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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.

Maury himself never stepped foot in the Amazon but deeply affected American and especially Confederate ambitions for the region. Maury, a dedicated Confederate, was an eminent scientist, and like Agassiz, was head of an important institution, the US Naval Observatory, whose equivalent today might be NASA. Both were men of science, believed profoundly in God’s design, in scientific racism, and in the virtues and the necessity of American colonization of the Amazon. In Maury’s view this was the best way to develop the riches lying fallow under the louche energies of Brazilian dominion. The mechanisms to achieve this change should include free trade, open navigation, steam travel and American entrepreneurial spirit in the form of colonization.And slave labor. For Maury, it was black labor—the cheapest on offer and white management that was key to transforming this immense region.

Maury, born in Tennessee to a prestigious but downwardly mobile Virginian family, was a brilliant autodidact. Maury wrote what many considered to be the foundational work in oceanography a doorstopper called The Physical Geography of the Seas, a tome credited with expanding American maritime dominance at the mid 19th century. Maury’s technique was one of promoting widespread observations from various fleets, whalers and merchant ships on position, water temperature, prevailing winds, pressure and other elements of interest that were then sent to him at the Observatory. He then assembled this onslaught of data into a system of maritime maps of wind and water flow. This strategy of information collection was rather like crowdsourcing or “Wiki” avant la lettre.  By coordinating thousands of disparate observations, he was to see surprising connections in practical navigations and to collate immense amounts of observational knowledge, creating practical navigation tools so powerful that he was described as a kind of Confederate Newton. He passionately believed that the physical phenomena he was observing were manifestations of Divine Intelligence and Godly Design and the movement of winds and waters, the subtle machinery that directed the globe, as the handiwork of the “Architect of Creation”. Even for the times, this was not a particularly trenchant analysis in the realms of physics or astronomy, nonetheless, his prestige and popular reach were great.

Maury was one of the most decorated American men of science of the nineteenth century and received numerous awards and accolades in Europe. In his role as the top Navy scientist, he was intimately connected with the American ambitions and international diplomacy of seafaring, steamship development and river trade. He was powerful enough to mobilize the national resources to send Lardner Gibbon, and Maury’s brother-in-law, William Lewis Herndon, on an expedition that would produce one of the durable Amazon travel classics: Exploration of the Valley of the Amazons.  As Maury outlined it in his letter of instruction to Herndon, the expedition was to “prepare the way for that chain of events” so that the region would be understood “as an American Colony” This reconnaissance was meant to provide the empirical foundation for American colonization of the Amazon: to, as he put it: “revolutionize, republicanize and Anglo-Saxonize that valley.”

Maury’s interest in Amazonia and Confederate imperialism had many sources: his professional work on the flow of currents; his yearnings for a “Southern Manifest Destiny;” and his preference for certain theories about environmental determinism and racial hierarchies. All of these coalesced in a vision of a “Confederacy in the Tropics” that would reach from Virginia to the Amazon, and a broader hemispheric division between American slave and non-slave economies.  Maury and the confederate elite
were engaged in a deep political re-imagination of US politics and North America’s global role, shifting from Jeffersonian centralized governance, isolationist, yeoman trajectory to the more imperial thought, and laissez faire economies. The important Southern segment of this movement was inflamed by a fiery nationalism, Manifest Destiny (in this case focused outside the continental US,) international interventionist politics, and was also profoundly pro-business.

“Our Sweet Sea”

Maury’s argument for linkages between America and Amazonia took its inspiration from his study of wind and currents from which he concluded that a log released at the mouth of the Amazon would float through the Caribbean (that “American Mediterranean” and “our sweet sea”) past the Mississippi through the Florida Straights and the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, the Amazon, just like rivers of the Southern States flowed ultimately to the Caribbean. The Amazon in his view had two estuaries: the first where it poured into the Atlantic, and the second, its “true estuary”, where it deposited its sediments in the seas off the US Southern Gulf Coast. This was the logic that folded Amazonia into North American hegemony. Oceanographically, Maury said, “That river basin (the Amazon) is closer to us than to Rio and puts …the mouth of that river within the Florida pass and as much under our control as is the mouth of the Mississippi.”  In Maury’s view, in earlier times, civilizations had emerged from discrete watersheds like the Tigris or the Yellow River. But now, he believed, large multi-river basins would become the great cultural and economic integrators. Amazonia was seen as part of an “American Mediterranean”—-the Caribbean basically— through which the colonization and commerce of systems of watersheds (including the giant waterways like Mississippi, Orinoco, Amazon and Central American rivers would be mastered by a “New Rome” based in the Southern US— New Orleans or Norfolk.: “ships sailing from the mouth of the Amazon for whatever port of the world are forced to our very doors by the southeast and northeast trade winds: New York is the half-way house between Pará and Europe. For Maury, the ocean currents mingled not only the waters and sediments of Amazonia with those of North America but also their destinies.

Maury viewed the tropics as fulfilling divine purposes. The linking of American Manifest Destiny to God’s glorious ocean devices had several implications. By mid-century, the Southern slave economies more or less understood that they would enjoy no further territorial expansion in North America. Excluded from the Northern great plains and the West, Southern slavocrats shifted their gaze to the tropics.. Instead of the Jeffersonian “Empires of Liberty”, the war cry of some Southern secessionists was “Imperial Republics of Slavery”. As the conservative journal DeBow’s Review would put it in 1849: “We must meet our Destiny, a Manifest Destiny over all of Mexico, South America, the West Indies”. Some antebellum Southerners, such as soon to be Confederate President Jefferson Davis, already viewed the Gulf of Mexico as Confederate Territory. Others, like Mississippi Governor John Quitman, a veteran of the annexation of Texas and the Mexican American wars, turned his gaze to the tropical terrains full of squabbling caudillos, proto revolutions, native peoples and freebooters of all kinds— and saw a Central and South America that could be disciplined and developed as part of a new American “Confederacy”.

A Confederate tropical Manifest Destiny would be beneficial in many ways. Maury, like many other southerners, feared a Malthusian crisis in a South over run with Black slaves, leading to problems of race war and miscegenation. Since slave systems could not expand on the North American continent they needed a dumping ground for “excess” population. Amazon would be the salvation of American slavery:

“The Amazon valley is to be the safety valve for our Southern States. When they become overpopulated with slaves, the Africa slave trade will cease and they (southerners) will send these slaves to the Amazon, just as the Miss. (sic) valley has been the escape valve for the slaves of the Northern now free states, so will the Amazon valley be to that of the Miss” “…it would be relieving our own country of the slaves, it would be hastening the time of our deliverance and it would be putting off indefinitely the horrors of that war of the races which, without an escape is surely to come upon us. … It is becoming a matter of faith among leading southern men that the time is rapidly approaching when in order to prevent this war of the races and its horrors, they will in self-defense be compelled to conquer parts of Mexico and Central America and make slave territory of that—and that is now free.”

By colonizing Amazonia, the tensions between the Northern and Southern states would be significantly reduced; and “The Union would be saved!” Maury walked a subtle line vis a vis the larger international slavery question as well: “ Shall Amazonia be supplied with this class from the U. States or from Africa? In the former it will be the transfer of the place of servitude but the making of no new slaves. In the latter in will be the making of slaves of freemen and adding greatly to the number of slaves in the world.”

Beyond the ideological and territorial ambitions lurked economic concerns. Southern cotton soils were becoming depleted, and Maury asserted: “I’m pretty clear that the only remaining cotton country… is to be found on the southern tributaries of the Amazon.” Maury more or less envisioned in one of his more rapturous passages the entire basin devoted to cotton production. With the British demand for the crop accelerating, Maury felt that British self-interest, given their immense dependence on the cotton industry, would permit them to cast a blind eye over the way the commodity was being produced in spite of their aggressive abolitionist politics.

In a stressed southern economy, beset with depleted soils, the loss of the lucrative river trade to the new railroads, and a dim future for the institutions of southern life, the rejuvenating energies of Amazonian colonization would rescue the south from its own decadence and socio-ecological problems in the face of an emergent industrializing North American economy. This move to the tropics, coupled with the commercial and entrepreneurial spirit  of the US would transform the Amazon valley in the same way Confederates (and their slaves) had remade the Mississippi from a wild place into Dixie, a prosperous “Land of Cotton”.

“How Fortunate the Amazon is Empty”

But should Amazonia be peopled with, in Maury’s words, “ an imbecile and indolent people?” The answer for Maury was clearly “no”— “the sort of labor necessary to the extensive cultivation of cotton plants is compulsory labor. ” “Looking into the future”, Maury wrote “I have seen an African slave populations of America clustered around the border of this “Mediterranean sea”.

Maury was inspired enough in his terms of a reference letter to Herndon: “ It is reserved for the European race not only to exhibit the most perfect phase of Human Civilization but to impress that Civilization on other races of the World.” More to the point, “the progress of the Negro would never develop from within, but by necessity be imposed from without.” Informed by these ideas on racial superiority and the fashionable environmental determinism of the day, Maury would say this about Amazonia:

“This is a place for slaves. The European and Indian have been battling with these forests for 300 years and not left the merest mark. If someday its vegetation is tamed, if one day its soil is reclaimed from the forest, its wild animal and reptiles subdued by the by the plow and axe, it will have been done by the African. This is the land of Parrots and monkeys’ and only the African is up the task which man must realize there.”

While the brawn would be black, the technical and sophisticated knowledge would remain the domain of their white masters.

With abolition, there would be four million slaves suddenly loosed into the American scene. It would be far better to take white Americans and their slaves en masse, and as had happened in the Mississippi, people a new place with a fruitful system until it reached it its full productivity. These views required some empirical reconnaissance, and it was Maury’s kinsman Herndon and midshipman Gibbon who were charged with the task.

Maury’s imperial position implicitly expressed the fashionable imperial ideas of Vattel, the Swiss jurist of international law whose views on sovereignty and “Natural Law” suggested if a country were not effectively occupying their lands, or held more than it would use or cultivate, it should not oppose itself to others able to do so.   The tropes of emptiness, primitivity, and incapacity were hardly new in the annals of tropical claiming, but the 19th-century North American interests in the Amazon Scramble animated several types of logics: of economic interests melded to divine right, merit bonded to destiny, chosen people (within the racial hierarchies), preferred political system (republics) and the virtues of free trade (central to the economic theory of the time) as well as in the larger political imagination involving righteous dominion and heavenly purpose. “How fortunate it was that the Amazon was empty” wrote Maury, “since then it could be populated by North American slaves”.

Maury’s Instructions

Maury’s letter to Herndon of Nov 13 1850 was wild about the possibilities of colonization. In Maury’s opinion, which later echoed throughout Herndon’s tome, opening the river to free trade would soon induce a flood of colonists and their slaves from the US, and with steamboats and open navigation, a vibrant economy would emerge—“It would be regarded for all practical purposes as an American colony.” Maury admonished Herndon not to let on to officials that he was reviewing Amazonia for its possibilities for Confederate colonization.  Instead, Maury emphasized Herndon should forge friendships with governments and interests on the upper Amazon—Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador because if these countries embarked on regional navigation rights with Brazil, a means of “free trade” with external trading partners (the US) might indeed be possible.

Maury’s letter of instruction to Herndon urges exploration of “familiarity”: could one grow the southern crops like cotton, sugar, rice, tobacco? Was there any coal? Did Amazon cut its banks like the Mississippi? The exotica Herndon did note are basically not very exotic: chinchona bark for quinine and reports on the rubber industry. Herndon himself remarked that the Amazon itself was really just like the Mississippi at high flood. Maury was at pains to reiterate that the Amazon and the Mississippi were more or less analogues and commercial complements of each other. Maury relied heavily on the Herndon reports and reiterated that though the river itself might be enormous, and it was the jungly Amazon of swamps and snakes, the mighty Mississippi with its bayous and water moccasins was not so different. The Amazon would not beyond the scope of southern skills and practices. Rather than justifying territorial occupation on “ecological otherness” to be tamed by a northern colonial model—the approach more typical of other tropical colonialisms, the claims here were based on similarity, an unusual characterization for tropical imperial ambitions. These were wedded to the congruence of their economic systems (slavery), their markets and the potential new outlets for American products.

Herndon was obedient to the wishes of his kinsman. His travelogue of 1853 refers constantly to the similarities of pasture, of fruits, (though he does note the exceptional deliciousness of the native Guanabana and of course cacao) of cuisine and how local foods could substitute for northern staples. While there is plenty of the usual Amazon tropicalia (turtle eggs, close calls with alligators, bugs are irritating, some rough rapids etc) Herndon’s account has less heavy breathing than the usual “darkest Amazon” narratives: The natives are basically not so bad but they could benefit from military colonies and compulsory work; Herndon’s rowers seem relatively tractable compared to other reports, including that of his compatriot Gibbon who languishes on the Bení and fears abandonment by his guides. All the officialdom that Herndon meets yearns for American know-how. Herndon was at pains to describe the general approval he finds everywhere for American colonization and free trade. The implicit argument was that if any foreign power were to have colonies there, by far the most “pre-adapted” would be southern slavocrats and their chattel who had done it all before. Maury hinted to Herndon to look for large areas to acquire on Peru’s upper Huallaga (today a major coca producing zone), what Maury would describe as the “New Tennessee.”

Herndon’s trip could be summed up this way: “I presume that the Brazilian government would impose no obstacles to the settlement of this country by any of the citizens of the United States who would choose to go there and carry their slaves: and I know the thinking people on the Amazon would be glad to see them”.

Herndon’s book became a best seller. The Navy alone published and distributed 10,000 copies, but Herndon’s account was just one of a two-volume travel narrative. Herndon’s companion, Midshipman Lardner Gibbon had taken different routes and informed on other parts of the basin: Herndon went through Peru into Brazil, and Gibbon went to Brazil via Bolivia, through the Mamoré branch into the Madeira. Gibbon’s memoir was somewhat lost in the flurry and publicity that attended the Herndon narrative. Indeed many modern editions of the “Travels” completely omit Gibbon. He was younger, less connected, traveled the tougher route over the Bolivian Andes and saw a different Amazon. His report was sometimes dismissed as juvenile, perhaps due to his appreciation of spirit and beauty in women and horseflesh (with ample and admiring descriptions of both). He spent time amongst the muleteers and traders and had a good deal of rough travel.The most daunting part of his (or anyone’s) journey from Bolivia on to the main channel of the Amazon was getting through the almost 250 km of rapids and falls on the Madeira river, the graveyard of many explorers and ambitions. The devil’s cauldron of these rapids separated the rich Bolivian rubber forests from the Amazon river access to Atlantic markets. Gibbon’s careful notes on the rapids and his claim that whatever difficulties existed, the long-term benefits of getting around systems of falls, whirlpools, etc would far outweigh its costs later struck a chord for many seeking the “main chance” in the Amazon.

Gibbon was a better ethnographer by far than Herndon, who was mostly interested in native people as coerced labor, or objects of annihilation: “This seems to be their destiny. Civilization must advance though it tread on the neck of the savage, or even trample him out of existence” For Gibbon “the industrial, agricultural and manufacturing people of this country are principally among the aborigines” and he goes into a recitation of smelting, jewelry making, weaving, planting, brewing, brickmaking. Cultivation of multicolored native tree cotton and the richness of the dye plants are duly noted. The mineral exchanges between the high and lowlands, and the placer mines of gold are commented upon and their value calculated. He reports that among the Chiquitano Indians there was great love of music-making and instrument manufacture aptitude in reading, mathematics and languages. Gibbon was in the lands of the Mission cultures of the Upper Amazon, and in the shadow realm of the great Pre-Colombian societies of the Moxos. Among the Yacaré Indians, Gibbon noted  ”There are two characteristics of the Indian we particularly notice: his honesty and his truthfulness”. Gibbon’s view of natives is was the counterpoint of the noble savage to Herdon’s savage brutes.

Gibbon paid close attention to local color.. He notes runaway slaves in the Bolivian side of the Madeira, (said to number 2,000—an enormous number at the time, and a figure that hardly boded well for new immigrant slave-based production yearned for by Maury), the village of Borba, composed almost entirely of blacks and the free black militias in Mato Grosso. He provided detailed information on forts, economic activities of the most varied types, military men and equipment because he was in a position to actually see them. Gibbon’s report reflects the social milieu where he traveled closer to the realities of the Amazonian economies. Among later adventurers and explorers, it was Gibbon’s work that was the more useful guide, not the popular Herndon overheated imperial account. In terms of measurement and observation, Gibbon’s survey was more precise, and his judgment less clouded by an external agenda.

Gibbons’ narrative, in contrast to Herndon, is not a story of the primitives and yokels yearning for American salvation. He describes a dinner party in La Paz where the lovely hostess engages him in a lively conversation about politics: “She expressed approval of the American people but not some of their actions…she asked me to explain to her the meaning of all the articles she saw in the La Paz newspapers on the subject of Cuba. Turning suddenly, she looked up and said “what are you doing here Senhor Gibbon, do you want Bolivia also?”

The answer, although Gibbon did not know it then, was “Yes.”

Tropical Dixies

Amazonian colonization faded for a time as a geopolitical project due to the US civil war, and the Brazilian war with Paraguay. Maury’s ideas did stimulate migration of southerners who preferred immigration to Brazil where the “peculiar institution” still thrived, to the problems reconstruction in the United States. While they were inspired and influenced by Maury, their move was a largely personal solution to the loss of the Civil War and abolition and their actions were leached of geopolitics.

Southern migrants were further encouraged by the writings in the 1850s of Maury’s contemporary, Colonel Lansford Hastings. Hastings had had an active life as a colonizer and dreamed of emulating Sam Houston by wrenching land from Mexico, proclaiming it an independent Republic and later having it annexed by the US. To encourage westward migration he had a brisk sideline churning out books on routes for immigrants into California. His prestige in this arena declined drastically due to the unfortunate “Hastings cutoff” through the Sierra Nevada that was used by the desperate and ultimately cannibalistic Donner party, so humorously described by Mark Twain in Roughing It. This understandably undermined confidence in his North American schemes, but he was undaunted and redirected his frontier ambitions to the Amazon.

Hastings went to Brazil, carried out some preliminary assessments, promptly wrote his “Immigrants Guide to Brazil” and organized a colony in Santarem, a town at the mouth of the Tapajos. “The Amazon”, Hastings noted, “reminds us of the Mississippi”. The colony itself was not so successful, and the travails the migrants endured reads like a melodramatic novel with extortion, shipwrecks, mutiny, and on board epidemics. A few families endured and were quite successful, and as elsewhere in Brazil, Americans were considered innovators in agriculture. Many English speaking tourists and scientists washed up on the doorsteps of the Santarem Confederates and enjoyed their hospitality. The Anglophone enclave at Santarem attracted adventurers of all types including an Englishman named Mr. Wickham, his wife Violet and their four children who resided there for several years. Wickham devised the biopiracy in the 1870s that would ultimately unravel the Amazon rubber economy when he shipped out some 70,000 seeds to Britain’s Royal Gardens at Kew.  Other migrants, including some Confederate military men, joined Latin American armed forces. John Randolfe Tucker, a Rear Admiral in the Confederate Army was invited to join the Peruvian Navy with a few hand-picked Confederate officers. Tucker and his cohort of confederates were responsible for naming the Ucayali river port of Leticia at the intersection of Peru, Colombia and Brazil. It was named after President Tyler’s granddaughter, the first person to raise the confederate flag.  James Orton, traveling under the auspices of the Smithsonian in 1867, enjoyed meeting the Confederate crew on the Ucayali as he traveled around the upper Amazon in his economically quantitative reconnaissance of the upper Amazon.

The impact of Maury and Herndon on Amazonian enterprises and entrepreneurs was palpable in imaginary travels as well as concrete tropical ventures. In light of Confederate colonies on the Amazon, the young Mark Twain’s yearning to take a steamboat to the Amazon and become a coca entrepreneur seems not so far fetched. He had read Herndon’s book and noting coca cultivation, dreamed of introducing this substance to the world at large. Others, alive to the colonization discussion but concerned about a different dimension of the slavery question—“The problems of the Free Negro”—began to dream of colonies in the Amazon, not for masters but for freed American slaves.

New World “Liberias”

On December 3, 1861, in his address to Congress, President Lincoln asked that steps be taken for colonization of slaves liberated in the confiscation of property “used for insurrectionary purposes” as they were now essentially wards of the state. “…In any event, steps should be taken for colonization …at some place or places and climate congenial to them. It might be well too, to consider whether free colored people already in the United States could not, in so far as individuals may desire, be included in such colonization…To carry out the plan of colonization may involve the acquiring of territory and the appropriation of money…”  Congress gave the executive the power to begin to explore this state-sponsored colonization—in essence, deportation for the emerging class of ex-slaves and to a degree, free blacks.  Lincoln had, after all called for a “colony of freed Negroes in Central America and provinces in Nuevo Grenada” — today known as Colombia, . Lincoln was to support “New World Liberias” in five major public addresses including two State of the Union speeches, and in the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Among those who were vigorous advocates of this position was Lincoln’s informal advisor, founder of the Republican party and major negotiator with the Confederacy, Francis Blair. Blair had been in favor of simply annexing Central America, arguing that “the door is now open … to receive the enfranchised colored race born amongst us”

It fell to Mr. William Seward, the Secretary of State to address this question in substantive ways.  Seward was not faint-hearted when it came to acquiring huge expanses: he had purchased Alaska in 1867. Seward approached the ministries of countries with tropical colonies —Britain, France, Holland —all with colonies in the Caribbean and Guyanas about the feasibility of US black colonization.. Seward also indicated that many free blacks in the US also wished to emigrate if the necessary guarantees were assured them by the US and the nations to which they would go. The European powers were not happy about the prospect of a sudden onslaught of free blacks into their colonies who would maintain their US citizenship because this would enhance the potential and pretexts for US incursions. The number of slaves in the US was among the highest in the hemisphere, and most of the New World colonies and young republics were having enough trouble with their own domestic insurrections and racial conflicts without a deluge of more or less indigent American black expatriates. Lincoln and Seward had pressed Kansas Senator Samuel Clarke Pomeroy into service to review possible colonization sites in northern South America and Central America for a new “deep South”. Pomeroy is best known today for his political bribery trial and later for his Chairmanship of the Santa Fe Railroad. Pomeroy’s plan involved the annexation of the Colombia province of Chiriqui, on the northern rim of South America, a place later known as Panama.

Amazon Apartheid

One person with keen interest in Lincoln’s vision was the US minister to Brazil, General James Watson Webb. Famous as a bon vivant and ladies man, Webb had owned newspapers, railroads and later enjoyed many diplomatic posts. Webb reflected a strand within the abolitionist wing of the Democratic party that thought the solution to the inevitable problems of emancipation lay in tropical resettlement of ex-slaves in Amazonia. Webb viewed black colonization as an alternative to what otherwise would develop into socially undesirable miscegenation and “inevitable” race war.

Following this view of the needs of the nation, and with Webb’s understanding of black adaptation to the tropics, the unusual features of Brazilian slavery and its free men of color, Webb advanced a set of proposals to and negotiating points he hoped to raise with Emperor Pedro II.: 1) the colonization should be cheap; 2) liberation need not be immediate, nor should servitude linger; 3)immigrants would take up an “apprenticeship” in the colony; 4) colonization costs should be paid for from the products of the apprenticeship; 5) colonists would ultimately end their political connection with the US because Brazilian society, more tolerant of people of color, would provide more possibilities of advancement. In short, Webb was arguing for transforming slaves freed in the US into indentured labor in Amazonia. Webb suggested that the emancipated slaves would be entrusted to a joint-stock colonization company (headed, naturally, by Webb) who would then resettle them in Brazil. Thus, former slaves would be transformed from personal to corporate chattel until they paid off their settlement costs. Webb believed that American slaves were more docile and hard working than  “the fierce, warlike and intellectual” Africans who comprised the Brazilian slave population, who were “ready for insurrection and capable of extensive conspiracies to effect their liberation”. Webb felt that Brazil’s problems with Black insurgency could be resolved by a huge influx of American ex-slaves. The addition of many thousands of free Blacks, would undermine the belligerent Afro-Brazilian insurgencies through the calming cultural impact of the “docile” American ex-slaves, and the flooding of Amazonia with another form of labor.

Webb’s solution argued for immediate expatriation of US blacks to Amazonia in order to “render Brazil the richest among kingdoms of the Earth”. As he put it: “The African slave trade can never again supply the Negro labor alone suited to the region, and white labor is quite out of the question.” Webb proposed that the US should initially pay for the transportation of former slaves and North American black freemen to the Amazon where Brazil would supply the lands, about 100 acres per colonist. The costs inherent in the immigration (whether of transportation, land costs etc) could be defrayed by the income generated by the products of the “apprenticeship” of several years (up to ten). After a time, Black immigrants could take up Brazilian citizenship with the rights that accrued to freemen in the Brazilian Empire. Thus, freed American slaves would be basically re-enslaved to cover the costs of their new colonization. Webb urged the rapid adoption of this model due to the prejudice that prevailed within the United States. “The US,” said Webb, would be “Blessed by his (African-American) absence and the riddance of a curse which has well nigh destroyed her.”

Webb’s ambitious plan was deflected by Seward, whose mild response emphasized a decision to resolve the US slavery question within the nation a policy turnaround from the previous postures of the administration, and the program Seward himself had outlined earlier. These extravagant plans, coupled with machinations of US entrepreneurs in countries of the Upper Amazon, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador contributed to a certain coolness and obstructionism in Brazilian diplomacy towards an Amazon-American colony whether of whether slavocrats or free Blacks. At a time of significant racial problems and uprisings in Brazil which would not abolish slavery until 1888,, the idea of the infusion of a huge population of “free” blacks was alarming, especially since racial ideas of the day suggested that they hampered modern development. In any case, this particular American ambition for the Amazon was tabled , as the US was caught up in reconstruction and assassinations, and Brazil and its allies devoted themselves to the crushing of Paraguay.

The “American Amazon” schemes did not bear much fruit, but the development of these programs occurred at the highest levels within the US Government and was promoted by its most august scientific institutions and was widely publicized at the time. While these forays were initially meant to “offshore” US racial problems through state mediated programs justified by Confederate Manifest Destiny or a New World Liberia, the next iterations were based on adventurers and entrepreneurs and carried no virtuous colonial social gloss, but rather incarnated the sparer lines of resource imperialism and speculations around a prized and globalized commodity—rubber.

US  Colonization in the Upper Amazon

The Amazon was alive with adventurers: In the 1860s and 70s, the US engineer and Mexican revolutionary sympathizer, and surveyor of part of the Bolivian Amazon, George Earl Church began to plan major railroads to link Bolivia with the Amazon outlets on the Madeira, the precursor of the construction of the disastrous Madeira Mamoré rail line. Today, Church resides as a footnote in Amazonian Studies, but he was as ubiquitous an explorer-entrepreneur as his friend, the celebrated imperial botanist and biopirate, Clements Markham, or the widely traveled Sir Richard Burton– diplomat, ethnographer, libertine and translator of the Kama Sutra, Epigrams on Priapus, The Arabian Nights as well as the Portuguese masterpiece, the Lusiads. These men were regularly at the intersection of journalism, exploration and uprisings, with developed tastes in history and ethnography. Markham and Church knew each other from their ramblings in the Upper Amazon; Markham was Church’s literary executor and promoted him for Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society.

In 1868, with the new 1867 Ayacucho treaty boundaries in hand, Church negotiated the concession to canalize the Madeira-Mamoré falls or to construct a railway around them with the Bolivian government. These included the navigation rights on the Bolivian Amazon affluents, and the right to exact toll and freight charges for 25 years through his Bolivian joint venture company. Because the Madeira River is in fact in Brazilian lands, his proposition required the consent of Brazil. Church was able to convince the Brazilian government to give him the Madeira concession directly, which it did. He integrated these rights into a second company—The Madeira –Mamoré Railway Company with mineral and land rights adjacent to the route of the railroad, a concession of some 560 km2. The persuasive Church raised some £6,000,000 in bonds from London venture capitalists despite Bolivia’s very dubious reputation in international lending circles.. Church’s survey experience in the region, the fact that he had worked as a formal analyst for several upper Amazon governments (Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia and who knows what other clandestine partners) gave him a legitimacy lacking in others hawking upper Amazon real estate.

It certainly helped that gold had recently been discovered in the Caupolicán district just to the south of the Acre, an area to be served by the proposed railroad. Church began his enterprise, with subcontracts to a Philadelphia construction firm, P T Collins, who sent some 750 American laborers, 200 Bolivian Indians and 200 Ceará migrants to the site where they actually built tracks and ran a train (whose main engine they named “Colonel Church”) The business itself collapsed in a complex multinational cloud of litigation involving Bolivia coastal compradors dismayed at the possible deflection of trade from their Pacific venues to Atlantic ones, various British interests, and bribery scandals involving the Bolivian President. Indeed, when everything fell through, a fairly regular destiny for most Madeira-Mamoré ambitions, the transportation development rights ultimately were resold to King Leopold II.

“An East India at our very doors!”

The Bolivians continued their own ambitions for settlement and opened negotiations with yet another American, Azanel Piper. In the first real attempt at a Charter Company in the Upper Amazon, the “Colonization Company of California” incorporated in San Francisco in 1870, hoping the vision of yet another frontier would attract the pioneers and gold rush magnates at the edge of the Pacific. Unlike Church’s enterprise that focused on infrastructure development and navigation rights, Piper preferred to speculate directly on the land and the minerals. He obtained two enormous parcels for his concession. The first was 90,000 square miles which he agreed to colonize with Americans and Europeans over a period of 25 years. The colonization company would have rights over all territory not formally registered with Bolivian law (“vacant and uninhabited lands”) and to all Siriono or other “nomadic” Indian lands from the Madeira to the Rio Grande (the river just outside of the modern city of Santa Cruz). The company would have the rights to emit its own currency and develop its own banking system, as well as exclusive navigation rights on the Purús, Juruá and Madeira rivers.[lii] The Company could levy taxes and develop infrastructure. Immigrants would produce spices, fruits rubber —the usual plentitude— and have access to the tractable and able labor provided by the local settled Indians, whose virtues were so nicely evoked by Gibbon.

The real allurement was the Caupolicán area to which Piper’s company had exclusive territorial and mineral rights for 50 years, an area deemed to be extremely rich in alluvial gold deposits, which could be exploited by the new techniques elaborated in California gold fields and silver mines. On top of that were coal, cobalt, copper, tin, salt, and diamonds. Bolivia’s riches were explicitly meant to echo California’s frontier as an upper Amazon El Dorado. Piper explicitly compared Bolivian riches to those of California, envisioning a robust agrarian economy supplying the mines. The territory would stretch from the Madeira to the headwaters of the Javary. And it was rich in gold: The madre de dios river today is the site of vast and disastrous alluvial gold extraction.
The entrepreneurs of the Southern Hemisphere were hardly alone in their interest in the extremely valuable forests of the upper Amazon. Rubber came from that place of confused boundaries and nothing much resembling a functional state, a place that was up for grabs. Nd it was becoming one of the most valuable commodities in global circulation. Regional governments were soon in guerilla wars with one another and wall street itself soon saw the main chance with a new and significant Amazonian enterprise: the Bolivian Syndicate which was meant to fund an upper Amazon colony in the most valuable rubber lands in the world.

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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