I was somewhat disconcerted to learn, while researching for The Devil’s Milk, that another author had recently published another book about rubber. The question arose: would I just be duplicating what he had done? It sure gave me some sleepless nights! However, once I starting reading the other book, that is John Loadman’s Tears of the Tree, it became pretty clear that I had something else in mind.
My idea was to write a history of a commodity, rather than of a substance. To be sure, rubber is a remarkable substance. It is the only material in nature which will bounce back almost to the height from which it was dropped and which will return to its original shape when stretched or squeezed. These properties, among others, have made it absolutely essential for the modern industrial world.
Paul W. Litchfield, a former president of Goodyear Tire & Rubber, illustrated its importance well when he said, think of industry as a living thing, the skeleton of which is steel and cement, the arterial system of which carries oil, and the muscles and sinews of which are composed of rubber.
There can be no denying rubber’s incredible utility value. However, while I don’t gloss over these matters, my purpose was to dig underneath the surface of this apparently mundane substance. I go to the buried world of social relations that lie behind the extraction, manufacture, and use of rubber.
It isn’t a pretty story, this history of a Janus-faced commodity, which has been both a blessing and a curse for humanity. Walter Benjamin once wrote that behind every great invention lies great barbarism. Vulcanized rubber is of course an invention, and its history bears out Benjamin’s observation. Nor has the barbarism—social and ecological—stopped: the rubber factories which once sprang up in America and Europe now sprout like Dickensian weeds in the Third World.
So, in a way, The Devil’s Milk is a history of modernity, of industrial capitalism and imperialism, by way of a case study of the history of a crucial commodity.
“Walter Benjamin once wrote that behind every great invention lies great barbarism. Vulcanized rubber is of course an invention, and its history bears out Benjamin’s observation. Nor has the barbarism—social and ecological—stopped.”
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.
Few people today except dentists will have heard of gutta-percha, but one hundred years ago it was a household word. A close cousin of rubber extracted from wild trees in Southeast Asia, gutta-percha was used for a bewildering variety of industrial and domestic uses. Gutta-percha was used for the soles and heels of shoes, roofing tiles, ear trumpets, and dental fillings (the latter one of its remaining uses today).
Gutta-percha was an example of a crucial ingredient of a high-tech industry dependent on a primitive “mode of extraction.” If rubber is natural “gum elastic,” then gutta-percha is “gum inelastic”: it won’t bounce and it’s hard at normal temperatures. However, it is eminently pliable when softened in hot water.
The Malays used gutta-percha for knife handles, whips and so forth, but it took industrial capitalism to realize its amazing potential. Gutta-percha is a better insulator than rubber and it is watertight. For this reason it was used to insulate the hundreds of thousands of miles of undersea telegraphic cables in the 19th century world: cables which were essential for European control of the far flung colonial empires.
Curiously, gutta-percha was only found in the Asian colonies; the Dutch Indies and Malaya in particular. My chapter discusses all of these matters but also focuses on the enormous ecological cost of the extraction of gutta-percha. Obtained by primitive and wasteful means from the taban tree in tropical rain forests, its extraction involved killing the trees; all for a couple of pounds of gum.
The industry was so voracious and wasteful and millions upon millions of trees were destroyed and supplies began to dry up. Eventually, methods were devised to extract the gum from plantation trees and in time gutta-percha was supplanted by plastics.
The fate of the taban trees was a harbinger of the wholesale assault on tropical rainforests today and is a paradigm of the distorted relationship between Man and Nature. Arguably, until such time as humans cease to regard themselves as conquerors standing outside of Nature, we will be condemned to repeat such errors. This exemplifies the ecological aspects of commodity production mentioned earlier.
“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.”
When a friend read the manuscript of the book, she commented that she would never again look at rubber the same way. In fact, like most people, she’d never paid it much attention, except perhaps when she suffered a punctured automobile tire. I hope that the book will have a similar effect on other readers.
Rubber is something we cannot do without. The average automobile contains hundreds of rubber parts in addition to the tires. The electric age would have been unthinkable without it. Airplanes rely on rubber. Rubber has proven invaluable in the form of the condom in the fight against the AIDS pandemic. In short, our society would soon grind to a halt without rubber.
The story of rubber is also, for better and worse, inextricably bound up with the history of modernity. Rubber was only brought to Europe following the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World.
Writing The Devil’s Milk also underlined for me the interconnectedness of everything in the world. It is no accident that the big rubber companies were among the world’s first transnational corporations. The story of rubber is thus an international story and it follows that the solutions to the problems exemplified by rubber can only be resolved at the level of international action.
The Devil’s Milk, I think, has significance because I have approached rubber from the standpoint enunciated by Vicki Baum. Rubber is an endlessly fascinating substance, but the history of what it has done to human beings in forests, plantations and factories is more fascinating still.
My approach follows Marx’s analysis of commodities as things with a dual nature. Like Marx, too, I like to think that progress towards a more humane and rational use of that commodity can come from that contradiction. The very first bill signed into law by the incoming US President Barack Obama resulted from a long campaign waged by a retired rubber worker.
John Tully teaches Politics and History at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of six books, including two historical monographs on the French colonial period in Cambodia, a short history of Cambodia, two novels, and The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber, featured in his Rorotoko interview. John Tully is currently writing a new book, tentatively entitled “The All-American City: A Social History of Akron, Ohio,” which he describes as a spin-off from The Devil’s Milk.