We get natural rubber the same way we get maple syrup and resin; you stab a tree in the goddamn face and watch it bleed. Ancient Mesoamericans were making balls and paint-on waterproof shoes out of rubber as far back as 1600 B.C.
Fast forward to the early 1700’s A.D.- Isaac Newton had this theory that the Earth bulged a little in the middle instead of being a perfect sphere so King Louis the XV sent a group of French scientists to the equator and a few more to the artic to measure the earth with some string while squinting at the stars or some shit. One of them French scientists was a dude named Charles Marie de La Condamine, who unintentionally made the first scientific expedition down the Amazon River because he was trying to cut costs on a ride home after the expedition. Then he had to wait four months to hitch a ride on a Dutch boat because France was at war and he didn’t want to die on the way home.
The point is: He had a lot of spare time on his expedition. He spent this time documenting the peculiar properties of the Para’ Rubber tree. He also spent a lot of time documenting the anti-malarial properties of the cinchona tree, which contains quinine, which is used to treat malaria; making him one of the most important people you’ve probably never heard of.
In 1770 Englishman Joseph Priestly discovered that you could rub rubber on pencil marks and make them go away, giving the new discovery the name “rubber” and leading Condamine to go, “What ze fuck, monsieur? I speent months getting my ass torn up by mosquitos for zat discovery and you get to name eet because you can’t spell!”
Due to the waterproofing qualities of rubber, the invention of bicycle tires, the soon to be invented automobile tire, and a multitude of industrial and medical applications; rubber quickly became a hotter commodity than a bushel full of mangoes at a fruit bat convention.
Ruthless pieces of shit set up shop in South America to tap into the rubber boom. It took a lot of rubber to be profitable so rubber barons didn’t see the point in paying people for a coconut shell full of latex. Instead, they just enslaved the shit out of anyone unlucky enough to live near a rubber tree. That made rubber profitable. so profitable, in fact, that barons would light cigars with $100 banknotes and water their horses with Champaign. The most famous rubber baron was Julio Cesar Arana who terrorized the indigenous people with his own private army. He had a stable of six hundred native women that he bred like cattle to resupply his workforce. Any men who had a problem with it would be blindfolded and have their dick shot off. The Native population around Manaus, Brazil went from 50,000 people to 8,000 under Arana’s rule.
Brazil was very protective of their rubber monopoly. Accordingly, smuggling out rubber seeds was punishable by death. In 1876 Henry Wickham snuck 70,000 para’ rubber seeds out of Brazil. According to his memoirs, it was some daring international spy shit, but most historians agree it probably went something like this:
Customs agent- Got anything to declare?
Customs agent- K
The barons in South America relied on a quickly disappearing workforce scavenging the jungle for rubber trees. The new modern, orderly plantations that popped up in Singapore thanks to Wickham and a guy named Mad Ridley put the South American operations out of business.
The most fucked up shit to do with rubber happened thanks to King Leopold II of Belgium. In 1885 the world superpowers held The Berlin Conference. The Berlin Conference was basically everyone with an army and an interest in exploiting Africa getting together and saying, “Africa is a huge ass continent so instead of fighting, let’s all just sit down and agree which part we’re going to rape and pillage instead of stepping all over each other's dicks." Except in the wording, they said things like “Help” and “Civilize” as euphemisms for rape and murder. King Leopold II asked for a large swath of land to build schools and churches. Leo raised large sums of money from investors to help him create The International African Association to fight slavery in Africa. The Berlin Conference carved out a slice of the Congo seventy-six times the size of Belgium and gave it to Leopold to civilize.
For a while, the Congo was a money pit for Leopold. He planned on making a fortune exporting Ivory but ivory is hard to find, even back then. Then the rubber trade took off running. It turns out the Congo was full of giant ass vines called Landolphia Owariensis that produce latex. Leopold wasted no time parceling out his share of Africa to companies interested in harvesting rubber. He created a private army called Force Publique (Public Force), and established one of the most brutal slave states in history that he called The Congo Free State. The Force Publique was made up of rich white dudes at the top, mercenaries in the middle and natives at the bottom. Most notable of the Force was a tribe called the Zappo-Zaps who filed their teeth into sharp points and practiced recreational cannibalism.
Like the South American barons, the Congolese people were forced to scour the jungle for landolphia vines in exchange for the privilege of not being murdered. For people who didn’t like the idea of working themselves to death for free, the Force Publique had some pretty convincing arguments, like tying a bunch of dudes in a net and kicking them in a river or forcing kids to rape their mothers at gunpoint, and then shooting the mother. Or just good old fashioned beatings and murder. Once word got around, the tribes were more open to the Zap’s suggestions.
The rest of the story that would become known as “The Atrocities in the Congo Free State” was the result of the bastard child of colossal greed and colossally bad management. Natives were given quotas for how much rubber needed to be delivered to cover the new “Tax” they had to pay before they could do other shit, like feed their families. Impossible quotas were assigned by King Leopold, who had never been to the Congo and had no real idea what his workforce was, nor anything about the logistics of harvesting latex. Upper management in The Force was stingy as shit with their bullets, either because they didn’t want people wasting bullets hunting game, or they didn’t want an uprising if anyone got ahold of the bullet collection. Not meeting a quota was punishable by death, but if you used a bullet you had to turn in the spent casing and give a severed hand to the boss to prove you were doing your job. The guards were just as responsible for meeting the quotas as the workers so if you came up short on your rubber quota, you’d better have a shitload of hands to prove you haven’t been slacking off on your slave driving. Considering the quotas were impossible to meet, soldiers would run around chopping people’s hands off so they’d have a stash when the boss showed up. Just to make extra sure, entire villages were massacred and burned to the ground to collect extra hands. If a villager didn’t meet his quota, he’d start collecting hands to give to the guards in exchange for his own life. It got so bad that baskets of severed hands became their own sort of currency in the Congo.
It seems counterproductive to kill or maim your workforce, but that’s what you get when your shift manager is a bloodthirsty cannibal with no education. Despite the obvious drawbacks, American corporations unanimously adopted the Congo model in the 1980’s by filling low-level management jobs with cut-throat idiots who should be tried in international courts for crimes committed against common sense. Now they use employee handbooks to metaphorically cut your hands off so you can’t do your job and instead of murder, they just kill your soul. Meanwhile, the guy at the top making all the money is on another continent not giving two fucks.
It is estimated that around ten million people died from murder, hunger, and disease during Leopold’s reign of terror. The atrocities in the Congo were the backdrop to Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness, which would be the inspiration for the movie Apocalypse Now, and the video game Far Cry 2.
King Leopold II was the longest reigning monarch in Belgium. He died at the age of 74 and was remembered as a national treasure. He was given the name “The Builder King” for his great works.
Germany faced severe rubber shortages during the second world war, leading them to experiment with using dandelions as an alternative for natural rubber since that milky shit that comes out of dandelions contains latex. It would have worked except, ya know, dandelions are like two inches tall and produce only slightly more than jack shit per flower.
Lettuce derives its name from the Latin word “Lac” which means milk. The Romans called it Lactuca. This is because lettuce produced latex sap. Due to generations of hybridization and cultivation the lettuce you see in your salad bowl now is far different that ancient Roman lettuce, whose rubbery sap would give you a little buzz and put you to sleep.