New Internationalist

British connection to Amazon atrocities


A fisherman on the bank of the River Putumayo. Photo: Enochmartin, under a CC License

Indigenous people from Brazil, Colombia and Peru recently gathered in the Colombian Amazon to mark the atrocities and abuses largely committed by a British-registered company 100 years ago, with the British Ambassador present and messages read out from the Pope and Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.

The gathering took place just over a week ago at La Chorrera, on the River Igaraparana, a tributary of the River Putumayo, which in the early 20th century became the centre of operations for a ‘rubber baron’ named Julio Cesar Arana.

Santos’ message was delivered by the director of a governmental ‘Indigenous Peoples Program’, Gabriel Muruy Jacanamejoy. The BBC published an article on the president’s ‘apology’, but in the article referred to Arana’s company as a ‘Peruvian firm [which] tapped rubber from 1912 to 1929 near La Chorrera’, whose abuses were ‘first documented by British diplomat Roger Casement in 1912.’

That is entirely misleading and suggests that the only British involvement was in heroically exposing what was going on. Let us be clear here. Arana was a Peruvian, yes, but as historian Jordan Goodman details in his 2009 book The Devil and Mr Casement, Arana came to London in 1907 to create the Peruvian Rubber Company, which bought up his JC Arana y Hermanos business, changed its name twice, and then floated it on the London Stock Exchange in December 1908. It had British shareholders and an ‘impressive board of British directors’, one of whom had been a groom-in-waiting to Edward VII that same year.

Indigenous people had their land stolen, Casement wrote, and countless atrocities committed against them ‘not by a government... but by an association of vagabonds, the scum of Peru and Colombia, who have been assembled here by Arana Bros and then formed into an English company with a body of stultified English gentlemen – fools, or worse – at their head.’ 

That wasn’t the only British, or English, involvement. Arana’s rubber was excellent for British business: it was transported in British ships to the UK, where it was worked on by British manufacturers. As Casement himself put it, the ‘whole of the rubber output of the region… is placed upon the English market, and is conveyed from Iquitos in British [hulls].’

Moreover, Goodman argues, the British government dragged its feet while the atrocities continued. Although news of them was first publicized in Britain in September 1909 in a magazine called Truth, the Foreign Office didn’t send Casement to investigate until July 1910 and then didn’t publish his findings until two years later in July 1912, when he estimated that the indigenous population of the Putumayo region had declined from 50,000 in 1906 to 8,000 in 1911 – the majority of those who died were Huitoto. The reason for such delay? Partly because in South America the British usually needed the support of the US, whose priorities at the time lay elsewhere. The atrocities Casement documented were gruesome: systematic slavery, murder, massacres, rape, torture, stocks and chains, starvation regimes and flogging.

Publicly, to those who had no way of knowing otherwise, Arana called this ‘progress’. ‘With part of its forests inhabited by cannibal natives, [the Putumayo] has for a long time resisted every attempt at civilization,’ he told a banquet in November 1913. ‘It was necessary to establish enterprises strong and powerful enough in capital and resources in order to achieve the domination over the tribes which were an obstacle to the march of progress.’

Progress? Civilization? Such dirty words these days. It’s people like Arana who give them a bad name.

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