Written by: James Brunet (Undergraduate Student).
Nominated by: Professors A. Diptee & D. Kinsey.
Rubber, a polymer harvested from tree latex and later derived from oil, is a product with a paradoxical history. It is both a symbol of worthiness to the Aztecs and a harbinger of death to the Congolese — built into the fabric of some nations and instrumental in the destruction, exploitation, and holocaust of others. It has a long history as a commodity, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it truly became an essential part of the global economy.
Rubber has had many practical uses over many centuries. Long before the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, indigenous peoples in Central and South America traded for rubber, used it in industry, religious rituals, and weaponry. Rubber trees could not grow at the upper elevations where peoples such as the Aztecs lived — they needed to import rubber from the Gulf Coast, and so exchanged it for commodities such as jade. The Aztecs and Maya used rubber to burn as incense, strap tips to their weapons, waterproof clothing, and reinforce quivers. Rubber was also used in shoes and breastplates in Mexico (Tully, 2011, p. 30). Jean-Baptiste Serrier, a French historian, noted that Aztec human sacrifice victims were often painted with rubber before they were killed. He said: “Rubber, the blood of the tree, was the symbol and the substitute for human blood, the substance the most worthy of being offered in sacrifice to the gods.” (32) Hence, rubber was seen as incredibly valuable in Central American society, both for practical and religious reasons.
After the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, rubber became available to the rest of the world (Tully, 2011, p. 29). However, rubber in its raw form carried some serious drawbacks. It was sticky, smelly, melted when heated, and became more brittle over time — this prevented the mass adoption of rubber until the material was improved (38). In 1839, Charles Goodyear, a chemist from Connecticut, made a breakthrough that changed the future of the commodity. He discovered that if rubber was mixed with extremely hot sulfur it would change form: the new ‘vulcanized’ rubber was resistant to heat and cold, while losing its repulsive smell (40). With the industrial revolution in full swing, a whole smorgasbord of rubber goods came into existence: from gaskets, grips, grommets, and galoshes to flooring, footwear, foot pumps, and fountain pens (45). The invention of the inflatable tire in 1887 by John B. Dunlop led to a massive spike in demand for rubber around the world (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002, p. 21). The market for tires went from 2.4 million in 1910 to 37 million in 1920 (Skrabec, 2013, p 87), demonstrating this rising global demand for rubber.
Rubber proved to be a valuable strategic resource in the Second World War, and this importance led to the widespread use of synthetic rubber (Tully, 2011, p. 319), which had traditionally been seen as less desirable. This dramatic shift can be seen in the US rubber industry between 1941 and 1945. Before the outbreak of war, 99% of American-consumed rubber was natural. By late 1945, it was only 11% (320). When natural rubber was more widely demanded, its production was subject to much controversy.
The 19th century Belgian Congo had an abundance of rubber trees. When global demand for rubber spiked after the invention of the inflatable tire in 1887, King Leopold II of Belgium decided to monetize the natural and human resources of the colony (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002, p. 21). He used his power of eminent domain to divide most of the country into either ‘Crown Domain’ or the ‘Private Domain of the State’, paying no attention to indigenous land ownership. By 1891, Congolese people were required to supply their labour and rubber to Belgian authorities. These mercenaries with itchy trigger fingers used their weapons to force villagers to produce more rubber (34). Entire villages were depopulated, with their peoples assigned production quotas for rubber. Those who resisted or who missed quotas were “subject to rape, arson, bodily mutilation, and murder”(22). The death toll is estimated at 10 million people: murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, and disease were among the leading causes. The blow from this oppression is still felt even now, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not yet recovered.
Today, the Congo is widely regarded as a failed state. At the turn of the century, over two hundred civilians were killed in a violent clash between Rwandan and Ugandan troops. This is considered just a footnote in the Congo’s long history of widespread corruption, internal conflict, and foreign interference (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002, 277). This is largely a result of colonialism, and the ‘rubber holocaust’ of the 19th and 20th centuries. Both natural and synthetic rubber are produced globally in large quantities and have many industrial uses. By far, the largest industrial use for rubber is in vehicle tires. In 2013 synthetic rubber was produced in slightly higher numbers than natural, taking 56% of the global market share (International Rubber Study Group [IRSG], 2014). The Asia-Pacific region, particularly Southeast Asia, is responsible for the vast majority of natural rubber production, with over 90% of it being produced there. Interestingly enough, in the present day, the Congo has little in the way of production of rubber.
Rubber has had a global influence. It had humble beginnings — a moderate role in Central American society, and a curiosity to Europeans. However, innovations like vulcanization and the inflatable tire made rubber an essential product. Unfortunately, this also contributed to the brutal oppression of the Congolese people; they have still not rebounded from their exploitation. Although the repercussions associated with it are controversial, there is no denying that rubber has made its mark on the world.
International Rubber Study Group (2014). Statistical Summary of World Rubber Situation. Retrieved February 9, 2014, from The International Study Rubber Group.
Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges (2002). The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History. London, England: Zed Books
Tully, John (2011). The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber. See Monthly Review. Accessed April 2015.
Skrabec, Quentin R. Junior (2013). Rubber : An American Industrial History. Jeferrson, NC: Mcfarland & Co Inc Pub.