Rubber was being used by the Indians before the white man set foot in the New World.
The finest quality rubber is the product of a tree botanically known as Hevea brasiliensis, which is native to the Amazon Valley. Many varieties of the same species of tree belong to the family called "the Heveas." All rubber obtained from such trees, no matter where they grow, has the distinctive name of "Para" in the commercial world, being called after the port of Para, which was the first centre of distribution.
The highly important and extensive rubber industry of to-day owes its origin to the trade which sprang up in Para rubber, following on the colonization of the Amazon Valley by the Portuguese. During the first half of the eighteenth century Lisbon began to import rubber goods, such as hats, boots, bags, and capes, from Brazil. A little later, France began to take an interest in rubber, and it was not long before other countries, including England, began to experiment with the new material.
Until well on in the nineteenth century, rubber goods were made in Brazil only. The chief market for them was North America, where waterproof shoes in particular became so popular that the United States decided to import raw rubber and start manufacturing rubber goods. The enterprise of the United States soon led to the establishment of some pioneer rubber-goods factories in Europe.
The factory quickly began to rival the forest workshop in the variety of goods turned out, and in such details of craftsmanship as style and finish. But the factory-made goods did not wear well; evidently they suffered from exposure to the air, being damaged by changes of temperature.
This great drawback to manufactured rubber goods was removed by a method of treating raw rubber with sulphur. The process, called "vulcanization," was discovered by an American named Charles Goodyear, who made his first successful experiments in 1839.
The discovery of the vulcanization process acted as a very great stimulus to the rubber industry. More and more keen and widespread became the desire to manufacture rubber goods, and the growing demand for the raw material led Brazil to extend her search for Hevea trees, and to set about dealing with the export of raw rubber in a more businesslike way. Up to about 1877 the forests around the mouth of the Amazon had been the only source of supply. Now some of the upper tributaries of the river were exploited, and the glowing reports as to the wealth of Hevea in the far inland forests led to a rush of rubber-gatherers into the interior. It soon became known that these reports had not exaggerated the available supply of Para rubber, and fresh energy and enterprise were attracted to the Amazon Valley by the rosy prospects of the raw rubber trade.
The principal rubber-producing regions of Brazil are the States of Para, Amazonas and Matto Grosso, and the federal territory of Acre, all in the Amazon Valley. Three qualities of Para rubber are exported from these localities—namely, fine, entrefine or medium, and coarse or negro-head.
Until a very short time ago, Para rubber obtained from trees growing wild in the Amazon forests had no rival. But to-day, rubber from plantations of Hevea in Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula and the East Indies, is waging a great commercial war for supremacy. To see how that war started, and to understand the developments in a historic industrial struggle, we must go back to the latter part of the nineteenth century.
In 1876 some Hevea seeds were smuggled out of the Amazon forests. These seeds were taken to Kew Gardens and carefully tended in glass-houses. About 7,000 grew up into healthy seedlings, which were distributed among the Eastern Tropics, to be transplanted in the open. The seedlings grew into trees, which in their turn became a source of seed-supply.
For several years the cultivation of Hevea was generally regarded as a new hobby for botanists, and anyone who prophesied a commercial future for plantation rubber was dubbed a crank. But a time arrived when the planters in the Malay Peninsula found themselves in a very desperate position. They had been growing coffee, and doing splendidly with the crop, but conditions now conspired to cut down their profits to such an extent that they were threatened with ruin. In despair they began to plant Hevea. This change only took place as recently as 1895.
The pioneers in Malay had a very hard struggle to keep their heads above water whilst their rubber-trees were growing. They had to wait five years before there was any possibility of judging whether their experiment was likely to prove a success, and few indeed were the people with sufficient faith in what the harvest would be to advance them any money for working expenses.
Came the day when motor-cars got so far beyond being a fashionable craze that people began to realize they would soon be a necessary means of locomotion in an age of hurry. Rubber tyres were going to be so much used in the near future, said someone to somebody else, that it looked as if we should want more rubber than was being supplied from the forests. The idea spread, and by 1898 a few more people had become interested in rubber cultivation; larger areas were put under Hevea in Malay and rubber-planting was begun in Ceylon. By 1899 it had been proved that cultivated Hevea trees would yield marketable rubber. In that year the first plantation Para rubber was sold in the London market at 3s. 10d. per pound.
By 1905 the great financiers, who had hitherto looked upon any prophecy of plantation rubber supplies as a fairy tale, began to think it was worth while risking money on an enterprise which gave such sound promise of yielding extraordinarily large profits. The increase in money now available for rubber-growing gave scope for a considerable development of the industry.
The public, as a mass, did not awaken to the money-making possibilities of rubber cultivation until a few years later. Some of the companies owning Eastern estates which had been planted up with Hevea in 1905, or earlier, paid to their shareholders in 1909 interest amounting to 80, 165, even 300 per cent., and tongues will very quickly wag into fame an industry that yields such enormous profits. Also, the price of rubber was going up, and people began to talk about the large number of new uses to which the material was being put. It was now widely believed that there would be such a shortage of rubber in the near future that the supply would fetch famine prices. Thus came the moment, in the spring of 19101 when a feverishly-excited public began the great gamble in rubber shares which has come to be known as the "Rubber Boom."
From £60,000,000 to £100,000,000 has been invested in the plantation rubber industry. Although much of this money conferred no benefit on the industry, going into the pockets of certain well-informed people who knew when to buy and when to sell shares, and certain cunning people who played the gambling game with a reckless public, the capital subscribed for rubber-growing is now represented by over a million acres of plantations, whose annual output of rubber is threatening to outrival that of Brazil.
Under normal conditions best quality rubber from the Amazon was selling at from 4s. to 5s., even 6s. per pound. During the boom, similar rubber fetched as much as 12s. 6d. per pound, whilst inferior grades commanded equally high prices in proportion. As, up to this time, the Amazon Valley countries had been annually exporting from 30,000 to 40,000 tons of rubber, Brazil in general and the Amazon region in particular enjoyed a period of great prosperity.
Competition has quickly brought down the price of raw rubber. Best quality Para, which still comes from Brazil, has recently been fetching less than 3S. per pound—that is to say, less than the figure that has hitherto been quoted as the minimum cost of production. Best quality plantation Para usually fetches a few pence less per pound than its Brazilian competitor, but the cost of production is very considerably lower; it is reckoned that the average cost of producing plantation rubber in the near future will be about 1s. per pound.
Owing to the greatly increased demand for rubber, the enormous new supplies from the Eastern plantations have not yet seriously affected the Brazilian output so far as bulk is concerned; but the influence of competition on Brazilian prosperity may be judged from the fact that the value of the rubber exported by one State alone, Amazonas, fell from £5,284,000, in 1909, to £2,882,600 in 1913.
Although the rivalry of plantation rubber has compelled the Amazon Valley to face a serious financial crisis, a very determined, intelligent and sporting fight is being put up to maintain the supremacy of Brazilian rubber. The Para of the Amazon forests has in itself a powerful fighting force; its quality has not yet been equalled, much less surpassed. And great efforts are being made to bring down the cost of production—for instance, the rubber is being more scientifically prepared and more carefully handled, with a view to increasing the proportion of finest grade in the total output; and large clearings in the forests are being planted up with food products, whereas all food-supplies have hitherto been imported from abroad, to be transported to the remote rubber regions at a cost which has made luxuries of the barest necessities of life.
People of all classes in the Amazon Valley had a very gay time during the Rubber Boom; indeed, truth to tell, many a fortune was squandered even more quickly than it was made. Now that the golden days of "Lightly come, lightly go," have been brought to an end, many of these same people have found a new and more stimulating enjoyment in getting to grips with misfortune. Poverty is bidding fair to be a great blessing. Not only has it led to progressive activities and carefully considered plans for giving a new lease of life to the rubber industry of the region, but it has awakened men's minds to the many and varied agricultural possibilities of the Amazon Valley. Cotton is being planted, the area under cocoa-nuts is being extended, the cocoa crop is being more scientifically prepared for market, and steps are being taken for developing an export trade in tobacco, which yields a bountiful harvest. Many kinds of cereals, such as maize, rice and beans, can be successfully grown, all kinds of tropical fruits will flourish, and there are excellent prairies for cattle-raising; the Amazon Valley could easily become self-supporting as regards food-supplies, and, as I have already told you, considerable progress has been made in pursuing this ideal. The wealth to be derived from the forests is incalculable; ambitious enterprises are on foot for turning to profitable account the abundance of timber, fibres, and medicinal plants. There is a steadily growing feeling that, whatever is to be the outcome of the struggle for supremacy between Brazilian rubber and Plantation rubber, the Amazon Valley States should never again risk their welfare by being dependent on one source of wealth. The popular cry of yesterday, "Rubber is gold, everything else dross," is giving place to the old maxim, "It's a mistake to put all your eggs into one basket."