Thanks to Expat Brazil, I found some interesting stories on the latter end of Brazil’s rubber boom, including a piece from Democracy Now (which usually has interesting stories) doing an interview with the author of a new-ish book on Fordlândia, Henry Ford’s forgotten jungle city in the Amazon.
The Rubber boom (or Ciclo da borracha) constituted an important part of the economic and social history of Brazil, being related with the extraction and commercialization of rubber. This boom was centered in the Amazon, facilitating a large expansion of colonization, attracting wealth and causing cultural and social transformations, along with encouraging the growth of Manaus, Porto Velho, and Belém, which today remain major cities and the capitals of their respective Brazilian states, Amazonas, Rondônia and Pará. The rubber boom occurred largely between 1879 to 1912, and afterwards experienced a revival from 1942 to 1945 during the Second World War.
For the first four and a half centuries following the discovery of the New World, as no gold or precious stones were discovered in the Amazon, the native populations lived practically in isolation, as neither colonial Brazil nor imperial Brazil was able to create incentives for development in the region. Living with an economy based on vegetable extraction, the regional economy developed for centuries, accompanied with the interest of the market of diverse natural resources in the region.
The development of the Industrial Revolution in Europe was the fuse which made natural rubber, until then exclusively found in the Amazon, a desirable commodity, valued at a high price, and creating wealth and dividends for whoever would dare invest in the trade.
From the beginning of the second half of the 19th century, rubber began to exert a strong attraction to visionary entrepreneurs. The activity of latex extraction in the Amazon revealed its lucrative possibilities. Natural rubber soon achieved a place of distinction in the industries of Europe and North America, reaching a high price. This caused various people to travel to Brazil with the intention of learning more about the rubber tree and the process of latex extraction, with the end of achieving wealth.
Because of the growth of rubber extraction numerous cities and towns swelled. Belém and Manaus, which already existed, became transformed and urbanized. Manaus was the first Brazilian city to be urbanized and the second to be electrified (the first was Campos dos Goytacazes, in Rio de Janeiro).
The Spoils of Rubber
Belém, the capital of Pará state, as well as Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, were the most developed and prosperous cities in Brazil during the rubber boom, not only due to its strategic position, but also because a large number of residences for the rubber extractors was there. Both cities were electrified and given running water and sewers. Their apogee was reached between 1890 and 1920, due to technologies that other cities in the south and southeast of Brazil still didn’t have, such as electric trams, avenues built on cleared gullies, as well as imposing and luxurious buildings, such as the polished Teatro Amazonas, the government palace, the municipal market, and the customs house, in the case of Manaus, and the fish market, the iron market, Teatro da Paz, corridors of mango trees, and various residential palaces in the case of Belém, constructed in large part by the intendant Antônio Lemos.
The European influence later became notable in Manaus and Belém, in the architecture and the way of life, making the 19th century the best economic phase endured by the two cities. The Amazon was responsible in the era for nearly 40% of all Brazil’s exports. The new riches of Manaus made the city the world capital in the sale of diamonds. Thanks to rubber, the per capita income of Manaus was twice as much as the coffee-producing region (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Espírito Santo).
As payment for the export of rubber, the workers were paid in pounds sterling, the currency of the United Kingdom, which circulated in Manaus and Belém during this period.
The End of an Era
The Amazon was already losing primacy in rubber production due to rubber trees planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and tropical Africa. These rubber trees were planted from seeds that Henry Wickham had smuggled out of Brazil in 1876. These plantations were able to produce latex with greater efficiency and productivity. Consequently, with lower costs and a lower final price, the British Empire assumed control of the world rubber market.
The Second Boom
The Amazon again experienced a rubber boom during the Second World War, although it was of brief duration. As Japan dominated the eastern Pacific Ocean from the beginning of 1942 and invaded Malaysia, the rubber plantations there came under their control, which resulted in the loss of 97% of Asiatic rubber production.
This resulted in the implementation of new elements, including infrastructure, in Belém and Manaus, this time on the behalf of the United States. An example of this is the Grande Hotel, a luxurious hotel constructed in Belém in only three years, which today is the Hilton Hotel.
For more on the Second Boom, below is a documentary (in PT) on the rubber soldiers and the second-coming. In English, here’s a story on the subject from the NYT.
Theatro da Paz was built following neoclassical lines, within the golden age of rubber in the Amazon Basin. It is considered the most important culture house in northern Brazil and one of the most luxurious theaters in the whole country. As one can see, it definitely stands out in the modern day city scenario as a beautiful relic of Belém’s past.
The theater originally sat 1,100 people (although today it seats 900) and the curtain was brought in from Paris while the entrance hall is made of decorative materials imported from various regions of Europe. Examples can be found in the English steel in the arcs of the doorways, an Italian marble staircase, French chandeliers and Portuguese stones on the floor. These days, one can find plays, philharmonic concerts and dance recitals going on by checking in with the theater’s calendar of events.
If you would like to see the Teatro da Paz (Theater of Peace) during your trip to Belém, you can find it in the Praça da República (Republic Plaza) in the Centro district. The street it is on is called Rua da Paz.