- The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber by John Tully
Like oil and steel, rubber has been crucial to the rise of the modern world economy. Yet relatively few scholars have asked how businesses extracted and manufactured rubber, or considered how they exploited workers in the process of doing so. In this engaging and well-researched book, John Tully of Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, explores these and related questions. Tully takes readers into swamps and jungles as well as modern factories and even Nazi extermination camps to flesh out a story of human greed and ruthlessness. His book helps readers understand what Karl Marx meant when he said that commodities enter the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
This book begins with a discussion of the nature and uses of rubber. Natural rubber comes from a milky fluid that protects plant life against herbivorous insects. The fluid can be extracted by “tapping” rubber-bearing trees and then processed into semisolid material, which rubber mills can then transform into marketable products. Natural rubber has extraordinary physical and chemical qualities. It is remarkably elastic and waterproof, for example, and highly resistant to corrosion. It can also be blended with a variety of other commodities, including textiles. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the world’s rubber supply came primarily from trees native to South America, Southeast Asia, and Central Africa. By the mid twentieth century, however, scientists had learned to make useful synthetic rubber by converting coal, limestone, and petroleum into chemical compounds. Roughly two-thirds of the rubber used in manufacturing is now synthetic.
Few commodities have as many uses as rubber. Some products made with the substance have altered the course of history, such as pneumatic tires, underwater telegraph cables, and condoms. As Tully points out, modern transportation and communication systems have long relied on rubber, as have modern households and workplaces. Rubber has been indispensable to military operations. During World War II, it was used to make helmets, gas masks, inflatable boats and pontoons, aircraft wings, fuel tanks, boots, pup tents, mosquito nets, submarine parts, battleship decks, and even military pistols and rifles. Indeed, as the president of Goodyear Tire and Rubber said in 1939, rubber makes up the “flexing muscles and sinews” of modern society.
One of the early chapters of this book traces the history of rubber production in the Amazon basin, an immense low-lying area once [End Page 998] filled with wild rubber trees. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the area yielded more than half the world’s natural rubber. “Rubber barons” from Brazil, Venezuela, and Peru controlled the region’s rubber trade, and employed thousands of poor peasants to work on their plantations at pitifully low wages under wretched conditions. Malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases killed many of these workers, and poisonous snakes, wild animals, and flesh-eating piranhas accounted for the deaths of many others. As the demand for rubber soared, rubber barons dragooned more and more peasants into the workforce. No laws or regulatory agencies kept them from mistreating workers. On some plantations, supervisors not only tortured or killed male laborers but also raped women and forced them into prostitution.
The plight of rubber workers in Africa was equally disturbing, especially in areas of the Belgian Congo controlled by King Leopold, who leased out huge tracts of his country’s colony to private companies bent on collecting rubber. Company leaders and their minions, many of who were Africans, forced thousands of men and women into rubber-bearing districts where they worked for little or no pay. Overseers received bonuses according to the amount of latex workers collected, which brought out the worst in them. Whippings and more barbarous forms of punishment were commonplace. Resistance to such abuse was largely futile, though workers occasionally escaped from labor camps. The rise of the wild rubber trade had a catastrophic effect on the Congolese and their environment. In the mad search for...