Dispatch #15: The Decimation of the Amazon Indians
By Alex Shoumatoff
The Indians’ only champions were the Jesuits, who gathered them into missions that were organized along military lines to keep them from being dragged off into slavery. David Putnam’s film, The Mission, portrays the heroic efforts of the Jesuits to protect the Guarani Indians in the Paraná-Paraguay basin, south of the Amazon. The Jesuits in the Amazon were more exploitative, however, and the Indians in their aldeias, or mission villages, on Marajó Island, at the mouth of river, became peons who took care of their vast herds of cattle. Their wards were forcibly baptized and catechized and became detribalized “shirt Indians.”
Starting in 1850 rubber became a hot new commodity in the industrializing countries of Europe and North America, and the Amazon’s monopoly on “black gold” tapped from Hevea brasiliensis trees scattered in the rainforest spawned what the contemporary Brazilian writer called “the most criminal organization of labor ever devised.” A Peruvian rubber baron named Julio Arana founded the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company and grew fabulously wealthy by exploiting the Bora, Witoto, Andoke, and Ocaina Indians on the Putumayo River, which forms the border between Peru and Colombia. Reports of systematic torture, an orgy of sadism, the perverted mutilation of men, women, and children, women being kept as concubines by the Indian and Barbadian muchachos or captains, of the rubber gangs, reached Roger Casement, who had exposed similar atrocities ten years earlier in the Congo. By the time Casement got there, three-quarters of the population on the Putumayo had been wiped out in the previous six years, and there were only 8000-1000 left.
On the Amazon’s southern frontier, colonists hired professional Indian killers, or bugreiros, who presented ears instead of scalps for payment, adorned their Winchester carbines with Indians’ teeth, and poisoned the drinking pools in Indian villages with strychnine. By 1910 the remaining Indians had been reduced to a pathetic minority on the fringes of a burgeoning postcolonial society.
David Grann's The Lost City of Z tells some of the rubber barons' atrocities. They sound like the equivalent of a few dozen Wounded Knees to me. While Americans were waging war on Indians in the latter part of the 19th century--which was bad enough--Brazilians were torturing, mutilating, and poisoning Indians.
Who wants an anarchy?
This reminds me of my Is the "Nanny State" Bad? posting. The above should serve as a warning to anyone who thinks a libertarian state (i.e, anarchy) would be ideal. When government is nonexistent, people slaughter people without compunction. That was the case with the conquistadors in Mexico and Peru and the rubber gangs in the Amazon.
When government is moderately strong, it's like a traffic cop. It directs the flow of people, speeding it up or slowing it down, but not really impeding it. Like a traffic cop, it tries to impose order, but since it can't arrest everyone, it's largely ineffectual.
That was the case in America for most of its Indian-eliminating history. The US signed treaties with its Indian nations but treated them like traffic lights. Initially the light was red, but then it turned green and the settler traffic resumed. The US shrugged as if it had done all it could. "We set up a stop light but no one obeys it. What are we supposed to do...enforce the law?"
Now we have a strong central government and I'm glad of it. These days the main people committing murder are lone gun nuts, not lynch mobs or armed militias or the US Cavalry. As I suggested in Name America's Golden Year, if you think the days of yore--of bigotry against women and minorities--were great, you're not thinking. You must be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant property owner and a greedy, selfish bastard.
For more on the subject, see No "Systematic Extermination" of Indians? and Fischer Defends Pro-Genocide Column.