Rubber is one of the most important products to come out of the rainforest. Though indigenous rainforest dwellers of South America have been using rubber for generations, it was not until 1839 that rubber had its first practical application in the industrial world. In that year, Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped rubber and sulfur on a hot stovetop, causing it to char like leather yet remain plastic and elastic. Vulcanization, a refined version of this process, transformed the white sap from the bark of the Hevea tree into an essential product for the industrial age.
With the invention of the automobile in the late 19th century, the rubber boom began. As demand for rubber soared small dumpy river towns like Manaus, Brazil, were transformed into over night into bustling centers of commerce. Manaus, situated on the Amazon where it is met by the Rio Negro, became the opulent heart of the rubber trade.
Within a few short years Manaus had Brazil's first telephone system, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and an electric grid for a city of a million, though it had a population of only 40,000. Vast fortunes were made by individuals, and "flaunting wealth became sport. Rubber barons lit cigars with $100 bank notes and slaked the thirst of their horses with silver buckets of chilled French champagne.
Their wives, disdainful of the muddy waters of the Amazon, sent linens to Portugal to be laundered...They ate food imported from Europe...[and] in the wake of opulent dinners, some costing as much as $100,000, men retired to any one of a dozen elegant bordellos." The citizens of Manaus "were the highest per capita consumers of diamonds in the world."
The opulence of the rubber barons could only be exceeded by their brutality. Wild Hevea trees, like all primary rainforest trees are widely dispersed, an adaptation that protects species from the South American leaf blight which easily spreads through and decimates plantations. Thus to make a profit, barons had to acquire control over huge tracts of land.
Most did so by by hiring their own private armies to defend their claims, acquire new land, and capture native laborers. Labor was always a problem so barons got creative. One baron created a stud farm, enslaving 600 Indian women whom he bred like cattle. Other barons like Julio Cesar Arana simply used terror to acquire and hold on to Indian slaves.
Indians captured usually submitted because resistance only meant more suffering for the families. Young girls were sold as whores, while young men were bound, blindfolded, and had their genitals blasted off. As the Indians died, production soared: in the 12 years that Arana operated on the Putumayo River in Colombia, the native population fell from over 30,000 to less than 8,000 while he exported over 4000 tons of rubber earning over $75 million. The only thing that stopped the holocaust was the downfall of the Brazilian rubber market.