Viewed from Afar – All the World is a Stage


The family business continued to prosper. They may have been aware that the plantations created in Malaya and elsewhere from Henry Wickham’s saplings comprised orderly planted rubber trees that could be easily tapped for rubber by cheap local labour and probably cheaper than the equivalent cost of Brazil’s independent Seringueiros. However, this would not concern them much because when the forest trees had been ready for tapping in the 1890s the size of its annual production was not at all significant – rubber plantations in the British Empire producing only 4 tons of rubber in 1900.


Viewed from Afar – All the World is a Stage


It is unlikely with the plantations having such a low production figure at  that time that the family would have investigated the feasibility  of establishing Brazilian plantations to compete with them in case plantation  aggregate  production  ever became that significant However, by 1900 the Brazilian rubber industry did have major competition from other countries with different wild rubber trees.  Wild rubber production in Brazil was 26,750 tons and in the rest of the world, it was about the same – 27,136 tons. Sales were profitable and no problem for all the producers, even though use for tires on motor vehicles was still minimal.

The major foreign competitor however made far more in profits per ton. The Berlin Conference of 1984-5 had awarded Leopold II who ascended the Belgian throne in 1885, as his personal fiefdom the land in Africa to be called the Congo Free State.  The colonial European powers felt it was only fair that Belgium also had a colony albeit the land was put in Leopold’s name and not that of the country. This was perhaps because Leopold presented himself as humanitarian with charitable objectives in view for people of his new fiefdom.

The reality was far different Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone I presume” fame) was employed by Leopold to help achieve his true and secret plan. Stanley acquired millions of acres from the inhabitants for little cost in the main by disreputable means. Ivory was the initial major target export for the state but in the 1890s  this was replaced by rubber. The wild tree from which rubber was extracted in Congo Free State was Landolphia Owariensis which was not to prove suitable for use in plantations.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the family rolled over their profits into acquiring additional tracts for exploitation and to funding more and more  Seringueiros.

The buyers of rubber knew that much of the supply was coming from the Congo. Somehow we prefer to believe that they did not have any inkling that it was being  produced with the use of native slaves supervised by an army of 15,000 people. The cost per ton of rubber for Leopold was far less than the cost per ton for the Israel family who were using independent and free  Seringueiros. Since demand was ever-increasing all the cost differential meant was that Leopold made excessive profits. The only limitations on the family selling more rubber arose not because of competition but on the number of independent Seringuerios the family were able to fund and the extent of tracts of forests that they had available to allocate to them for tapping. In the last decade of the 19th century, the family rolled over their profits into acquiring additional tracts for exploitation and to funding more and more  Seringueiros. Although there  was competition from other rubber producers in Brazil  for the available tappers,  rubber prices being achieved were more than sufficient to cover the increased costs

The expanding demand continued on into the 20th century.  For the family,  life continued in no way to be just about business. The expansion in their social agenda was unabated. In 1903 Elias helped fund the Hebrew Congregation of Para which then absorbed the Society Gueilut Hassadim. Elias served as President of the Synagogue and later as Secretary and Treasurer and my grandfather Moses Israel served as treasurer. The family were prime movers in their community. Belem was the city it was only because of rubber and the work it provided for many, directly and indirectly. The ripple effects of this and the family’s charitable work continues to this day. The Jewish community enjoys a heritage to which they have greatly contributed.

Very soon after the turn of the century horrific allegations were at last made in the press about the use in the Congo of slaves including the wholesale execution of natives to frighten the remainder into absolute obedience. Mercenaries supervising the slaves were reported as having to justify their consumptions of bullets by providing the penises of their slave victims as supporting evidence of the bullets having properly used.  The British sent Roger Casement to investigate what some considered unbelievable and incredible rumours but which he found to be only too true. Roger Casement had worked with Stanley to help achieve the creation of the Congo Free State and was dismayed at what happened afterwards. Some will recall Roger Casement was executed for treason in 1916 for promoting an alliance between Irish nationalists and the Germans to achieve an independent Ireland.

Whilst these revelations were becoming general knowledge, my grandfather Moses traveled to England on 27 July 1904 to marry Julie nee Phillips  (Grandma Dolly to me) in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Maida Vale London -the synagogue where I was bar mitzvahed almost 50 years later.  Witnesses the wedding were Walter Phillips (father of the bride) and Michael Israel. Walter was of modest means so his daughter was marrying well. Although the Phillips were Ashkenazi Jews they had some Sephardi blood including that of  Abraham Senior, an adviser to Ferdinand and Isabel the rulers who brought in the Spanish Inquisition who did not leave Spain but converted with Ferdinand as his godfather but remained a secret Jew.

Dolly left for  Brazil to live a far higher lifestyle with her Rubber Baron husband continuing to become even wealthier.  This increase was helped to no small extent by Brazilian rubber exports continuing to rise reaching 38,000 tons in 1907. Those 38,000 tons of Brazilian rubber exports now outstripped that from the rest of the world which in 1907 amounted to 30, 000 tons whilst plantations still only produced 1,000 tons.

Leopold was found guilty and condemned to spend his final years in luxury on the French Riviera. It says much of society that this happened when his actions had led to many millions dying in the Free Congo State: some estimates of deaths were in excess of 10 million people. Congo became a colony of Belgium in 1908.

Dolly visited her family in London in 1909  travelling with 4 children  Leon aged 4 Walter aged 3  Bessie aged 1 and one other who may have been a child who died in infancy. They  traveled first class of course on  the ship “ Hilary’” which was to be sunk by a U boat  sank by a German U boat off the Shetlands in 1917 during the First World War

Unfortunately, slavery in the rubber industry also took place elsewhere including in the Amazon but in Peru not Brazil. Because the  Peruvian entrepreneur involved had chosen to conduct this activity through a British company (Peruvian Amazon Company) the British in 1910  decided that the allegations should be investigated and again chose Sir Roger Casement to send to investigate, He found these allegations also to be true.

By 1915 perhaps as a consequence of actions against those using slaves to produce rubber the rest of the world wild rubber exports had dropped to 13,616. In spite of this and of ever-increasing demand,  Brazilian exports were only able to be steady at 37,220. Surely by now, a warning of future dangers should have been clearly received by Brazilian rubber exporters with the publishing of British Colony Plantation export figures that year as being 107, 860 tons. For some years demand continued to expand with the increase satisfied by increased plantation production but the family still being able to continue to sell their production at a profit.

The war ended and a slump in demand followed.  Production of rubber tapped from Brazil’s naturally haphazardly located rubber trees that were intermingled with other trees in the jungle simply could not compete at a competitive price with production from trees lined up neatly for tapping in British colony plantations. In 1920 plantation exports were 304, 816 tons whilst Brazilian exports were only 30,790 tons with rest of the world 8,125 tons. Plantation owners could afford to cut prices whilst wild rubber producers could not. The price paid to Brazilian tappers for rubber was slashed to a pittance but this was of no avail. The Siringueiros could no longer pay back their loans from the family and the family forests were of little value. The good times were over.


Clive Russell
Clive Russell
CLIVE currently serves as Joint President of Russell Business LLC (“RB”), which is the collective name for a community of synergistic and complementary activities and businesses encompassing the International Property Market. RB is engaged in business activities that combine cutting-edge structured finance and technology geared to maximize returns from various sectors, including residential and commercial property, hotels and energy-related assets. Over the years, Clive’s forte’ has been the ability to develop and/or identify “below the radar” concepts, strategies and opportunities ripe for leveraging and ultimate success.

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