Compensation for Brazil’s ‘Rubber Soldiers’: untimely and unnecessary?

The Brazilian Congress has announced the award of $11,300 in compensation to WWII plantation workers, forced to survive inhospitable conditions in the tropical north-east of the country to provide the US military with rubber. The US had lost its major rubber supplier when Malaya was overrun by Japanese forces in early 1942.

The rubber workers were seen off on trucks in a manner befitting a departing army
The rubber workers were seen off on trucks in a manner befitting a departing army

Brazil had begun WWII as a neutral country, trading with both Allied and Axis powers. However, American influence finally took its toll, the culmination of half-a-century of carefully-fostered pressure from Washington.

By the mid-1930s, American infiltration in the Brazilian economy had led to accusations of neo-imperialism and growing anti-US sentiment, particularly after the onset of the Depression. Many Brazilians felt that America was exploiting Brazil’s natural resources without providing fair compensation.

Furthermore, as the Americans had proved in Central America, Washington was willing to use military force to support its economic desires. Sugar-rich Cuba had been ‘liberated’ from Spain in 1898; US gunboats provoked the breakaway of Panama from Colombia in 1903, a crucial step in the move towards the Panama Canal; US marines intervened in Nicaragua on several occasions between 1912 and 1933 to ensure a favourable government. (Williamson, 2009, pp. 322-4)

US Marines with the captured flag of Augusto Cesar Sandino, a Nicaraguan rebel opposed to US intervention
US Marines with the captured flag of Augusto Cesar Sandino, a Nicaraguan rebel opposed to US intervention

With Axis trade to Brazil stifled by Allied efforts, the US used its history of economic engagement and threat of military intervention to draw important concessions from Brazil. In exchange for helping foster a nascent Brazilian iron industry, the US could build air bases on the Brazilian mainland.

The promise of economic advancement and the uncertainty caused by the war enabled the Americans to put further pressure on Brazil. With the crucial commodity of rubber – essential for the manufacture of military tires and weapons components – seemingly lost, the Brazilian government hit upon a recruitment scheme to encourage poor labourers to relocate to the north-eastern plantations.

'More Tires for Victory'; Brazil's 'rubber soldiers' made an invaluable contribution to the Allied war effort
‘More Tires for Victory’; Brazil’s ‘rubber soldiers’ made an invaluable contribution to the Allied war effort

This was no slave-grab; it was a genuine employment opportunity, albeit one that the Brazilian government misleadingly portrayed. Harsh conditions fostered by the climate, including the spread of disease and animal attacks saw some 7,000 of the 55,000 labourers die. Those that returned did not receive the housing or remuneration promised them.

Yet it is questionable whether compensation today is necessary, particularly when many of the former labourers are now in their 80s and 90s. By late 1943, Brazil had renounced its neutrality and had sided with the Allies. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force would fight fiercely in the Mediterranean and Italy between 1944 and 1945. For a country at war, sacrifices are a necessity, whether that be on the battle front or the home front.

Brazil’s contribution to the Allied victory was not forgotten, and the US has retained strong economic ties with South America’s biggest country ever since, helping it become one of the world’s largest economies.

It is that legacy that should be the compensation for Brazil’s ‘rubber soldiers’. How much difference can $11,300 make at the denouement of life?

Sources

Williamson, E, The Penguin History of Latin America (2009)

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‘Not Ideal for Football’ but not bad for Settlement: Manaus for England

The excuses have already started. England manager Roy Hodgson has declared the venue for his side’s first World Cup match next year, Manaus, as ‘not an ideal place to play football’ given its tropical climate. Although Italy, England’s opponents in that game, can hardly be described as being better suited to such a climate, the reasoning for failure is being prepared nonetheless.

Hodgson would not be the first England coach to blame the weather for poor performances
Hodgson would not be the first England coach to blame the weather for poor performances

Located at the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, Manaus is in the heart of the rainforest. That said, with a population of over 2 million, it can hardly be described as a rural backwater and indeed it is a location that has been coveted for centuries.

Even prior to the arrival of European settlers, the land around present-day Manaus was home to large societies of Amerindians, collectively known as the Omaguas. These societies were, despite popular misconceptions, complex and well-organised:

many villages were large and semi-permanent; complex societies existed with regional integration; cultivation was usually intensive or semi-intensive; fertile soils were created; and the natural environment was changed to varying extent by human activity. (Denevan, 2012)

Paying obeisance to a designated political authority, normally a chieftain, the Amazonians were more than a little sophisticated.

Omaguas' villages surprised the Europeans in their scale
Omaguas’ villages surprised the Europeans in their scale

On their arrival in the Amazon region in the 16th century, the European conquerors were surprised by the population density, expecting little more than small, nomadic forest tribes to confront them.

By the 17th century, the Amazon-Rio Negro crossroads was keenly sought after. Spanish, Portuguese, French and Dutch settlers, all with outposts on the Atlantic seaboard, recognised the strategic importance of what would become Manaus. It was already at the intersection of a series of indigenous trade routes that stretched to other New World colonies in Peru, New Granada, Venezuela, and on to the Indies. Furthermore, it stood at the gateway to the vast unexplored interior of South America, a land rumoured to be awash with golden cities and other rich resources.

Having established a fort at the head of the Rio Negro, the Portuguese sought to further establish their presence in the Amazon by sending missionaries into the interior. In this, they were matched by the Spaniards and an Iberian competition for spiritual conquest began.

Samuel Fritz Map (1707). The Spanish Jesuit  missionary was the first to accurately map the Amazon and in the process initiate further conflict with Portugal
Samuel Fritz Map (1707). The Spanish Jesuit missionary was the first to accurately map the Amazon and in the process initiate further conflict with Portugal

Between 1700 and 1714, the two Iberian nations fought several skirmishes for control of the Amazon, with the Portuguese winning control of the Negro headland. After that point, a succession of mission stations and trading posts were established which would mutate into the city of Manaus which has become an important economic hub for the region in the 21st century.

The Manaus area appealed to indigenous and European settlers alike both for its strategic and economic advantages and, additionally, because its climate is sedate in comparison to other large tracts of rainforest.

Its importance has been recognised for centuries and it is wholly reasonable that Manaus should be entitled to hold matches at next year’s World Cup. Appreciative of its history or not, the England players and their supporters must simply get on with it.

Sources

W.M. Denevan, Rewriting the Late Pre-European History of Amazonia (2012)

C.L. Dias, Jesuit Maps and Political Discourse: The Amazon River of Father Samuel Fritz