Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

The Lazy Man's Tree

A few years ago a traveler from North America was visiting one of the sugar plantations on the Amazon. As the host walked with him through the plantation, they came to a large tree standing alone in the middle of a cane field.

"That," said the planter, "is the lazy man's tree."

It was a tall and exceedingly large rubber tree, belonging, perhaps, to what had once been a rubber estate, or seringal. It stood alone, long after rubber-hunters had extracted all the sap that it was possible to collect from the forest, and what had once been a rubber estate was now a sugar plantation.

For years all adventurers up the Amazon thought little of developing the resources of the country and thus building it up with a stable population. It was so easy to make a fortune collecting rubber that only a few settlers thought of cultivating the soil. Although many thousands of people were attracted to the Amazon valley annually, they had no particular interest in the country except to take from it the most valuable natural product of the time.

[Illustration] from Stories of South America by E. C. Brooks


Rubber was not known to the outside world until the Amazon valley was explored, and not until near the middle of the nineteenth century did it come into commercial use. Explorers brought into trading relations with the South American Indians saw the natives playing with soft elastic balls of a very peculiar formation. They also saw some of the Indians wearing shoes made of the same substance. It was further discovered that this peculiar material had the power of removing lead-pencil marks from paper. It was, therefore, called "rubber," because it rubbed out marks. The Indians, in hardening the rubber, sometimes used a clay mold resembling the human foot. In this way they molded rubber shoes that were worn by the natives long before the North Americans or Europeans knew of such things. The Indians made many other articles from it that excited the wonder of foreigners.

When North America and Europe really learned the value of rubber and the many uses that could be made of it, thousands of adventurers flocked into the Amazon valley. As a result, many fortunes were made by foreigners. Traders would go up the river seeking rubber trees, depending upon negroes or Indians for labor. They never thought of cultivating the land, which was very fertile, but brought food a thousand or even two thousand miles up the river to support them while they "milked" the rubber trees. Consequently, until comparatively recent times, there have been few attempts to develop the country back from the coast.

The man who owned a rubber estate, or seringal, and could work it properly had a small fortune awaiting him. The seringal included a large area marked out in a dense forest containing rubber trees here and there. In some places it was almost impossible to reach the trees without cutting a path through the tough undergrowth. This had to be done while fighting snakes, wild beasts, mosquitoes, flies, and a variety of other pestiferous insects. Sometimes the land was under water the whole year, or it might be under water only during the rainy season. Before 1867, foreign nations, as a rule, were not permitted to send trading vessels up the Amazon. But about that time Dom Pedro, desiring to increase the trade of Brazil, threw the whole valley open to the world. There was great rivalry, therefore, in the rubber industry, and rubber-hunters from all quarters of the globe flocked in large numbers to the valley. This was the beginning of the great expansion in the rubber industry. As a result, the world today largely derives from this valley one of its most valuable products.

How many articles made from rubber are used in your home and in your community? When you attempt to answer that question you will see how necessary rubber is. In what way is the material of commerce derived from the rubber tree? This question puzzled North Americans and Europeans for years.

It is extracted from the rubber tree in much the same way that turpentine is obtained from the pine tree in the South. Early in the morning the tapper goes through the forest and with a hatchet gashes the sides of the trees. Under each gash he fastens a cup to catch the milk that flows therefrom. In the afternoon he returns and collects the liquid accumulated in the cups.

The rubber tree has become so valuable that other nations have transplanted it, in order that they may not be wholly dependent upon the Amazonian forests. It is now cultivated in Ceylon, India, Malaya, and Australia: these countries annually produce large quantities of rubber.

There are a great many varieties of rubber-bearing trees and plants, but the best is found in the Amazon basin. This is a large tree, often as much as twelve feet in circumference, and very tall. The young trees begin to yield milk after the fourth year, and may be systematically tapped for twenty years and more. Some have been known to yield milk for more than fifty years.

[Illustration] from Stories of South America by E. C. Brooks


The method of gathering the milk and hardening it for the market is interesting. After the estate is laid off, a tapper will have from a hundred to a hundred and fifty trees to look after. The tropical growth is so dense as to make it difficult to pass through the forest. Therefore, the tapper has to cut a path from tree to tree. He usually makes his path in the form of a circle, so that when he has finished his day's work he will be back at his starting-point. In the evening he completes his round, gathering the milk from the cups in a large vessel. It is interesting to see how this milky fluid is turned into hard rubber. After collecting the milk for the day, the tapper builds a fire and on each side of the fire drives down a forked stick. Oily palm-nuts are thrown into the flames, as the smoke produced thereby is essential to giving the right kind of hardening to the rubber. Over the fire is placed a horizontal pole. The milky fluid is pasted on the pole just above the fire, and it at once begins to harden. Then more milk is added. With one hand the tapper slaps the milk on the pole and with the other keeps the pole turning round and round. The ball of rubber enlarges as fresh milk is added, until it grows to be about the size of a man's head, but sometimes it is the shape of a ham, hence the term "ham" of rubber or "biscuit" of rubber. After the product of the day has hardened, this "smoked ham" of rubber is ready for the market without further preparation.

The most successful rubber gatherers are those who know how to make the Indians work. Their estates are sometimes located in wild, undeveloped sections of the country, where only the Indians can stand the snakes and the mosquitoes, and other insects that swarm in that damp climate. Moreover, the overseer must be prepared to protect himself and the servants from the dangerous wild beasts lurking in the forest. A good overseer, knowing the nature of the Indians, will keep for distribution a lot of cheap and gaudy articles, clothing and other things. With this bait, he may succeed in coaxing the Indians to work for him. However, after an estate has been laid off, only a few hours a day are required to keep up with the work. Rubber collecting is not strenuous labor.

The life on a rubber estate is interesting and full of adventure. Once an overseer built his little cabin on high posts near the banks of the Amazon, and others were erected nearby for his servants. The overseer's cabin was screened so as to protect him from the mosquitoes. Around this little cabin, the Indians gathered to barter monkey meat or turtle eggs for his cheap stuff. Some of them would be employed in gathering the milk from the rubber trees. The question of food was always troublesome. Much of it had to be obtained from the forest. The natives could live very well without imported food, hence they were valuable to the overseer. In some parts of the valley a tall slender tree known as the "cow tree" was found. When the trunk of this tree was. pierced, it gave forth a rich, nourishing juice resembling milk in appearance, taste, and quality. After standing a short time, the milk furnished a yellow cream, which gradually thickened until it looked like cheese. The negroes and Indians drank freely of this "milk," but the white people rarely cared for it. In addition to the "milk," the forest furnished wild game, nuts, manioc, bananas, and other things. But white men required other food that had to be brought from the outside world.

One morning the Indians and negroes on the seringal had been out only a short time when the Indians sent up a distressing cry. "Onca! Onca!" was what they called. A huge black jaguar had been seen crouching in the forest, watching the men. The beast had smelled the meat from the cabin and had come to get it. The jaguar is the most dangerous animal in the forest, and the Indians have a superstitious fear of it. Consequently, they fled in every direction and were not seen again that day.

The first night and a second passed without incident. The third night, as the overseer lay asleep, he felt the cabin shake as if an earthquake rocked it. He sat up immediately and saw the flaming eyes of a beast that stood in the doorway. His gun was on the other side of his cabin and no help was near. An ax was lying by the bed. He quietly drew it to him, keeping his eye on the beast and one hand on his hunting knife, which was never far from him. Then he waited for the animal to draw nearer before attacking it.

[Illustration] from Stories of South America by E. C. Brooks


The jaguar kept sniffing and stealthily moving closer. The man raised the ax cautiously and suddenly stove in the beast's head. The jaguar made a convulsive leap. For a time no one could have told which was on top man or animal. The overseer drew his hunting knife, and they rolled together out of the door and fell on the ground. When the beast struck the earth, its muscles relaxed and the man knew that it was dead.

Next day it was told throughout the forest to every Indian that the overseer had killed an "onca" with his own hands. The Indians all believed that this was the supreme test of strength and courage. They thought the overseer greatly superior to ordinary human beings and that he even possessed supernatural powers. They were now ready to obey him in everything. Thereafter, he had little difficulty in securing sufficient labor. He had won the respect of the natives.

Traders along the river while gathering rubber usually employ the Indians also to gather the Brazilian nut, which is to be found in abundance in the forests. This is one of the most valuable of nuts and one with which all children in North America are acquainted. It grows on very tall trees and is contained in a shell about the size of a cocoanut. One large shell contains from sixteen to eighteen nuts. It is dangerous to be under a tree when the nuts are ripening. As the wind shakes the branches, the heavy globes crash down through the leaves and limbs with almost the swiftness of a cannon ball and with force enough to kill a man. After the nuts have been gathered, the outer shell is crushed with an ax or some other heavy instrument and from sixteen to eighteen black triangular nuts fall out. These are shipped to all parts of the world.

But the harvesting of nuts is a side-line as a rule. The chief concern is the gathering of rubber. Some men in the Amazon valley have fifty seringal estates, running into millions of acres, and several steamboats trading from the numerous depots to Manaos or some other of the river cities. Workers are now carefully instructed in the latest method of tapping and collecting milk so as to preserve the trees.

Manaos has grown into a large city as a result of rubber and other products of the Brazilian forests. Around it great cattle ranches have developed. Cocoa and sugar cane planting are important industries also. Whenever the valley is developed, Manaos will perhaps become the Chicago of this western country. One may go up the Rio Negro by boat and enter the Orinoco and thence reach the ocean. Moreover, he may go up the Madeira and pass into the Rio de la Plata. Manaos has an immense unworked country to draw from.

[Illustration] from Stories of South America by E. C. Brooks


It is no longer easy to secure a comfortable living by milking rubber trees, although this is still a great industry and will so continue. The country is developing slowly, and it is being demonstrated that other products of the soil of the valley are as valuable as the "lazy man's tree." But before the greatest possibilities can be attained it is necessary for settlers to learn how to destroy the mosquitoes and the other multitudinous pests, in order that life may be more secure and more comfortable. The problem of the tropics is the problem of insects.