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Civilized people in uncivilized places : rubber, race, and civilization during the Amazonian rubber boom



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Imperial Europe’s relationship with the tropical world was characterized by intrigue and fascination combined with a fear of difference. This combined intrigue and fear developed over time into a set of stereotypes and myths about the tropics, which by the 19th century had solidified into a powerful discourse historian David Arnold calls tropicality. As Europe’s interaction with the tropical world increased and its need for tropical resources grew, tropicality became a powerful tool for legitimizing European interference in and exploitation of the tropics. Embedded in the language of science and the promise of progress, it reaffirmed European superiority and its necessary role as the bearer of civilization for the tropical world. Perhaps the most powerful characteristic of tropicality was its inherent ambivalence. The Amazon basin has been a particularly important source for the creation and maintenance of these stereotypes about the tropical world. Reinvented by Alexander von Humboldt as an exotic paradise at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Amazon basin continued throughout the century to inspire commentary, exploration, and exploitation from abroad. As contact with the Amazon increased, ideas about the tropics began to change. What once was thought of as a pristine paradise became perceived as sinister, diseased, and savage. By the end of the nineteenth century, the tropical world, its people and nature, was considered to be an obstacle to civilization, and its very ability to become civilized began to be questioned.Rubber, an increasingly important and lucrative imperial resource at the end of the nineteenth century, brought people from around the world to the Amazon basin. This resulted in the creation of a “contact zone” of different peoples, cultures, and idea, which was important for the moulding and maintenance of tropical stereotypes and myths. This was especially the case in the Putumayo, a border zone between modern day Colombia and Peru, where the brutal treatment of workers and the promise of civilization clashed. Through an exploration of travel diaries, newspapers, parliamentary papers, and other works about the tropics and rubber, this thesis argues that the manner in which rubber and its environment were depicted legitimized its control and exploitation from the outside. Couched in the rhetoric of civilization, tropicality helped justify the exploitation of rubber, the environment in which it grew, and the peoples that lived there.



Amazonia, race, civilization, tropicality, tropical representation, the Amazon, rubber, the Putumayo



Master of Arts (M.A.)






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