THIS is the India-rubber age, and the Amazon is its main-spring. Down its turbid waters floats the elastic material that ties the world together. Amazon rubber is the best of all rubber; it furnishes the bulk of the product, and the nations of the earth pay tribute to Pará. The first rubber came from India, and hence the product was named India-rubber. Its value was discovered in 1736, less than 200 years ago, and for 80 years thereafter it was used only for rubbing out pencil marks. Then Mackintosh, in 1823, invented the rubber coat, and in 1843 the American Goodyear vulcanized it by treating it with sulphur. Other inventions followed, and to-day there is hardly an industry or an art in which it has not a part.
We all use rubber in some shape or other. We ride upon it in our carriages or cabs, it cushions the tires of our bicycles, and softens the seats of millions. We use it by tons to protect us from the rain. One New England factory makes 30,000 pairs of overshoes per day, and at a recent auction in Boston 4,000,000 rubbers were sold. Rubber ties together our papers ; it upholds our trousers and stockings. There are, it is estimated, 20,000,000 men and boys in the United States who use elastic suspenders,’ and an equal number of the other sex who wear garters of the same material.
I am writing this chapter in Pari, the port whence most of the rubber product of the Amazon valley is shipped. The rub-ber territory extends all along the Amazon and its tributaries, comprising an area one-third the size of the United States. The best trees are on land which is flooded part of the year, and most of them near the streams, the highways of travel. All the land is private property : it has been taken up by some one ; the best of it is controlled by large companies, and much is owned in big tracts. One company, The Amazonas, of London, for in-stance, owns 90,000 acres of forests ; another, The English Rubber Company, has 182,000 acres, including 300,000 rubber trees; while a third, The American Rubber Trust, controls many camps.
Some of the companies have capitals of millions and all are managed after modern business methods.
There are also smaller companies and many individuals interested in rubber gathering and selling. Most of the proprietors live in Pará and Manaos ; indeed, almost the whole territory is owned by these cities, the men and companies who actually do the work being in debt and subject to them. Some of the latter live in the wilds and use Indian labour. The Indians are some-times practically enslaved, being compelled to work at the revolver’s mouth. The question of labor is the most serious of problems in the rubber districts. The lowlands, where the rubber trees grow, are malarious and otherwise unhealthful. Many of the white workmen die, and it is only from fear of their masters that some of those of the Upper Amazon are kept at work.
It is rubber which has built up Pará, founding a great business city of i00,000 people here at the mouth of the Amazon. The people have grown rich by dealing in rubber and in supplying necessaries to the camps. The State itself is prosperous through its export tax of 25 cents per pound on all rubber shipments, and it is from this tax that its officials wax fat.
You cannot be long in Para without realizing that you are in the midst of rubber-shippers. The exporting parts of the city smell like a smoke-house. The odour is from the rubber, which is smoked in preparing it for market. It is brought in boats from the camps in lumps that look like small hams. They smell like country-smoked hams, and you think they are hams until you see one of them fall. It begins to bounce up and down as soon as it touches the ground, and rolls about as though it were a thing of life.
If you follow the rubber from the boats to the warehouses, you will see that each lump is carefully weighed, and that it is cut in pieces to ascertain that it is solid rubber all the way through, and it is then packed up in pine boxes for shipment. You may learn that each box contains 300 pounds and notice that the different boxes are marked for New York or Europe.
If you really wish to know, however, just what rubber is and how it is made, you must leave the cities and go into the forests of the rubber country and there watch the men as they gather it from the trees. This is what I did, making a piece of market-able rubber with my own hands. I can’t say, however, that the experiment was a financial success. The quantity of rubber I made was not over an ounce, and that ounce cost me $100 in gold, or at the rate of $1,600 per pound. It was, I venture to say, the dearest piece of rubber ever made.
The rubber district I visited was not far from Para”. It was on one of the islands of the delta of the Amazon. I had asked my friends to show me a camp at which I could make some rubber in order that I might describe just how it is done. So they hired a steam launch and fitted it out with provisions for a stay of two days. We had four sailors for a crew, and for the time lived very well. We failed, however, to fix the price of the launch beforehand, and when the bill was handed us the boat was charged for by the hour, the total sum amounting to 700,000 reis, or a little more than $100 in gold !
We left Para. in the evening, and were all night steaming up the Amazon. Our hammocks were slung to the roof of the boat, and we lay in our pajamas out in the open. The air was delightfully soft and just cool enough for comfort. The moon was full and the equatorial heavens were dotted with stars. Early next morning we landed at the house of a rubber planter. Our host, a yellow-skinned man of about fifty, received *us in his bare feet, giving us seats on his veranda and bringing us coffee and bread for breakfast. The house was right on the banks of the river. It was a rambling one-story structure, with a tiled roof surrounded by porches. At one end was the store-room, containing supplies for the rubber employés, and on the veranda were piles of rubber hams smoked and ready for market. After breakfast we walked about through the forest and watched the process of rubber-gathering and smoking.
But first let me tell you just how a rubber tree looks. Many of you have seen in hot houses the plants from which, as is popularly supposed, our rubber comes. In this, however, you are largely mistaken, for the rubber plant, with its thick, glossy green leaves, which you have seen, is that which produces gutta percha. It is nothing like the great tree from which we get the best rubber of commerce. The real rubber tree is not unlike many of our great forest trees. You might travel through the Amazon valley and unless you saw the rubber-hunters at work you would not know what it was. It looks much like the English ash, and grows to a height of more than 6o feet. Its bark, where it has not become black by tapping, is silver gray. The trunk of the tree, when. in full-bearing, is about as big around as a man’s waist. Where it has been tapped, it often swells out at the base, so that it is much larger. It blossoms in August, being then covered with little white flowers. It is a nut tree, and in December and January, when the nuts are ripe, the shells which enclose them burst with a noise like a firecracker, throwing the nuts some distance. There are usually so many nuts on a tree that a man could gather enough in a day to plant 100 acres of land. The trees can be easily grown in the rich soil, and they thrive without cultivation. It takes, however, from 15 to 20 years before they are ready for tapping. This is too long for the ordinary man to wait on the Amazon, and at present the trees that produce rubber are wild.
The rubber comes from the sap of the tree. The tapping is done from the ground up to as high as a man can reach, and sometimes higher. The trees are not bored with augers, as are our maple trees, nor are they scarred like the turpentine pine trees of our Southern States. The tapping is with a tomahawk or hatchet, which has a blade an inch wide. The rubber-gatherer makes a slight gash in the bark with this hatchet, just deep enough to go through without cutting the wood. As he draws out the hatchet, a milk-white fluid oozes forth, as thin as milk. This is much like the juice of the milk-weed. The tapper now takes a little cup of tin or clay, about as big as an after-dinner coffee cup, and fits it into another cut which he makes below the gash, so that the drops of milk run down into it. He makes three or four similar gashes in each tree, fitting each with its cup, and then goes on to the next. He continues his work until every tree allotted to him has been tapped.
He does this early in the morning, when the sap flows most freely. By noon he has gone again from tree to tree and emptied the milk from the cups into a gourd-like bucket. Each cup will have a tablespoonful or so of milk; and if for his morning’s work he gets a gallon of the fluid, he has done well. The milk flows slower and slower as the day advances. The air coagulates it, and after a few hours the sap has closed the wound.
A rubber tree that has been tapped looks like a mass of festering sores. The bark, which is of a smooth and beautiful silver gray where it has not been touched, becomes scarred and warty by the wounds of the hatchet. As the wounds close, tears of yellow rubber flow down on the bark about them. These tears are pulled out after the cup has been removed and sold as scrap or second-grade rubber, bringing from 20 to 50 per cent less than the rubber gathered in the cups, which can be properly cured. I almost neglected to say where the rubber trees grow in the forests. There is no such thing as a rubber-grove or a rubber-forest. The trees are not found in groups, but are scattered among the other trees, so that you often have to go long distances from rubber tree to rubber tree.
The forests are divided into paths, of from 60 to ioo rubber trees. These paths lead in and out of the woods, now crossing streams and now going through swamps, until all the trees on them have been reached. Each path is allotted to one man, who gashes the trees and gathers the rubber. The size of a plantation is known by its number of paths. There are some plantations that contain more than a thousand paths. It was along one of these paths that we went from tree to tree gathering rub-ber. I gashed one of the best-looking trees and fastened cups under the wounds. Later on I gashed others and in due time I gathered my rubber and brought it back to the house.
The next process is the smoking. To produce the best rubber the sap must be smoked the day it is gathered. It coagulates on exposure to the air, but hardens best under the influence of smoke. As directed by the rubber employés, I made a fire in the corner of a shed under a little clay chimney. The fuel was palm nuts, which, when lighted, caused a dense smoke to pour forth. The chimney was just about as high as my knee; so high that I could easily hold the wooden paddle in the smoke and turn it round without difficulty.
Now the rubber sap which I had gathered was poured into a bowl, much like one used by a cook to knead bread. The sap looked just like milk, and was of about the same thickness. Into the bowl I thrust the end of the paddle. It came out coated with milk. I held it in the smoke, turning it rapidly, and in about a minute the rubber had hardened upon it. I then thrust it into the bowl again for a fresh coat of milk, hardened this in the smoke in the same way, and so went on until I had built up layer after layer of sap on my paddle.
The smoke of course came into my eyes, and I wept almost as many tears as there were drops of rubber sap in the bowl. Finally, having made a very small quantity, I handed the job over to the professionals. They continued the smoking for hours, and in the end had one of the rubber hams of commerce about the paddle. This was now cut open with a knife and the paddle taken out. From the cut part I could easily see the layers made by the smoking. It looked much like cheese. In the smoking, the rubber had lost its beautiful white and become yellow and brown. It looked greasy, and was, as I have already said, of the shape and smell of a four-pound ham.
When we left for Para we took about $500 worth of these rubber hams with us. They were cut up and weighed at one of the warehouses, and by the time this account is published will, no doubt, have gone into the different forms into which rubber is used over the world.
I have made inquiries in various parts of the Amazon valley whether its rubber supply will soon be exhausted. Those best in-formed say that there is no reason for alarm. The trees are now scrupulously cared for, and every tree, if not abused, will produce milk in abundance for thirty or forty years. Rubber trees can be grown; already there are plans devised for rubber plantations, to be owned by large companies, and to be planted and cared for as long-time investments. It takes from 15 to 20 years after the planting before the trees will produce enough sap to pay for gathering it, but the cost of cultivation is small, and once in bearing the trees will continue to produce sap for many years.