John Tully


On his book The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber

Cover Interview of April 18, 2011

The wide angle

The Austrian-American novelist Vicki Baum once wrote that what people have done to rubber is fascinating, but what is more fascinating yet is what rubber has done to people.  That, in a specific sense, is what Marx was talking about more generally when he discussed commodities in Volume One of Capital.

Those two writers, then, are my point of departure in this book. The Devil’s Milk has been a long time in gestation.  Over 30 years ago, when I earned my living as a rigger in construction and heavy industry, I was sent by my employer to work on a major overhaul of the Banbury mixer in the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Melbourne, Australia.  It was probably the filthiest job I’ve ever done: the Banbury is the huge machine which mixes together the materials for rubber tires: masticated rubber itself, of course, along with carbon black and a variety of chemicals that I don’t want to think about.  Taking the thing apart involved working with carbon black mixed with grease and engine oil.  There were also production workers there—who happened to be mostly immigrants, with the Anglo-Australians employed in cleaner parts of the factory and as skilled craftsmen.

Emerging into the daylight after work, I saw cars speeding by and realized that the drivers probably knew nothing about the provenance of rubber: how it was extracted and from where, and under what conditions this was done.  Certainly I didn’t either.  For me, just as for practically everyone else, this ubiquitous and essential stuff was so commonplace as to be practically invisible.

I never forgot the factory and years later my interest in rubber was rekindled when I was researching for a book on the history of French colonialism in Cambodia. In the archives in France and Phnom Penh I came across a stack of material on the French rubber plantations in the colony.  That formed the basis for a chapter entitled “King Rubber” in that book, which was published in 2002.

Around that time, I had a “Eureka!” moment: why not write a book about rubber on a world scale, focusing on the human aspects of its production and use?  When I had finished writing yet another book, the way was clear to start research on what became The Devil’s Milk.

When I’d finished, the research had taken me to libraries and archives in Australia, Cambodia, France, Belgium, the UK, Poland and the United States.  That research unearthed a wealth of material, much of it from primary sources, on what was a whole buried world of social relations relating to rubber.

As I gathered the material, the shape of the book revealed itself: a short chapter on rubber in the pre-Columbian Americas, some chapters on rubber in the Industrial Revolution—what it was used for and how it was made, a series of chapters on the wild rubber boom in Latin America and elsewhere, then a shift of focus to what became known as “Rubber’s Home Town,” the city of Akron, Ohio, which was the birthplace of three of the world’s first multinational corporations (B.F. Goodrich, Firestone and Goodyear).  I also included a number of chapters on the rise of the rubber plantations during the period of European colonialism. It also became clear that I had to look at the history of synthetic rubber too, and in particular at its place in wartime.

The history revealed itself to me as one of brutality, greed and horror.  In the first instance, the high-tech rubber industry in late 19th century and early 20th century America and Europe was predicated on the incredibly primitive and wasteful extraction of wild rubber in tropical countries.  Moreover, that wild industry was accompanied by atrocious barbarism: cruelty, indifference to suffering, torture, forced labor, murder on a colossal scale, and even genocide, as in the Putumayo Valley in Peru.

Whether Leopold II’s crimes in the Congo can be legally classified as genocide or not, the fact remains that some 10 million human beings perished as a result of the Belgian King’s greed for rubber and ivory.  Less well known was the Nazi Buna project at Auschwitz during World War II, in which the SS and the I.G. Farben corporation collaborated to build an enormous synthetic rubber and petroleum factory.  The workforce was largely made up of slave laborers, who were worked to death in an infernal calculus of profit and loss.

It is a grim story.  But if it is a story of barbarism, it is also a story of resistance and of the refusal of decent people to remain mute.  The dedication of my book is to some of those people: to Roger Casement, Walt Hardenburg, Edmund Morel and Benjamin Saldana Rocca, who campaigned against the atrocities in the Amazon and the Congo; to Tran Tu Binh, the leader of strikes by Vietnamese “coolies” on the rubber plantations in French Indochina; to Wilmer Tate, the “father of the CIO” in Akron, Ohio, who dedicated his life to organizing the “gummers” at the expense of his own health; to Chico Mendes, the legendary ecologist and assassinated leader of the rubber tappers’ union in Acre in Brazil; also to Primo Levi, the great Italian writer who worked as a rubber slave at Auschwitz and bore witness in his books.

I also included a dedication to a young woman nobody will have heard of.  Her name was Maria Szaglai and from her name and the circumstances of her death we can assume that she was a Hungarian Jew.  Maria was a slave labourer at the SS experimental plant breeding station at Rajsko, just outside of Auschwitz.  Rajsko was Heinrich Himmler’s pet project, where the SS grew Kok-Saghyz, the so-called “Russian Dandelion,” as a possible source of the rubber Germany needed to wage war.  Somehow, in that hellish place, Maria gave birth to a child and together they were sent to the gas chambers.  When I came across the case in the Auschwitz archives, I swore that I would record it.  Millions died.  Most now have no names.

I’d like to be able to say that we are more civilized today.  Alas it is not so.  There is an eerie parallel between the extraction of wild rubber in the so-called Congo Free State a century ago, and the mining of coltan today in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Coltan is used in the cell phones we take for granted.  In both cases we have the extraction of a commodity by primitive and dangerous means for high-tech industry in the developed world.

Rubber used to be manufactured in Dickensian sweatshops in the developed world. Much of the industry has today been shipped offshore to low wage areas where employers can dictate wages and conditions without interference from pesky labor unions.  China is a case in point.  The Goodyear plant I worked in Melbourne thirty years ago is now closed, its operations shifted to China.  There are no tire factories in Australasia today, and Chinese medical studies show high incidences of cancers among the country’s rubber workers.  It’s not a far cry from when English rubber workers, drunk on the fumes of toxic chemicals, would jump up and down on the factory floor, flapping imaginary wings and trying to fly.