An American Amazon?

Colonizers, Slavers and Speculators in the Upper Amazon

Photograph Source: Antonio Campoy – CC BY 2.0

When the American gunboat “Wilmington” steamed through the Amazon in 1899 with a secret US-Bolivian treaty aimed at “Americanizing” the Acrean territory, (Bolivian at the time) the Brazilians, though outraged, were not exactly surprised. The antecedents to the “Wilmington” affair— and the revolutionary response to it, lay in a set of long-held schemes, conceptions and explorations that had unfolded during the previous half-century that reflected a US attitude about US colonies in the Amazon that Brazilians, and especially Amazonians found suspect. As far back as the 1850s, the US Confederacy had dreams for the colonization of Amazonia, and scientists sponsored by America’s top scientific institutions (Harvard museum, US Naval Observatory, the Smithsonian) floated down the Amazon in support of this agenda. In a later decade, Americans began to develop plans for a New World “Liberia”. North Americans with entrepreneurial ambitions for the region never seemed to be lacking, with many “up country” schemes emerging in the 1870 and 1880s. By the 1890s the Wallstreet investors were prepared to fund an international syndicate that would occupy some of the richest rubber forests in all of Amazonia, setting up a syndicate and colony: in short a new polity in the heart of Amazonias most valuable forests. It began before the civil war.

An American Slave State in the Amazon

The Baron of Rio Branco, Brazil’s boundary mastermind was well aware of long-standing American interest in Amazonia, due to his own time in the United States and US forays during the Imperial period when Rio Branco’s father was Foreign minister. At that time, Mathew Fontaine Maury, Maury’s brother-in-law William Lewis Herndon, Harvard Museum Director, Louis Agassiz, and their ally, the Brazilian statesman Tavares Bastos had to convince Emperor Pedro II of the virtues of allowing ships from any nation to travel on the Amazon and to let Americans settle there in large numbers.

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Susanna B. Hecht is professor in the School of Public Affairs and the Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Fate of the Forest (with Alexander Cockburn) and The Scramble for the Amazon.

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