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The-Dream-of-the-Celt-by-Mario-Vargas-Llosa: A Critical Review in Three Parts: Part Three

December 7, 2014
Malaysian Rubber Tapper. Today, nearly 50% of all natural rubber comes from plantations in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Vietnam

Malaysian Rubber Tapper. Today, nearly 50% of all natural rubber comes from plantations in Southeast Asia, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Vietnam

(Part OnePart Two)

The Political Economy of Late 19th, early 20th Century Rubber Production

Casement’s investigations of human rights abuses in rubber collection in both the Congo and Putumayo region of the upper Amazon Basin of Peru took place at a particular moment in time when the global demand for rubber had exploded and the supply of wild rubber, the only source, was increasing unable to keep up with it. This structural situation combined with the great profits the result of limited supply was the global engine that shaped the abuses Casement revealed in his studies. In those same years (1903-1913), Britain was following a two-track strategy, on the one hand investing heavily in creating domesticated varieties of rubber on incipient rubber plant plantations in Malaysia and elsewhere in SE Asia, creating alternatives to their dependence upon equatorial rubber from Africa and South America.

On the other hand, as those alternatives were coming on-line and the viable Asian alternatives were being put in place, at first slowly and then more quickly after 1900, Britain was not particularly adverse to exposing the seamy side of rubber production controlled by other countries. In the Congo, it was Belgium that benefited most from rubber, in the Amazon, a number of local rubber barons from Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. While in both cases foreign capital, always on the hunt for high rates of return was involved, in the main it was domestic elements that controlled production and, as long as their was a rubber boom, the breathtaking profits that resulted. When the first rubber boom ended sometime between 1910 – 1913, and end it did abruptly when Congolese and Amazonian production collapsed overnight, control of global rubber production shifted decidedly to Britain with its Malaysian plantations that left its competitors in the dust.

When the first rubber boom ended sometime between 1910 – 1913, and end it did abruptly when Congolese and Amazonian production collapsed overnight, control of global rubber production shifted decidedly to Britain with its Malaysian plantations that left its competitors in the dust.

Fixated as is his narrative is on Casement’s final spiritual embrace with Catholicism, Vargas Llosa tends to entirely miss these global trends, and yet they help explain to some extent why Congolese and Amazonian rubber production exacted such a high human cost. Casement – and certainly the British government – also understood the global context for rubber production at the time. The most heinous crimes in the Congo and in the Amazon Basin as a part of the rubber collection system were committed from the late 1880s to the early 1900s as a part of what is called “the rubber boom.” It was during this period that the global demand for rubber exploded, first with growth of bicycle transport and shortly after the turn of the century with the advent of automotive and aviation transport. Rubber had many, many other uses by that time as well. By quick way of example, the number of workers employed in Amazonian rubber collection skyrocketed from some 5300 in 1820 to 192,000 in 1912 in an attempt to satisfy burgeoning demand. In France bicycle use when from around 250,000 in 1900 to 5,000,000 only a decade later. During this period supply simply could not keep up with demand and this was just the beginning.

Gathering rubber involved the collection of wild rubber from a number of places but the key sources for wild rubber collection were Leopold’s Congo and the Amazon Basin. Actually, according to available sources, far more rubber was collected in the Amazon than the Congo during this period. But the rubber industry understood that as demand was soaring the supplies of wild rubber were diminishing forcing Leopold’s operations in the Congo and the Amazon rubber barons to go deeper and deeper into their respective forest to maintain production. It was the insatiable and ever-increasing demand for rubber that in part, pushed the rubber barons to extract higher and higher production quotas from the rubber tappers and pushed the system into the different forms of forced labor that Casement would investigate and expose both in the Congo and Putumayo, Peru.

Kew Gardens: Botanical Leader in Global Economic Warfare

That said, something else was going on which exacerbated the human rights abuses in both places. Some decades prior, in the 1870s, the British had managed to steal the seeds of rubber plants from the Amazon Basin, to get them to Britain and to develop successful hybrid forms at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, outside of London. While obtaining hevea (rubber) seeds was cheered in Britain, others considered it essentially “brazen and lucrative robbery.” It was at Kew that new varieties were developed. Without the scientific work done at Kew it is not likely that the South Asian plantation industries would have been developed on their own. But the decision to target SE Asia as a region for rubber plantations was not just taken by entrepreneurs in the field. The decision was essentially political than at the highest levels of the British Government in India. The more successful varieties were then transplanted to Malaya where rubber plantations were established. Interestingly enough, there were, for a variety of reasons, very few attempts to establish rubber plantations in the Amazon, in part because there were too many natural insect predators there to domestic the plants, in part because of the unbridled greed and insistence on short-term profits of the Amazon rubber barons. In any case, already in the early 1880s, a series of rubber plantations were established in Southeast Asia, in Malaya and Indochina, but their development was slow. It took a quarter century before Asian rubber came onto the market. Amazonian wild rubber producers could not compete with with a highly technically sophisticated, well-financed plantation industry based upon disciplined cheap labor and scientific management.  As the Southeast Asian  plantation rubber production grew, it would very soon match and then easily supplant South American and African production. Add to this the incredibly destructive manner in which African and Amazonian rubber was harvested and the trees destroyed and it becomes apparent that the Congo – Amazon rubber boom could not have lasted anyway – and didn’t.

Leopold II, an astute shyster, as well as the Amazonian rubber barons, the Vaca Diazes, Suarez Brothers, Resendo da Silva, the notorious Juan César Arana all understood that their days were numbered and that it was only a matter of time before Asian rubber supplanted that of the Congo and the Amazon. That time came around 1910 when plantation rubber production first matched and then quickly exceeded the combined production of the Amazon and the Congo. By way of example, it took a full 24 years for the Asian trees to grow but the first four tons reached London in 1900. By 1912, this had risen to 8500 tons compared with the Amazonian production of over 38,000 tons. By 1914, only two years later, Asian rubber output at 71,400 tons far outstripped the Amazonian wild rubber growers. By the mid teens of the Twentieth Century, the Amazon rubber boom was finished; oriental (Asian) rubber had risen to 370,000 tons, where as production on the Amazon had collapsed to under 18,000 tons.

The knowledge that their days were numbered, that soon Asian plantation rubber would flood the global market ending the Amazonian – Congolese monopoly of the stuff and that the price of raw rubber would plummet, pushed Leopold and the Amazonian rubber barons to extract as much rubber from their concerns in the shortest possible time frame while world prices were at their peak. It pressed Leopold to use what amounts to crisis forms of labor to intensify that extraction. The whole rubber extraction system set up in the Congo was put in place with the understanding that the golden days of Congo rubber, the rubber boom, couldn’t last, but that said, Leopold wanted to extract every ounce of profit out of the Congo as was possible. The Amazon rubber barons did likewise. That kind of crash production process, global capitalism at its worst, its most exploitative, vicious form produced the forced labor system of both the Congo and the Amazon and the human rights abuses which “naturally” followed from such a system.

The knowledge that their days were numbered, that soon Asian plantation rubber would flood the global market ending the Amazonian – Congolese monopoly of the stuff and that the price of raw rubber would plummet, pushed Leopold and the Amazonian rubber barons to extract as much rubber from their concerns in the shortest possible time frame while world prices were at their peak. It pressed Leopold to use what amounts to crisis forms of labor to intensify that extraction. The whole rubber extraction system set up in the Congo was put in place with the understanding that the golden days of Congo rubber, the rubber boom, couldn’t last, but that said, Leopold wanted to extract every ounce of profit out of the Congo as was possible. The Amazon rubber barons did likewise. That kind of crash production process, global capitalism at its worst, its most exploitative, vicious form produced the forced labor system of both the Congo and the Amazon and the human rights abuses which “naturally” followed from such a system.

Casement’s investigations were commissioned by the British government that was subsidizing and carefully cultivating the rubber plantation system in Asia. By 1903, when Casement represented the British government in the Congo the Malaysian rubber plantations system was just coming on-line with the first four tons of Malaysian rubber having reached London by 1900. By 1913 when Casement agreed to investigate Juan César Arana’s rubber operations in Putumaya, Peru (now the region is a part of Colombia) Malaysian plantation rubber had already begun to surpass Amazonian production and would soon leave the collection of wild rubber in the dust. The rubber boom was over and probably would have ended, with or without Casement’s work I’m afraid to say.

Is it too unfair to speculate that understanding that the global shift in production from wild rubber collection to plantation rubber domestication that the British government hoped to de-legitimize the former at the time it was legitimizing the latter? The British parliament could have initiated investigations of Congo rubber production much earlier. The tales and accusations of labor abuse were already circulating in the British press in the early 1890s, but they waited till rather late in the game. In the interim tens of thousands of Amazonian native peoples (and others) died and the population of the Congo shrank from 20 to 10 million in a quarter of a century.

Irish stamp commemorating Roger Casement

Irish stamp commemorating Roger Casement

Casement’s Contribution to Human Rights Abuse Investigations

It was in this global context that Roger Casement’s contributions to human rights abuse investigations should be analyzed and measured. The crimes against humanity he investigated with courage and integrity would make most people cringe: in the Congo the extermination of whole villages, massive rape, cutting off of hands for natives who failed to fulfill their rubber quotas, terrible whippings that would kill most people with a rhinoceros-hide whip called a chicotte. Hardly different in the Putumaya Region of what was then northern Peru where Native women were shot on site “for fun”, where Indian slavery was so common that it was hardly discussed in Iquitos even the British consul there had several and where Native people were worked to death by the likes of Juan César Arana, and his ilk of rubber traders.

In 1903 with his extensive knowledge of the Congo, having lived there for decades and actually worked for some of the time for Leopold II’s Congo Free State, Roger Casement was asked by the British government to investigate the growing reports of horrors and abuse trickling out of the Congo from missionaries, journalists. This he did with great insight, zeal and persistence, setting the standard for human rights investigations up until today. His study known as Report on the Congo would be a blow aimed at Leopold II’s cruel heart and a key element in the Belgian parliament’s decision to essentially strip him of control, actually ownership of the Congo. Similarly his report on Juan César Arana’s “Casa Arana,” little more than a prelude to Auschwitz and the Nazi death camps, forced the latter to dissolve the company and run back to Peru where he hid from British authorities the rest of his life.

Whatever ax Mario Vargas Llosa might have had in writing a historical biography of Roger Casement, his treatment of Casement’s work in the Congo and region Putumayo rings true and is a fair description of the latter’s contribution. But the question arises, beyond the exposées of the crimes against humanity committed in both cases, what was Casement’s contribution? How can it be evaluated? I believe that it lies in two areas of his methodology, the first being how he went about doing such an investigation, the second being his ability not just to document the crimes committed but the broader system in which it was a part. It was in these two ways that Casement set the standard for human rights investigations still employed today.

Casement’s Methodology: Be Well Prepared…

There was a method to his investigations. The first was that prior to taking on the task, he already had considerable prior knowledge of his subject matter. His time in the Congo started in 1885 when he was employed by the very Congo Free State that he would come investigate and whose raison d’être he would come later to better understand and regard with aversion. That was later. In those early days Casement believed in the mission of the white man’s burden and was an eager, if naive participant. Indeed that was what propelled him to Africa in the first place.

Through his journeys, over time, he would come to know the system of rubber collection and transport in detail as well as the administration that oversaw, with considerable brutality its collection. Like Joseph Conrad, over time, his naivety would disappear to be replaced by deeply cynical realism. Conrad, who also believed in the white man’s burden, would leave and later write Heart of Darkness, about his experiences. Casement stayed and as a result of his rich knowledge – that included – if not fluency, at least a good understanding of a number of native languages, became a British consul in West Africa and then in the French Congo

During the period when he worked directly for Leopold II’s Congo Free State, he spent years, first making the journey from Boma, port town on the Congo River, 100 miles from the Atlantic Coast, around the cataracts that made river navigation impossible, up the trails parallel to the river to Leopoldville (today Kinshasa) on many occasions. From that he knew the challenges and dangers of the portage system where men carried 100 pound loads on their back for 220 miles, with many – recruited by forced labor – dying from exhaustion and disease along the way. In the late 1880s he also journeyed by river from Leopoldville east hundreds of miles into the regions of the upper Congo (ie – closer to its sources) and its tributaries where he actually helped establish the trading posts, rubber and ivory collecting gathering points from whence those raw materials (and others) were transferred downstream by river and then by portage and after it was built, by railroad to the coast and to Antwerp by the British transport company Elder Dempster, a Liverpool shipping company headed by Alfred Lewis Jones.

Thus, in 1903, when asked to investigate reports and accusations of extreme brutality and the absence of free trade, that had been promised by Leopold at the 1884 Congress of Berlin, Roger Casement was exceptionally well prepared to take on, and lead the investigation team. He already possessed a great store of knowledge and perspective of the Congo rubber trade for a British citizen. He had a basis from which to compare and contrast what he had seen in the late 1880s with what he was asked to investigate in 1903. His memory and knowledge of the active, thriving villages along the Congo shoreline during his early exposure to the Cong was invaluable and was used as a kind of measuring post. This gave him a kind of perspective, that, other than the observations of some British missionaries willing to talk about their experiences, was unique. Casement could thus, because of his rich experience, get to the bottom of things, penetrate the secrets that the Congo Free State administrators were trying to hide, to peel off, layer by layer, the lies and rationalizations to as, Conrad put it “the heart of darkness” that was Leopold’s system of exploitation. Casement took the matter in much greater depth and with many more concrete examples than did Conrad.

Thus, in 1903, when asked to investigate reports and accusations of extreme brutality and the absence of free trade, that had been promised by Leopold at the 1884 Congress of Berlin, Roger Casement was exceptionally well prepared to take on, and lead the investigation team. He already possessed a great store of knowledge and perspective of the Congo rubber trade for a British citizen. He had a basis from which to compare and contrast what he had seen in the late 1880s with what he was asked to investigate in 1903. His memory and knowledge of the active, thriving villages along the Congo shoreline during his early exposure to the Cong was invaluable and was used as a kind of measuring post. This gave him a kind of perspective, that, other than the observations of some British missionaries willing to talk about their experiences, was unique. Casement could thus, because of his rich experience, get to the bottom of things, penetrate the secrets that the Congo Free State administrators were trying to hide, to peel off, layer by layer, the lies and rationalizations to as, Conrad put it “the heart of darkness” that was Leopold’s system of exploitation. Casement took the matter in much greater depth and with many more concrete examples than did Conrad.

Casement’s Methodology: Speak Local Languages If Possible; Speak To The Victims, Don’t Rely Only On Official Sources

Case linguistic skills also were important as they enabled him, at least a part of the time, to speak directly to the Congolese involved, the victims of system and hear their observations and complaints in their own words, not those filtered and sanitized through the administrators of the Congo Free State. And it is on this point that Casement’s methodology was exemplary: he attempted – and to a great degree succeeded – in talking to all the people involved in the system he was investigating. He did speak to Leopold’s colonial administrators and the officers of his notorious Force Publique, the 12,000 man armed police, an earlier version of Hitler’s Waffen SS, which terrorized so much of the Congo landscape with impunity. He spoke to the European traders who collected the rubber at transit stations, most of whom were Belge, although some were from other, especially northern European countries. This he had to do, in part because of protocol.

But Casement went far beyond these formal interviews. His real organizing, methodological genius lay in his ability to speak to the victims of the rubber trade, the rubber tappers, their wives and children. He went directly to the people. Casement sought them out, often in face of opposition of the colonial administrators who discouraged him and set up road blocks most steps along the way. This in my view was his most enduring contribution: the need to get the facts from more than one source, and certainly more than “the official sources” who almost always instinctively try to steer investigations away from embarrassing or damning information. Bureaucracies do not give up their secrets easily. Often with the help of friendly missionaries who were willing to introduce him to Congolese caught in the rubber – collecting trap, Casement was able to gain enough confidence so that they told their stories. On a number of occasions he was able to go to villages that had been wiped out by Force Publique detachments, their inhabitants enslaved or slaughtered and speak to survivors. He met boys of 9, 10 years of age who had had their hands cut off for failing to meet the ever-growing rubber quotas, girls that had been raped.

His real organizing, methodological genius lay in his ability to speak to the victims of the rubber trade, the rubber tappers, their wives and children. He went directly to the people.

In an age without tape records he took their oral testimony during the days and would spend most of the nights writing up the notes of what he had seen and heard. He made a point of trying to be “objective”, neither watering down the atrocities to which he had been exposed nor amplifying them. To the degree possible, Casement aspired to be a fair and objective observer. It was not easy work, witnessing the horrors perpetrated by Leopold II’s Congo project. Investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity is not for the faint of heart. And yet that what precisely what was needed then and what is needed today: fair, in-depth, honest investigations. One cannot ever begin to address social problems, issues with an honest assessment of the facts…and that is just the beginning.

Casement’s Methodology: Be Aware of the Risks

Such an investigation had both natural and human risks. Sickness and disease were real threats and even in this case, probably impacted the collection of information. It was only as a result of Casement’s iron will to proceed, that the entire investigation did not collapse and they were able to come away with as much information as they did. The health hazards for those unfamiliar with the Congo are daunting, malaria being only the most visible of many possible conditions. Casement was stricken with malaria and a number of intestinal conditions and was ill a good part of the journey, as were his colleagues. They all survived, none died although there is no doubt that health issues plagued their work the entire time they were in the Congo, which lasted several months.

As his journey progressed, the Congo Free State administrators became increasingly uncomfortable with Roger Casement and the members of his delegation. The more Casement learned about the true nature of the project – it utter brutality, viciousness in the name of nothing more than greed, the more dangerous was his situation. He had to hide his notes which were kept in a briefcase on his body at all times. They never left his side; at night they were under his bed; he slept with a loaded revolver all the time. They were essential for the report he would write just after his mission was concluded.

At points there is little doubt that his life was in danger and he knew it. He could have been “disappeared” in a number of ways and there are some suggestions, especially after he had interviewed the survivors of war crimes, that he was walking on a very narrow tightrope. That he was able to not only survive but to successfully complete his mission and write his famous report is due to a number of factors, not the least of which was his own shrewdness and self-awareness of the world around him. His experience gave him a way to evaluate situations that others did not possess. That, along with the man’s indomitable courage, explains much, but not everything.

Casement’s Methodology: It Helps To Have The Backing of the Hegemonic Power of the Day

Not to take away from his personal qualities, experience, but it must be underlined that Roger Casement also survived because clearly, he was the representative of the world’s most powerful government, that of Great Britain, and that his murder or disappearance could have proven damaging internationally for Leopold II. Casement understood that this was his ace in the hole so to speak and he played that card astutely. Others, journalists, missionaries, whatever not having London’s formal blessing could never have done what Casement did. For example, after hearing testimony from Congolese survivors of atrocities, Casement had the temerity to confront the officers of the Force Publique units involved, who ordered the killings. He confronted them with the victims’ testimony, demanded explanation. He would accuse regional administrators, Force Publique officers to their face of their crimes; he did so directly on a number of occasions and then took down their responses in writing. Depending on the circumstances, such interviews produced denials, rationalizations, threats, whatever. He survived it all in part because of his status. This is not to diminish what he was able to accomplish, simply to point out that it had a political context that was no small factor in opening doors.

Not to take away from his personal qualities, experience, but it must be underlined that Roger Casement also survived because clearly, he was the representative of the world’s most powerful government, that of Great Britain, and that his murder or disappearance could have proven damaging internationally for Leopold II. Casement understood that this was his ace in the hole so to speak and he played that card astutely.

Exposing the facts was one thing, placing those facts in a context to explain the system is quite another. Casement did much more provide an exposé. He was able to place those facts in such an order so as to explain the whole system of exploitation from its manifestation on the ground in the Congo, the practices of the Congo Free State administration and the Force Publique, but go much further, to ultimately those who set up and managed the system in the first place, ie, Leopold, who benefited from it financially and why the system was marked by such utter brutality and inhumanity. He understood the global nature of the rubber collection system, the underlying pressure to increase production at any cost and who ultimately benefited from it. In so doing, he was able to expose the network of responsibility which led from the Congo killing fields to Leopold’s castle in Brussels, to the stock market in London.

_________________

Sources: Actually there are many. I will only cite two that I have found especially useful. John Tully’s The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber. Monthly Review Press: 2011 and John Hemming’s Amazon Frontier: The Defeat of the Brazilian IndiansMacmillan Press: 1987.

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