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In the Rubber Kingdom

Andrew Lees

Only the engine drone and occasional ball lightning remind me that I am flying north away from the capital of capitals on a cloud of carrageen moss. Three hours later, amidst falling sunbeams and pencil-thin clouds, the inverted flickering incandescence of Manaus towers above me like a reflected glory. The heavy metal doors of TAM 3608 finally open and on the other side of the glass partition I see fly-by-night businessmen in dark suits and families of compulsive shoppers loaded with Samsung plasma televisions hurrying to leave. In the air-conditioned terminal building, narrow-eyed men offer me rides into town and there are a few locals dragging rice bag luggage across the sterile arrivals floor. A cluster of longhaired Indian women in tight jeans is hanging around under the watchful eyes of soldiers. Apart from the profusion of tourmalines and Latter Day Saints, Edson Gomes seems like any other modern Brazilian airport.

Outside, the fury of a brutal sun has created a wall of suffocating heat, and the runway where I had just jolted to a halt now looks like a mirage that has stolen a sheet of sunlight from the sky. A stagnant ornamental lake with a palm stranded on a grass island is my first sight of Manaus. The message seems clear: the successors of Eduardo Ribeiro, governor of Amazonas during the rubber boom, are hell-bent on turning the unbroken forest into a circumfusion of suburbs.

To the north is the paved neverending empty Highway BR-174 that cuts through Indian lands to faraway Boa Vista. It was designed specifically to split the frivolous greenery, clear away the pied tamarinds and provide a portal for the great march forward. This road to the last frontier can wait for later. Instead I travel south on bus 306 down the amorphous Avenida Torquato Tapajós through a wasteland of glass and asphalt. Some distance to the east is the brown forest complex of Cidade Nova, surrounded by the Mount of Olives, New Israel and the City of God, symbols of the city’s status as a free trade zone; its twenty-four wards contain almost as many people as now live in shrunken Liverpool. Blocks of flats have sprouted up amongst the original one-size-fits-all condominiums. The streets are paved, all the houses have electricity and water is pumped in from artesian wells. This new El Dorado is all about information technology and satellites. Despite the complex’s extravagant propaganda there are few trees and no birdsong.

I could be in any big Brazilian city now as I hurtle past a Shell garage, rows of roller-shuttered shops, factory parking lots filled with trucks, overhead bridges, corrugated iron shacks, shabby towering high-rise buildings, sallow walls covered in graffiti, bracketed street lights, telephone wires and a Coca Cola bottling plant. I am in a lift accelerating through timeless space. As the bus cuts off another corner a concrete war zone of crumbling ten-storey buildings comes into view. The stench of diesel oil fills my nostrils and overhead a wake of urubus hang in the sky like sombre paper kites surveying a festering sore. Manaus is a conflagration of billowing smokestacks and charred clearings created by Man’s insatiable appetite for self-combustion.

On the brink of despair I remember Richard Spruce, the Yorkshire bryologist’s, description of the falls at Alta de Tarumã now engulfed by the western straggle of the city:

We ascended the winding igarapé for nearly an hour. It was much obstructed by the gapö vegetation and at last became so grown over that we had to leave our boat and make our way through the forest. A little more than an hour brought us to the fall, which we approached from above, but we scrambled down the rocks to the bottom, where we could obtain a perfect view of the fall. I have seen few finer things in South America and it reminded me a little of the Irish ‘Turk cascade’. This branch of the Taruma traverses a narrow valley, contracted to a ravine below the fall, which rushes over a concave cliff in an unbroken cascade of from 30 to 40 feet high.

Spruce walked under the cataract and collected four new species of moss dotted among a mat of ferns. He also noted a tall pequi tree whose trunk was roughened by colonies of termites and on which philodendrons had established themselves. Spruce’s desire to conserve living things and interact with the forest never left him and although he felt that the Amazon deserved to be better known he had no desire to see it turned into a terrestrial paradise. He was the purest of all the Victorian flower hunters.

In 1908, the year his book Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes was eventually published thanks to his friend Alfred Russel Wallace, 1,675 vessels docked in Manaus harbour. The Booth steamships were stashed with a cornucopia of extravagances including Huntley and Palmer’s biscuits, tinned Danish butter, White Label whisky, Maples cedarwood tables and Victor gramophones. Their holds were swollen with sacks of rice shipped to Liverpool from Burma and used on the Amazon as slum fodder. On August 12th, SS Antony arrived back in the Mersey with a one million pound cargo of vulcanised black gold.

Barra, the insignificant trading station on the margins of the Rio Negro, had become the undisputed latex capital of the world, an ultra-modern place with wide boulevards, efficient sanitation, electric lighting, a telephone system and a fleet of clanging bottle-green trams. On the site of the old fort of São José stood the gleaming Alfândega with its facade of Lombard arches and Corinthian pilasters shipped in pieces from England and modelled on the customs house of New Delhi. A cast iron municipal market designed by British architects had replaced the modest two-storey dwelling where Spruce had stayed. Vale que tem (you are worth what you have got) displayed on hoardings near the harbour reflected the zeitgeist of an incongruous boom town incapable of existing without foreign imports of the most basic type.

Lisbon merchants, German financiers, Neapolitan shopkeepers, Scottish engineers, Levantine river agents and Galician bar owners flooded in on the steamers. The “Paris of the Tropics” was bursting with bars, houses of diversion and cabarets that catered for every taste and pocket. The Chalet Garden, the Phoenix and the Café dos Terriveis each had its own distinctive clientele of topers, belles, dandies, filles de joie and cardsharps. At the Casino Chinelo, Wanda the doe-eyed Polish Jewess and Sarah Lubousk, the coveted cocotte from Trieste, bathed naked in tubs of champagne. In some parts of town every other house was a bordello and on the river a floating palace offered libertines a harem of “piranhas” from Morocco, Russia and Hungary; gramophone music was included in the boarding price. As new arrivals poured down the gangways of the steamships they were recommended to quarantine their souls on the nearby islands of Marapatá and Marchanteria.

The undisputed capo di tutti capi of Manaus was a lucky ex- grocer from Stuttgart called Waldemar Scholz, who now presided over the Commercial Association and doubled as consul-general to Austria. When his former employer, the amateur botanist Nicolaus Witt, was forced to return to Germany, Scholz jumped at the chance to take over the managerial role of the Manaus branch of the rubber exporting house La-Rocque da Costa & Co and built it into a highly profitable business. Attired in a boater and a stylish white Irish linen suit with a pince-nez demurely perched on his nose, he sat crunching numbers in his office on the Rua dos Remédios. Most of his associates were mustachioed fidalgos and grande senhors who had assumed lawless control of vast tracts of forest around the rubber tributaries. Manaus had become a tumultuous mecca, rabid and vulgar but full of excitement and intrigue, a contradictory consumer culture superposed on outdated Portuguese traditions. The dolphin-pink Opera House with its gleaming cupola was its cathedral. Inside demoiselles sat on cane chairs demurely flaunting their diamond necklaces while the rubber barons expiated their sins under the gaze of cherubs.

Scholz resided in a twenty-six roomed palace of dreams on the Avenida Sete de Setembro with his English ex-showgirl wife. A staff of liveried butlers and maids attended to their every need. A fleet of Bugattis was parked in the drive and his motor boat and yacht had pride of place on the mole. A pet lion brought from Europe was chained up in the garden and his laundry was sent to Paris. Scholz was fond of reminding his distinguished guests of Alexander Humboldt’s prediction that one day the greatest civilisation in the world would be found in the Amazon valley. After dinner at his masked Babylonian balls the Coronéis do Barranco would stagger to the orangery to be serenaded by the sultry Aria Ramos before retiring to their bedrooms for a night of expensive but unforgettable pleasure.

Some of the Indian tribes fled in terror at the start of the rubber boom, others entered into the trade willingly, while a fair number were bludgeoned into working as slaves. Backwoodsmen from the parched hinterland of the northeastern state of Ceará arrived in the Amazon valley to fill the labour gap. Most went unnoticed, sailing in perpetual twilight up uncharted igarapés in search of tree gum. Spruce had met several rubber tappers and described their exhausting routine in his notebooks. Working in pairs they would set off before dawn from their makeshift huts on an elliptical eight-kilometre via dolorosa to carve chevrons with their knives and fix gourds to a hundred gum trees. They then retraced their path, collecting the latex that had oozed into the cups in buckets, and then lugged their eight litre haul back to camp. Back at the seringal they rotated a wooden paddle coated with foul-smelling glutinous sap over an asphyxiating fire of ucururi nuts until the latex coagulated in yellow-brown layers. The 30-kilogram bola was then left to blacken in the sun. Their lump of black gold was often exchanged for basic provisions of cassava flour, rice and beans supplied by Levantine regatões who travelled the streams in small boats. The following day they would be up early again following their alternate path through the forest. Many suffered impoverished deaths from beriberi, Chagas disease, snakebite, dengue and malaria.

On rest days they laid down their guns and danced the Forró das Quatro Bolas in virile pairs. On Easter Saturday they cast adrift an effigy of Judas Iscariot in their own likeness, which they then shot at from the riverbank. The Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha referred to these desperate men as the homunculus of civilisation. Unwittingly they would assist the new republic to consolidate its borders and allow the Spanish journalist Luis Gálvez and his troupe of bohemian poets to sail up the Rio Purus and found the democratic Utopia of Acre.

Even when the rubber boom was at its peak a fugitive feeling hung over Manaus. Henry Wickham’s rubber seeds transported to Kew from Santarém in 1876 had flourished in South Asia, and the plantations of Ceylon and Malaya overseen by Britain’s ruling class had started to force international rubber prices down. Many of the parvenus now longed only for their sojourns in Paris. Every polka at the Idéal was now danced as if it was the last. Rather than trying to cut costs the oligarchs preferred to sit puffing cheroots in their clubs blaming Yankee speculation and the perfidy of the English for the plummeting rubber prices. The parting Booth ships were now filled with desperate women prepared to barter for the last cabin with their coveted tiaras.

Prosperity had given way to blind panic and peremptory farewells now appeared regularly in the columns of the Diário do Amazonas. One by one the sultan’s glimmering minarets and palaces were sold on to a new type of fortune-seeker. Waldemar Scholz had now squandered much of his fortune in the Casino, and when the war against Germany broke out was forced to flee upriver to The Land of Ghosts, a forsaken stretch of territory around the Iça river, controlled by his former adversary, the urbane and puritanical Peruvian Julio César Arana. The riverboat maharajah João Antunes auctioned his jaguar-skin carpet and his collection of crystal and ended his life selling lottery tickets near the harbour. Eduardo Ribeiro was found with a noose round his neck at his farmstead. The poets from the Gil Vicente Club that had provided Manaus with an ephemeral golden era were forced underground and the rubber tappers, although freed from their crippling debts, had little alternative but to continue to live the latex dream and head west to the Acre.

The United States of America and Great Britain, whose hunger for pneumatic clincher tyres had indirectly created the rain forest monotown, now turned against it. In 1912 Omarino and Ricudo, two Huitoto Indians, whose freedom had been secured by the Irish patriot and poet Roger Casement travelled to London from the Putumayo to give evidence against Arana’s British-backed rubber company. Omarino told the Daily News: “We are sent far, far into the forest to get rubber and if we do not get it quickly enough we are shot.” Overseers who had been brought from the British colony of Barbados controlled them with an iron fist. Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett had already denounced these “scum” in British newspaper articles, where he wrote that the atrocities of armed posses hired by the rubber barons had imbued the Indians “with a deadly vengeance against the stranger”. Lord Rothschild, the butterfly collector, and Arthur Conan Doyle became contributors to a mission fund designed to protect more Indians from being burned alive, beheaded and crucified upside down. In 1911 Casement was knighted for his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Indians of the Peruvian Amazon before being hanged in London five years later for treason. America and Europe’s love affair with rubber had wrought terrible changes on the indigenous people of the Amazon.

La folie du latex was over. Manaus had run out of oxygen and now wept like a wounded rubber tree. It was a backwater with a dubious past surrounded by a firewall of dissolving dark matter. In the pervading dampness the forest gnawed at its fringes, and fears grew that it would turn into a new El Dorado. There were no roads out and the waterfront rapidly fell into disrepair. Its inglorious confrontation with the consumer world of reduced carbon was recorded for posterity in documentary films like No País das Amazonas and its clean, empty streets were weighed down with sadness. Manaus was a romantic ghost town devoid of destiny, whose fate was irretrievably sealed.

The diners in the Largo da Saudade are filled with hungry people sheltering from a sobbing deluge. It feels now as if I am walking under a boiling waterfall. I stop for a chocolate and bubble gum cupuaçu juice and watch two sweet-sapped teenage girls walk by wearing coloured wristbands that signify “love biter” and “French kisser”. A slashed rubber tree marks the site of forgotten corpses in the buried cemetery. As I approach the House of Hammocks I can hear the vulgar laughter of the demi-monde, the splintering of glass and the discordant strains of the last honky-tonk piano. Streams of trucks carrying cassava flour and beer pass the old Customs House heading for warehouses tucked away on the outskirts of the city.

In this, the forgotten heartland of the latex boom, close to the river in the Praça dos Bondés within the park of Senador Jefferson Péres I stumble upon a gingerbread complex with queer pointed towers and rusty metal balconies. This is all that remains of the illustrious shipping company operated by the social reformer Charles Booth and which is still remembered by elderly Manauenses with affection for its delicious ice cream and white Swiss chocolate. I pulled out the crumpled brochure I had taken from the India buildings in Liverpool fifty years earlier:

Manaus is a clean town and one is not afraid to eat its food or drink its water. No one could remain long on the ship, or be lonely in hospitable Manaus. It is easy to write lightly of this hearty welcome of Manaus, but when one grips the hands of Englishmen in this isolated town, a thousand miles from civilization ‑ and yet, like an oasis in the desert, possessed of all modern conveniences such as electric light, trams, theatres, cafes and daily newspapers ‑ there is a feeling of pride because English, Scots and Irishmen have had no small share in the achievement.

As I edge my way towards the strandline it feels as if I have been walking all night. I keep bumping into pumped up exponents of jiu jitsu who think they control this feminine city. Garish lights reminiscent of downtown Seoul flash out the names of American hamburgers and running shoes. Overweight wheeler-dealers sell designer clothes, electronic pianos, German tennis rackets, motorbikes and Italian espresso machines in air-conditioned shops. I feel compelled to wander these trails where flowers cannot grow looking for primary colours in the overrun squares. To the northwest, Tarumã, where Spruce had travelled in his canoe, is riddled with gated communities, walled-off sugar cane fazendas, dilapidated bathhouses. The waterfall has been reduced to a muddy trickle contaminated with trash.

In the magic hour I look down on Alfred and Charles Booth’s ingenious monument to shipping. In the floating city stevedores drenched in sweat are lugging heavy sacks on and off the riverboats, hawkers sell jack fruits, peach palms and pacova bananas while buxom over-age girls in tight shorts sway provocatively to brega music. The languid legs of river boatmen hang listlessly from their hammocks and urchins dangle fishing strings into the water. Mongrels are barking at the mango ice sun and the horizon is lit with an upstream band of yellow. On the water a monstrous white Iberostar cruise ship dwarfs the harbour and downriver in the docks iron-hulled ocean freighters from Bremen and Rotterdam are being loaded up by a row of orange cranes. Down by the river I am among intimate timeless strangers.

The things that I have forgotten are those parts of me that have already perished. I am standing on that drawn-out grainy wooden jetty with consignments of pressed flowers and dead beetles. Beautiful smiling ladies with flowers in their hair dressed in fine white gauzes and muslins prepare to welcome the sun gazers on the SS Hilary. The caravanserai of double-decker river taxis, the straw-hatted leather-booted agents and the shacks on stilts rising up from the riverbank remain as relics of the past.

The wharves grow sad in the late afternoon and Manaus fills with danger. Diminutive fishing boats and silk wood dug-outs overloaded with caged chickens, pigs and yams criss-cross the Educandos igarapé littered with plastic medusae and tin cans. In the narrow arcades close to the creek there are stalls selling magic potions and effigies. Gold-chained spivs offer okra, entrails and metal tins. I feel the city’s self-destructive streak and its power of dissolution. Last night the corpse of a ten-year-old girl swaddled in the bright yellow of a Brazil football strip was dumped on the outskirts of the city near the Antonio Alexio leper colony. Her hands had been bound with a piece of washing line and her body wrapped in plastic bags.

Manaus is a painful fabrication imagined by a band of chancers and constructed with the blood and bones of the Indian. Spruce called the Rio Negro dead and as he travelled upriver he felt its lonely desolation. Here on its urban bank I am overcome by a melancholy that is starting to slow me down. Jammed between Lady Avelina and Tavares, the ramshackle Cisné Branco that has survived so many sandbank wrecks sustains a forlorn dream.

The dappled yellows, gunmetal black-greys and copper greens of the fish bring me closer to the deep. The pavilions of the Feira da Panair are quieter, hotter and sleepier in the late afternoon but their moist slabs are still laden with a rich assortment of zebra-bodied rough-skinned fish flapping in the last throes of agonising death. There are boxes of gleaming deep-bodied pacus, turquoise-spotted acara, red piranhas caught in a swift-flowing creek off the Juruá and angular-tailed monkey fish stuck to their neighbour, the same way the nearly dead cling together for warmth in bed. There are lines of peacock-tailed fruit-eating tucunaré with their humped forehead and ruby eyes, and rhomboidal black-finned nut-eating tambaquis netted in the flood plain of the Uaicurupá. The sardines, black-striped gaping douradas and discoid sting rays that came from the sea with the sponges and never went back carry a warm muddy smell and are much less silvery and blue than their brothers still wrapped in the waves. This market is an inundation of hoarded abundance, a celebration of the succulence of cold flesh.

The silurid navy is represented by two armour-plated black-spotted whiskered cascudos, a fleet of shovel-nosed striped surubims, astonished cuiu-cuiu marines that can travel on their spikey fins from one lagoon to the next and finally a few leathery, lemon-spotted hooting juropoca captains from the Caldeirāo. But the greatest prize of all is the goliath piraíba catfish caught in a drift net in the muddy brown waters of the Madeira and now held up in triumph by a fishmonger. There are striped-tailed jaraqui laid out like a school of souls on the Sistine chapel and a single black-spotted trairão privateer captured from a distant marshy shore. Hidden far from police eyes is an illegal crate full of river turtles. Only Spruce’s staple provision, the “salt cod of the Amazon”, is missing. Heavier than a caiman and harpooned almost to extinction, the pirarucu is now farmed and sold as a delicacy in cruciform steaks. Equipped with gills and a lung, it has been reported to leap out of the river and hoover up egrets. On the quayside where the fishing boats come in, huge piles of yesterday’s unsold catch are being picked over by vultures. Death hangs over everything on the Amazon and life bursts forth from its spawny deliquescence.

Night has fallen like a shot bird as I step gingerly down two planks to a floating bar. The owner of Tia Jussara is a woman of mixed Indian and African blood with painted nails, red plastic barrettes holding her hair together, a home-made tattoo on her arm and swollen toes pinched by worn Havaianas. She has a plunging halter-top revealing fecund breasts and is wearing a tight lycra skirt from under which emerges filthy grey lingerie. Her husband, working in the small kitchen, is Haitian. She looks at me emptily as I sit down on a table adjacent to two Nisei jute workers. The men are discussing a ship that caught fire up the Acajutuba as they sup piping-hot tacacá soup made with jambu, tucupi, peppers and dried shrimps. I am also within earshot of two saturnine riverboat skippers with their naval beards, shirts doubly sewed with strips of lace, blue jeans and cowboy boots. One of them is expressing the hope that his lover will soon return from Belém, while the other transmits news of a recent outbreak of dengue fever upriver. They are eating a meal of fried fish with beans, spiny cucumbers, rice and cassava flour.

I order a beer and some fried bananas, some peppered piranha stew and a bowl of tapioca and guarana. I look out over the water at the eerie reflections coming from the palafitas and the fishing boats. There are three river girls sitting in a corner with their eyes fixed on me. One beckons me over and another makes suggestive tongue movements. In the far corner is a thick-armed Indian with black flaxen hair, an impassive face and fierce eyes. After I finish my meal I go over to his table and sit down. He tells me his given surname means nobody and his first name once belonged to his schoolteacher’s dead child. At school he had been given a shirt and learned to read but he was taught nothing about how to track butterflies to the glade where they dye their violet wings. His soul had been dropped in a box then multiplied and chopped up into moving black and white pictures. Slowly he had learned to absorb the shockwaves of the asphalt avenues and eat the shameless white chief’s brain. He recalled that when their small boat had finally arrived at Manaus from São Gabriel da Cachoeira the water was full of death.

As I walk back to my hotel through a maze of interconnected narrow streets Manaus temporarily comes alive with flowers and birds. I now know it was a lack of imagination that brought me to this polar space station. The Amazon is a looking glass into another Brazil and at night the stars scintillate more in the water than the sky. There is no sense of scale on the water, only an incestuous emptiness interrupted by the floating trees and a neverending inconsolable disillusionment. My throat is gripped by the heady putrefying musks of tulip wood and coumarin and the exquisite cinnamon, vanilla, almond smell of the cumaru tree. I think of Witt’s moonflower, its trampled crimson stems and curling roots clinging to an immersed tree at the edge of the forest wall. There is an indelible delusion of timelessness like the languorous heart beat of a woman on the third bank of the river. Tomorrow I will leave for Tabatinga.

1/12/2014

Andrew Lees is professor of neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London and University College London. His most recent books include The Hurricane Port: A Social History of Liverpool (Random House, 2011), William Richard Gowers 1845-1915: Exploring the Victorian Brain (OUP, 2012) and Alzheimer’s: The Silent Plague (Penguin E-book, 2012).

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