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The Servitude of Rubber and Cocoa - Putumayo Rubber


Hardenburg's Story - The British Select Committee - The Putumayo System - Action by Sir Edward Grey - Mr. Justice Swinfen Eady on Company's Records - The Atrocities - Swinfen Eady orders Company to be wound up - The Opponents - Mr. Charles Roberts.
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During the last years of the nineteenth century a familiar figure in the streets of Iquitos was a barefooted hawker peddling cheap panama straws. In December, 1908, in the City of London, there was founded a company called the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, with a capital of one million sterling, and at its head was the erstwhile pedlar, now Julio Cesar Arana. The company surrounding him was of mixed nationality, and included several well-known British financiers.

In the midsummer of 1909 there came to London an unknown young man who had spent some years of his life in America as a civil engineer, W. E. Hardenburg, carrying with him a manuscript which contained his experiences in the Putumayo and its tributary rivers. This manuscript and the documents accompanying it were closely scrutinised by certain publishing houses, and these all with one accord refused to risk a publication unless adequately guaranteed against the consequences of legal proceedings. But the Editor of Truth and certain other British papers published considerable extracts.

The tragic story told by Mr. Hardenburg concerned the Indians of the Putumayo, of whom it was estimated there were about 60,000: 'a simple people of naturally friendly disposition, whose confidence and affection it would not be difficult to gain.' In the basin of the Putumayo the forests contained considerable quantities of raw india-rubber fetching at that time 35. per lb. in the markets of London and Antwerp. These Indians were enslaved by the Peruvian Amazon Company for the purpose of gathering this rubber from forests under a system which bore a close resemblance to that of King Leopold in the Congo. Dr. Paredes, of Iquitos, a writer of some note, issued at this time his book describing the results of the system: Their insatiable desire to obtain the greatest production in the least time and with the least possible expense was undoubtedly one of the causes of crime, for the Indians who did not comply with the requirements imposed were tortured and killed outright, while the stubborn ones were compelled with machete and bullet to fulfil the mandates. Crime was in proportion to the yield and the former [sic] increased, the greater was the number of kilograms extracted: that is, the greater the number of assassinations, the greater the production, which meant that a great part of the production was obtained over blood and dead bodies.

The system of rubber slavery revealed in the Putumayo challenged British sentiment, and challenged it successfully. Once again a handful of reformers succeeded in shattering an organisation powerfully entrenched in the City of London, and supported by a few persons occupying high positions in the social scale. A very real tragedy in this case, as in all other cases of slavery, was the time taken to carry the three essential stages; first, that of gathering authenticated facts; secondly, the rousing of public opinion; and thirdly, that of persuading Governments to take action. Fowell Buxton's letters and diaries show how heavily delay and its consequences lay upon his conscience during his sixteen years' task of securing the emancipation of slaves in British territories. A Select Committee of the House of Commons commented upon this important and cruel factor of delay in its valuable report upon the Putumayo: The delay during these months is greatly to be deplored. It is not merely a speculative question as to the light it throws on the minds of the British directors. But while they wrote leisurely debating replies to the Foreign Office the killing and torture of the helpless Indians was in fact going on all the time, and some of the worst atrocities were being perpetrated. They continued, in fact, till the break-up of the criminal gang of employees as the result of the discovery of the truth.

It is probably true to say that the cruelties committed upon the 60,000 Indians of the Putumayo reached a degree of barbarity more intense than in any other known system of slavery. The main features of the Putumayo system were strikingly akin to the Congo in its purpose - the production of rubber and its claim - that all the rubber of the forests was the property of alien speculators. Its methods, however, were slightly different. The Company made advances of European goods to the Indians, who then became debtors to the Company, who in turn appointed agents to force them to pay off the debts in rubber. The debts incurred were transferable and in the process of time became saleable assets. The sale of the debt assets in practice carried with it the bodies of the Indians. To apply this system a considerable force of soldiery was required to capture runaway debtors, and to compel the regular quotas of rubber. Indeed, it was found that the Company in London kept a record of armaments, which included in 1910 Winchester rifles alone to the value of 1,700 ponds. The evils of the system were accentuated, as in the Congo, by the payment of commissions to the heads of sections.

The Company's officers in Salisbury House issued a public statement that they declined to attach any credence to the allegations, and that they had the utmost confidence in Julio Cesar Arana. They refused on two occasions to see a deputation of British people who were concerned with the grave allegations made against this British registered Company. One of the chief officials, however, consented to see the representative of a newspaper, who put certain questions to him the replies to which he was told would be found in an envelope handed to him. The envelope handed to him contained a banknote! Thus did the Company, blind alike to their responsibilities and interests, endeavour to bluff public opinion.

But the publication of the Hardenburg papers and the ever-increasing pressure of public opinion at last compelled the Company to take official action, and two enquiries were set on foot: one by the British Government, and the other by the Company itself. The Government most concerned - that of Peru - remained singularly unmoved by the disclosures, and despite the treaty with Great Britain undertaking to prohibit all persons inhabiting its territory from taking any share in the slave trade, did nothing. The Peruvian Senate passed a resolution calling for an enquiry. The Government, to its lasting shame, ignored the demand.

The London Board of the Company still dallied with the situation, and only after a discussion lasting nine months did the directors decide to send out their own Commission of Enquiry. But even so it is doubtful whether this Commission would have arrived at the truth had it not been that Sir Edward Grey despatched the British Consul to watch the proceedings on behalf of British Barbadians employed by the Peruvian Amazon Company. It was thanks to this action and the presence of the British Consul that the whole story of this appalling crime was laid bare. Sir Edward Grey had faced for months the problem of intervention. It was one of extreme difficulty, for Great Britain had only limited treaty rights. Moreover, there were the susceptibilities of the United States to be considered. The British Government had reason for believing that the allegations were true, and that it could only be a matter of time before complete exposure was made. As many of the agents were British coloured subjects recruited in Barbados, there was ground at one time for believing that they would be made the scapegoats. It was in these circumstances that Sir Edward Grey was able to intervene and depute the nearest British Consul to report upon the work upon which these British subjects were engaged.

Just as in the case of the Congo, so in that of the Putumayo, the story of exploitation is written in letters of blood in the reports and documents of the perpetrators of the crime. When the appeal for winding up the Company was made in the Law Courts, Mr. Justice Swinfen Eady, while stating that the British Consul's report was no evidence, accepted the report of the Company's own officers, which, as he said, disclosed a disgraceful state of affairs.

In practice, however, it produced abominable results from the commercial as well as from the humanitarian point of view. Misunderstanding and ill-feeling between the local managers and the Iquitos office appear to have been unceasing, and the managers both in Putumayo and Iquitos were at best criminally ignorant of the state of things obtaining in the huge territory that was subject to their administration.

Mr. Justice Swinfen Eady had no doubts as to the existence of slavery: 'Labour supervision as carried out by such men under the conditions above described and in the absence of any Governmental control rapidly became indistinguishable from slave-driving.'

He then described the absolute nature of the power wielded by the Peruvian Company: Absolute power was put into the hands of men who recognised no responsibility save that of extorting rubber for their own benefit. Forced labour of the worst sort, that imposed by fear by private individuals for their own benefit, was the basis. The Indians were considered as possessing none of the ordinary rights of humanity, women: in particular would be assigned to employees on their arrival in a section.

Nothing could have been more clear and emphatic than the passages of the judgment dealing with the atrocities inflicted on the Indians: During the inspection worse crimes than those recorded were brought to light with the assistance of interpreters, while no interpreters were needed to explain the marks visible on the backs of the men, women and children - marks it was hard to believe had not been impressed with a hot iron.

As the Editor of Truth said in one of his courageous exposures of the activities of the Company: They flog them (the Indians) inhumanly until their bones are laid bare; they do not give them any medical treatment, but let them linger, eaten by maggots, till they die, to serve afterwards as food for the chiefs' dogs; they mutilate them, cut off their ears, fingers, arms and legs; they torture them by means of fire, of water, and by tying them up, crucified head down.

Those who wish to realise the intensity of the atrocities must read them in the evidence tendered by the Select Committee in the House of Commons. There are some things which cannot be published in a book of this nature. It was said of one of the supervisors of the Peruvian Amazon Company that He hunted, he kicked, and tortured to-day in order to terrify fresh victims for to-morrow... each crime led on to fresh crimes, and many of the worst men on the Putumayo fell to comparing their battues and boasting the number they had killed. Everyone of these criminals kept a large staff of unfortunate Indian women for immoral purposes.... The gratification of this appetite to excess went hand in hand with the murderous instinct which led these men to torture and kill the very parents and kinsmen of those they had cohabited with.

Another, Jermin Vasquez, boasted on his return from one district alter he had carried out a series of beheadings that 'he had left the road pretty.' The lash spared none; there was no pity for old men, women or children, all carry the 'mark of Arana,' and in more than one case we hear of the whippers too tired to lift their arms again, passing on their whips to other men standing by impatiently waiting to continue the torture. All classes of the native population - young as well as old - women and children, youths and girls, casiques or capitanes, and their wives were marked, some lightly, others with broad and often terrible scars...

The Editor of Truth summed up the kind of flogging which was inflicted upon the Indians who fell short in their rubber quotas. They were frequently flogged to death; cases were reported to me where men and women had died actually under the lash. Salt and water would be sometimes applied to their wounds, but in many cases a fatal flogging was not even attended by this poor effort of healing, and the victim with maggots in the flesh was turned adrift to die in the forest, or was shot, and the corpse burned or buried.

The system as disclosed to the British public was one of robbery and outrage. Everything the Indian had possessed taken from him - his gardens, his lands his forest rights, his labour, and finally his own body then in turn that of his wife and children. This wholesale robbery was imposed at the muzzle of the rifle and point of the bayonet. The miserable Indians were hunted into the forests; their dependents seized and outraged. Indeed, no deed was too bestial no atrocity too revolting for the criminal agents of the Peruvian Amazon Company.

Arrayed against this system was the little band of those who had inherited the spirit of the Emancipators. They set out to smash up this nefarious undertaking, and rescue the Indians from their nightmare of suffering. They were confronted with scepticism, for their allegations against the Company seemed too ghastly to be true. They were ill-equipped with means, their efforts at securing evidence frustrated, but with undaunted spirit they accomplished their task.

The efforts made by Sir Edward Grey in association with the Government of the United States led firstly to the publication of a Grey Book which showed that for some years the Government of the U.S.A. had known in some detail of the horrors of the Putumayo; secondly, to a remonstrance by the United States Government to that of Peru. This Anglo-American action led to a semblance of activity, for more than 200 warrants for the arrest of the criminals were issued, but not a single person of any note was ever punished by the Peruvian Government.

The British House of Commons secured the appointment of a Select Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Charles Roberts, which held 36 sittings in the House of Commons and received evidence from 27 witnesses, amongst whom were Julio Cesar Arana and Mr. Hardenburg. The Report of this Committee is a monument to the painstaking care with which every allegation was examined, and its conclusions are set forth in a series of paragraphs covering the principal features of the enquiry. Under the heading of Confirmation of Atrocities is the following pregnant paragraph: Your Committee did not consider that it fell within their province to investigate further into the truth of the atrocities stated to have been committed in the Putumayo. The details of these atrocities are set out in the Putumayo Bluebook. The accepted fact of the outrages was the starting point of their inquiry. Incidentally during the course of their investigation the reality and the gravity of these atrocities have been admitted, established and confirmed.

There remained but one practical step - namely, that of securing the winding up of the Company. For this purpose a small group of shareholders placed in the hands of the Anti-Slavery Society the necessary powers, and on March 19, 1913, petition for winding up the Company was presented to Mr. Justice Swinfen Eady and the petition succeeded. The concluding words of the judgment were as follows: I am quite satisfied upon the whole of the case, both with regard to the manner in which the operations of the Company were conducted in the Putumayo district and in Brazil, and with regard to the way in which the financial transactions in this country have been concerned, that it is a case in which there ought to be a Compulsory Order to be followed by the fullest investigation, and that Senor Arana is the last person to whom the conduct of that investigation ought to be allocated. Under these circumstances I make the Compulsory Order.

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