over 80 per cent to 60 per cent (1909), then to 50 per cent (1910) and, finally, to a meagre 1.6 per cent (1939) (see Zischka 1936, 156, Jünger 1942, 202 – 203, and Butze 1954, 180). Zischka 1936, 181, adds by way of consolation: “The world did not stop turning, however, and when Brazil lost its rubber monopoly, it did not collapse as a result. [...] The rubber that was lost was replaced by coffee.” Developments in the Congo were similar: “The proportion of world production accounted for by the state of Congo decreased from 11% in 1900 to 2% in 1914. After that, the rubber of average and inferior quality that it supplied became totally insignificant. It can probably be said that this change had a positive impact on the country, because it diverted attention to the exploitation of other sources of wealth, which involved less cruel treatment of the natives. Rubber, which used to be the most valuable product traded and which threatened to depopulate the villages and communities on the Congo completely, has been replaced today by palm oil, copal, coloured wood, ivory, cocoa and mining products.” (Jünger 1942, 109)


Turning point in the global economy

A turning point had been reached in the global economy: wild rubber had been deposed irrevocably by plantation rubber (Zischka 1936, 155; see Table 4). Great Britain had succeeded in undermining Brazil’s rubber monopoly – and was now starting to become world market leader itself: “The English produced seventy-one thousand tonnes of rubber as early as 1914, increasing this to three hundred and seventeen thousand in 1920 and eight hundred and fifty thousand in 1929” (Butze 1954, 180). “Four fifths of total world production were unreservedly English.” (Butze 1954, 181; see also Zischka 1936, 157, and Fischer 1938, 127 and 139) The word “English” needs to be corrected here, however: what was actually meant was “Asian”, because the British had to divide the cake up with the Dutch, who – as has already been indicated – had large-scale rubber plantation operations in their East Indian colonies too. Incidentally: more than ninety per cent of all rubber comes from Asia nowadays (Hoppenhaus 2013, 37).


Table 4: evelopment in the proportion of global raw rubber production accounted for by wild rubber and plantation rubber between 1900 and 1922 (figures in per cent)

Year Wild rubber Plantation rubber
1900 | 100.0 | 0.0
1904 | 99.9 | 0.1
1906 | 99.2 | 0.8
1907 | 98.6 | 1.4
1908 | 97.4 | 2.6
1910 | 90.9 | 9.1
1912 | 71.1 | 28.9
1914 | 40.7 | 59.3
1916 | 25.8 | 74.2
1918 | 13.7 | 86.3
1920 | 11.3 | 88.7
1922 | 6.6 | 93.4
(Source: Jünger 1942, 68 u. 198)


The end of the wild rubber era involved more than just an economic upheaval: the “red rubber” monopoly had been broken and an end to the torment and murdering on the Amazon and Congo was in sight. “A major step forwards” (Zischka 1936, 156) had as a result been taken for the indigenous population and for all philanthropists around the world who had been informed about the atrocities by dedicated journalists and politicians. Appropriate tribute was paid to Wickham’s action – although neither Wickham himself, who had in the meantime joined the ranks of the nobility, nor the British government could have intended in 1876 to bring “red rubber” to an end, because knives were at this time being used solely to tap trees and not to harm people.


There is no doubt about it: “It was [...] the prudent and level-headed [...] business community that put an end to the exploitation of people and nature by creating plantation rubber.” (Fischer 1938, 17 – 18) Capitalism critics from both the left- and right-hand sides of the political spectrum relativised the situation, however: “Plantation operations did not end the dictatorship of the rubber barons and the rubber countries too yet, however, and although the struggle for ‘red rubber’ had now ceased and no-one needed to risk his health or life any more, the rubber barons and the tropics maintained their position of monopolistic control – with the difference that the whip was replaced by the share price list.” (Fischer 1938, 18) In the same source, there is talk of “the whip of liberalistic capitalism, that is pretty much just as dangerous”. The “major step forwards” was felt to be “only half a step” in practice (Zischka 1936, 156): “A different monopoly replaced the original one! The battle for this huge business [...] continued!” (Kropf 1949, 23) Great Britain took over smoothly from the “rubber dictatorship” (Fischer 1938, 79) exercised by Brazil and abused “its special status to carry out ruthless profiteering” (Zischka 1936, 157). But how justified were the accusations? Did the British government really adopt a policy that exploited the rest of the world economically? And what problems did the rubber market pose the “monopolists” themselves, i.e. Great Britain and the Netherlands?

(Continued in the next “Topic of the Month“)


References used

Nutze, Herbert (1954): Im Zwielicht der tropischen Wälder. Landschaft, Mensch und Wirtschaft. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 446 pages
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