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The Devils Milk

The Devils Milk: A Social History of Rubber

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Devils Milk
    Book Description:

    Capital, as Marx once wrote, comes into the world dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt. He might well have been describing the long, grim history of rubber. From the early stages of primitive accumulation to the heights of the industrial revolution and beyond, rubber is one of a handful of commodities that has played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, and yet, as John Tully shows in this remarkable book, laboring people around the globe have every reason to regard it as the devil's milk. All the advancements made possible by rubber - industrial machinery, telegraph technology, medical equipment, countless consumer goods - have occurred against a backdrop of seemingly endless exploitation, conquest, slavery, and war. But Tully is quick to remind us that the vast terrain of rubber production has always been a site of struggle, and that the oppressed who toil closest to the devil's milk in all its forms have never accepted their immiseration without a fight.This book, the product of exhaustive scholarship carried out in many countries and several continents, is destined to become a classic.Tully tells the story of humanity's long encounter with rubber in a kaleidoscopic narrative that regards little as outside its rangewithout losing sight of the commodity in question. With the skill of a master historian and the elegance of a novelist, he presents what amounts to a history of the modern world told through the multiple lives of rubber.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-260-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-8)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 9-12)
  4. PREFACE Why a Book on Rubber?
    (pp. 13-16)
  5. INTRODUCTION The Muscles and Sinews of Industrial Society
    (pp. 17-26)

    Rubber’s special characteristics make it what Paul Litchfield called “one of a handful of indispensable industrial commodities.” He was speaking to an audience of industrial chemists shortly after the start of the Second World War. War sharpens our wits in many ways, makes us realize what is essential and what isn’t. Modern mechanized warfare is absolutely dependent upon a handful of commodities, among them steel, petroleum, and rubber. Rubber has extraordinary qualities found nowhere else in nature. It is elastic: both when stretched and when squeezed it will return to its original shape and size. Its cousin gutta-percha provides a...

  6. PART ONE From the sacred essence of life to the muscles and sinews of industrial society

    • CHAPTER ONE Rubber in Mesoamerican Civilizations
      (pp. 29-34)

      Rubber was unknown to most of humanity until Post-Columbian times. Like tobacco, tomatoes, chili, maize, and potatoes, it was a New World product that gradually became available to the rest of the world following the Iberian conquest of the Americas. Before 1492, the peoples of Mexico and Central America had used rubber for recreational, religious, and utilitarian purposes for many centuries, but claims that it was used in Europe in ancient times are dubious. The assertion that King Croesus’s Lydian subjects in ancient Asia Minor played with rubber balls, for example, rests upon a faulty reading of Herodotus. The ancient...

    • CHAPTER TWO Rubber in the Industrial Revolution
      (pp. 35-50)

      Europeans long regarded rubber as a curiosity. Rolls ofcaoutchoucand balls of rubber—known as “niggerheads” from their alleged resemblance to the skulls of black people—arrived in Europe aboard returning slave ships engaged in the Triangular Trade,² and were marveled at for their properties of stretch and bounce. There were some practical uses: the early Spanish troops in Mexico were said to have adopted the local custom of using latex to waterproof their clothing,³ but it was some time before rubber was considered suitable for such purposes in Europe itself. Consideration of the commercial and industrial possibilities of...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Dark Side of the Rubber Revolution
      (pp. 51-62)

      By the 1890s, rubber had come to stay: mass industrial society could not function without it. Indubitably, rubber was a boon for humanity, yet the growth of the industry contained a massive contradiction for it brought with it industrial drudgery, in which men and women spent their lives in factories and workshops that remained Dickensian until well into the twentieth century (and beyond in the case of the Third World). It was also accompanied by profound ecological degradation. We have already mentioned Mayhew’s child costermongers, who hawked garters on London streets or balloons in Leeds or Manchester, but many thousands...

  7. PART TWO Wild rubber:: a primitive “mode of extraction”

    • CHAPTER FOUR The Amazon Rubber Boom
      (pp. 65-76)

      The Amazon basin is an immensity of tropical lowland which contains some 30,000 miles of waterways and comprises an area two-thirds the size of Europe. Much of it is blanketed byselvas(dense rainforests) which shelter the most biodiverse environment on earth.² Although there is evidence that intensive agriculture in Pre-Columbian times supported a fairly large population,³ since the arrival of the Portuguese the basin has relied economically on the extraction of products from wild plants and animals, including spices such as cloves and vanilla, brazil nuts, animal skins, vegetable oils and saps, tropical timbers, turtle eggs, andcinchonabark...

    • CHAPTER FIVE The Lives of the Seringueiros
      (pp. 77-84)

      The development of the pneumatic tire in the late nineteenth century sent demand for raw rubber soaring. Profits spiraled dizzily, yet the system that supplied the raw material was wasteful, inefficient, and ultimately unsustainable. In contrast, as the nineteenth century unfolded, most essential raw materials were being extracted by ever more sophisticated machinery. Mines and quarries, for example, were increasingly mechanized and required disciplined armies of workers. Tropical regions saw the expansion of industrial methods of farming that mirrored the mass production industries of the industrial heartlands. Large-scale plantations supplied commodities such as coffee, sugar, cotton, and tea grown and...

    • CHAPTER SIX “There Is No Sin beyond the Equator”: The Putumayo Devil Plant
      (pp. 85-100)

      In October 2007, the anthropologist Richard Hill drew attention to the existence of a number of “lost” Peruvian rainforest tribes who shunned all contact with the outside world. Although the Peruvian government disputes the claim, Hill says that the evidence is incontestable: “We think there are 15 groups … [and] many are the descendents of tribes contacted over 100 years ago, during the rubber boom, who fled the prospect of enslavement and decimation by new diseases.”³ For indigenous people throughout the tropical world, white sails on the ocean’s horizon have often presaged death. For the Indians in the Amazon’s green...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Heart of Darkness: Rubber and Blood on the Congo
      (pp. 101-122)

      It is now fashionable in conservative circles to stress the “positive value” of colonialism and imperialism and gloss over their dark side. In 2005, the French parliament passed legislation requiring history textbooks to comply with this “negationist” vision of the past.² Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard waged the “history wars” to revise the grim facts of the European encounter with the aboriginal population and to silence dissenting historians. Right-wing Japanese politicians have expunged reference in school textbooks to their country’s crimes in China in the 1930s and 1940s. Likewise, the Belgian monarchist right has always refused to acknowledge the...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Gutta-Percha, Telegraphs, Imperialism, and Ecology
      (pp. 123-130)

      In 1857, a New York manufacturer told prospective customers: “Perhaps no material was ever discovered which was so soon extensively shipped as an article of commerce—taken up so eagerly and manufactured at once so extensively, as has been the article of gutta-percha.”³ Today, it is difficult to think of another leading commodity that has been so comprehensively forgotten. Once almost as ubiquitous as its close cousin rubber, it was used for a myriad of domestic and industrial purposes; first and foremost for the submarine electric telegraph cables which girdled the world from the mid-nineteenth century. It was—as Marx...

  8. PART THREE Monopoly capitalism in Akron

    • CHAPTER NINE “Rubber’s Home Town”
      (pp. 133-148)

      Akron’s old-timers used to say that you could smell Rubber Town long before you saw it. The Ohio city is hidden in the low sandstone folds of the westernmost Alleghenies, but if the wind was right, the “tang of molten rubber”³ carried as far as Wooster, thirty miles to the southwest. Some early pilots even claimed to know when they were over Akron because of the dirty diaper smell of sulfuretted hydrogen.⁴ The vast rubber factories belched a pall of smoke over the city, plunging it into twilight “gloomier than Pittsburgh”⁵ and often carpeting it with black snow. In its...

    • CHAPTER TEN The 1913 IWW Strike at Akron
      (pp. 149-158)

      By the early twentieth century, the United States had developed into a formidable industrial power, but this “great leap forward” came at a steep price for the working class. Ruthless competition and an aggressively individualistic ideology meant that the class struggle in America was fought with astounding ferocity. Governments, the police, the National Guard, and the courts invariably supported the employers, who did not hesitate to use thugs, spies, private detectives, and illegal means to win. As Sherman Dalrymple, the International President of the United Rubber Workers of America, later observed: “The rich have looked upon the agencies of government...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Sisters, Brothers, Unite! The Rubber Workers’ Union in Akron
      (pp. 159-182)

      The failure of the IWW strike in 1913 was a massive blow to union organization in Akron. Immediately after the end of the IWW strike, Goodyear set up the Flying Squadron in the plants to suppress union activity. Goodyear was worried that mass production had brought such specialization of skills that a disturbance on one part of the production line could impact the whole factory. Members of the Squadron were trained as “master rubber workers,” an elite force capable of doing any of the production jobs in the factories, who were instilled with discipline, esprit de corps, and fierce loyalty...

  9. PART FOUR Plantation hevea:: agribusiness and imperialism

    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Triumph of Plantation Hevea
      (pp. 185-202)

      The huge industrial complexes of Akron and elsewhere were initially built on the back of the wild rubber industry in the Amazon and Africa, but the system was ultimately unsustainable. The solution was the orderly cultivation of rubber on tropical plantations. The tale of how Henry Wickham purloined Brazil’s rubber patrimony is one of the romantic legends of the British Empire. By his own account, in 1876 Wickham collected over 70,000 hevea seeds from the forests along the Tapajós River. Then, he smuggled the seeds to Joseph Hooker, the eminent botanist who served as director of the Royal Botanic Gardens...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN The Planters’ World
      (pp. 203-224)

      Their pink and white skins peeled or burned crayfish-red under the tropical sun. Their pale European eyes surveyed an ocean of brown and black faces, the owners of which must have regarded these planters as beings as exotic as the hevea trees they brought with them to Africa and Asia. They sipped atstengahs(whisky and sodas) and bitter beer, clad in sweatstained khakis or tropical whites andsola topees[safari helmets], summoning a “boy” with teapot or gin bottle to the veranda at the end of another hot day. They carried stout sticks to ward off cobras coiled in...

    • CHAPTER FOURTEEN The Coolie Diaspora
      (pp. 225-238)

      In 1848, Marx and Engels forecast that the requirements of the expanding market would “chase the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe.”² To effect this transformation, imperialism needed the workforces to run the mines, mills, and plantations thrown up across the tropical world. This involved the resettlement—permanent or temporary—of millions of human beings. Rubber was central to the new international economic order; thus many of the transplanted laborers toiled on the plantations of rubber multinationals such as Michelin, Firestone, Dunlops, Guthrie’s, Ramsdens, and Goodyear. The scale of migration was so great that the ethnic composition of...

    • CHAPTER FIFTEEN The Coolies’ World
      (pp. 239-258)

      Only one rubber coolie, Tran Tu Binh, has left us an account of his life on the plantations.³ His account is invaluable, but the seminary-educated Tran, who enlisted as a coolie in order to carry out Communist agitation among the Michelin estate laborers, is not representative of his fellows. For the historian, the reconstruction of the coolies’ world is based largely on second- and third-hand accounts from official documents, newspapers, works of fiction, and the memoirs of European colonialists. Coolie folklore still awaits detailed ethnographic study for what it can reveal about the rubber estates. In 1920, for example, J....

    • CHAPTER SIXTEEN Coolie Revolts
      (pp. 259-280)

      The plantation system was based on the super-exploitation of labor. Pay was so low that the English assistant Leopold Ainsworth wondered how the Tamil workers and their families could “possibly exist as ordinary human beings” on the wages paid on his boss’s Malayan plantation.³ In 1926, the cost of a Papuan indentured laborer was 20 percent of that of a white worker, 25 percent of that of an employed estate manager, and 10 percent of that of a white unskilled laborer.⁴ Racist humiliation, insult, and cruelty were part of the everyday lives of the coolies: “I’ve been greeted only with...

  10. PART FIVE Synthetic rubber, war and autarky

    • CHAPTER SEVENTEEN The Long Road to Monowitz
      (pp. 283-296)

      The middle-aged man who stares into the camera lens is well-fed and groomed, his darkening blond hair and mustache neatly trimmed and combed. He probably smells of soap and aftershave. He looks intelligent—if a trifle pedantic—and used to being in charge, so the situation he finds himself in is clearly uncomfortable for him. But he looks pleasant enough and so in fact his U.S. military warders found him to be. He speaks with a soft South German accent, and is educated and polite. These attributes might explain the slightly bewildered, perhaps embarrassed air with which he holds the...

    • CHAPTER EIGHTEEN Monowitz: “A Bulwark of Germandom”
      (pp. 297-302)

      Before the outbreak of war, IG Farben considered a number of possible sites for the new Buna plant. Rattwitz, near Breslau in Lower Silesia, initially appeared to be the best choice,² and the firm began preparatory work there for a new plant in 1940.³ Auschwitz, on the other hand, lay in Upper Silesia within occupied Poland, and although it was close to ample supplies of raw materials and on a main railroad line, its disadvantages at first seemed to outweigh its advantages.

      Auschwitz lies at the confluence of the Sola and Vistula rivers, approximately halfway between the Polish university city...

    • CHAPTER NINETEEN The Only Way Out Is Up the Chimney
      (pp. 303-318)

      Farben’s site engineer Max Faust ordered that “the Jews in Buna must be assigned only the most menial tasks and compassion … [will not be] tolerated.”³ The English prisoner Leon Greenman watched an off-duty SS man cuddling a pet and mused how “men could care for rabbits while their human brothers were dying from their wounds, hunger and lack of kindness.”⁴ The colliery slave Sim Kessell noticed two young SS guards

      who were sincerely amused by our appearance—not particularly hostile or even insulting. They just gazed at us as if we were clowns in a circus. They just gazed...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY The Allied Struggle for Rubber in the Second World War
      (pp. 319-330)

      In 1942, American journalist Robert Reiss noted that the Nazis had rolled into Paris and Athens and across the Russian steppes on “inflated elastomers”—not tires made of natural rubber.² They were forced out of Russia, he later added, by mechanized units of the Red Army rolling “on the same ersatz equipment.”³ Hitler was acutely aware of the crucial importance of rubber for his war machine and had suspended normal market principles to develop substitutes for the natural product. Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviets were also willing to ignore commercial considerations in the country’s synthetic rubber industry,⁴ both for pragmatic...

    • CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE War Is Good for Business
      (pp. 331-344)

      In his poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads,” Bertolt Brecht famously reminds us that although the history books credit the great monuments and cities of antiquity to kings, the kings did not “haul up the lumps of rock” for their construction.³ Similarly, in books dealing with America’s mammoth synthetic rubber project during the Second World War, you will find the names of the politicians, generals, and captains of industry. Industrial “kings” like Paul Litchfield did not actually build the great towers and factories that sprouted across America. These tasks were carried out by ordinary men and women, whose efforts...

  11. EPILOGUE Rubber in the Postwar World
    (pp. 345-362)

    Rubber is inextricably bound up with the rise of capitalism, imperialism, and modernity. Despite its ubiquity and indispensability in modern life, it is only five hundred years since the Spanish, the Basques, and the Portuguese brought rubber to Europe. While this might seem a long time, we can put the “Rubber Age” in better perspective by recalling that the Copper Age began around 5,500 years ago, the Bronze Age 4,000 years ago, and the Iron Age 3,200 years ago.² Rubber was used by the Amerindian peoples for a variety of sacred and secular purposes, but in Europe it largely remained...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 363-388)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 389-462)
  14. Index
    (pp. 463-480)