Q&A with Susanna Hecht about her new book

Originally posted by the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs

The book has been widely acclaimed and has generated a lot of national — and international — attention. Hecht will speak about the book on Tuesday and then will be signing copies after her talk. The event begins at 6 pm and you can RSVP here.

Hecht took time to answer some questions about her latest release.

Question: Why is the Amazonia Scramble like the Game of Thrones?

Answer: First of all Game of Thrones (GOT) a popular idiom that helps people understand geopolitics. In G.O.T you have the royal houses and their minions in a rivalry for sovereignty in areas that have unclear boundaries and uncertain vassals. Although the dominance is framed in mostly military terms with little reference to economic underpinnings (like gold for the House Lannister), these are basically competitions managed through lineage alliances and betrayals and continual competition for the Iron throne which confers control over several kingdoms that also lay claim to it.

In an analogous way, Amazonia has been in play among Europeans, hemispheric aspirants and its native polities since 1494. Most people see Amazonia as largely a wild place without much social history, but it has a long and significant one, and one that’s not just about Spanish and Portuguese rivalries. The Dutch, French, English, Irish (!) had colonies in Amazonia by the 16th century. By the 17th century you basically had a buffer state — a kind of analogue of the “The Wall” — (and for Brazil, Amazonia is “The North”) between the holdings of Spain and Portugal formed by religious orders and their missions that stretched from the mouth of the la Plata in Argentina to the Orinoco in Venezuela. Like the Black Watch the ecclesiastics were largely concerned with managing “wildings.” Although not known as “crows” they were called the “Urubus”— after the large and very black Amazon vulture. Their charge was to control the “wildings” and free people who lived beyond fealty to the crowns in an incomprehensible dangerous nature with animals and peoples from other ages, and with wild shamanistic shaping magic (wargs in GOT) and mighty forests and ubiquitous gods — in the “weir woods.” These peoples, viewed as lascivious, brutal, cannibal, terms used about GOT wildings and Amazonians — were strangely alluring in their knowledge, autonomy and resistance — were rebellious and threatening in their tropical forests immensity with few forays, but many valuable products seeping out, and lots of metal seeping in. Spain stuck to its mountains and Brazil to its coast while the interior — Amazonia — remained the great unknown to the North.

Many things transpired (this is why the book and G.O.T are long), but for our story, the religious orders were expelled from the new world in the late 18th century (1767), and this was one of the key dynamics of the scramble. The great interior of what had been “Land of the Amazons”  had morphed into the religious territories of Chiquitania, Moxos, Maynas and Orinoquia had no real boundaries. Meantime, after the Bolivar liberation, the Spanish empire dissolved into a new set of states in the early 19th century (Bolivia, Peru Ecuador etc), while the Napoleonic wars caused the Portuguese monarch to flee to Brasil and proclaim his tropical Versailles, new Kingdom in the New World in a place rife with slave revolts, political incursions, and disobedient vassals to the North and imperial aspirants from the south (Argentina Paraguay), the West (the Andean countries), the continental north in the Caribbean Amazon (Britain, France, Holland), and hemispheric empire dreamers: the US. Two commodities begin to emerge as key in this new phase of globalization: rubber and gold. The greater Amazon was very rich in both.

The countries surrounding Amazonia began to see it as a new imperial space and full of ambiguous frontiers, confusing treaties and alluring resources tropical exploration took off, and knowledge about the place didn’t reside only in the libraries of kings and the Vatican. Explorers like Alexander von Humboldt came in the service of the Spanish crown and de la Condamine spied for the French monarch. Brazilian born Rodrigues Ferriera was at the command of “Mad Maria,” the Queen of Portugal. These set the stage for what was the later pattern of Amazonian expeditions which was a mix of espionage and science. Lots of countries had claims from different eras, and the boundaries were physically unknown and politically contested. The Game was on in a big way in this new global phase. Many tropical utopias were set into place like the one set up by the French and peopled with 14,000 blond Alsatians (most died); the Dutch slavocracy which eventually made treaties with another kind of utopia, the renegade slave communities of the Saramaka blacks in Suriname, or the mixed blood and native communities of the wildings. Amazonia even was seen as a possible venue for US Confederate expansion  when Brazil was still a slave state, and after abolition, as a possible “New World Liberia” for some of the 6 million freed Americans. Others, such as the French, saw the region as a great kind of penal colony (Kafka’s eponymous short story is set in Cayenne).

Imagine a world without waterproofing, and you can begin to see why Massachusetts industrialist TC Wales ran a brisk and prosperous business in importing rubber footware by 1832 and the Portuguese army commanded waterproof and boots cloaks. By mid century steam travel made movement on the great rivers a lot more feasible instead of relying on the treacherous sailing and recalcitrant rowers and by the end of the century rubber was undergoing an innovation explosion as its properties were stabilized so it wouldn’t melt in heat or shatter in cold. Explorers and adventurers flocked to Amazonia, and armies, diplomats and surveyors began to clash.

Q: Why was the Amazon such a prize?

A: Rubber, along with coal and steel was key to the industrial revolution. It was a machine input, a transportation necessity, for communications, wiring and  stimulated huge innovations in medical technologies. It was (and is) central to industrial processes and development. By the late 19th century, the best latex was coming out of Amazonia from the Hevea rubber tree, tapped periodically by men deep in the forest whose main tools were prehistoric: knives and fire. More than half the world’s production came out of these far western Amazon forests, and was valued at billions in today’s currency. And those forests had a monopoly over this hyper valuable global commodity, at least until Britain’s Kew Gardens and Charles Wickham engineered the biopiracy that collapsed Amazonian hegemony, as Kew had done for quinine a few decades earlier. One could argue that this cure for malaria actually made tropical 19th century imperialism possible, in the same way that rubber made stimulated the industrial era. So the developed world owes quite a bit to Amazonia!

Q: Why was there such a battle?

A: While the book explores other scrambles, the one in Acre, where Euclides played such a role had the most at stake: both because of its size and because it was the final chit in Brazil’s frontier consolidation.

In addition to Hevea gum, there was another important latex, one derived from Castilla tree (locally known as caucho) where latex was extracted by killing the tree. It was a significant part of the Upper Amazon rubber economy, but sources were being depleted as the trees were felled, driving Peruvian and Bolivian “caucheros” into the rubber tapping lands of Hevea. These two latex ecologies became stalking horses for bigger geopolitical concerns as rubber workers were used to “claim” lands for different nations and the region exploded in Guerrilla warfare. Whose territory was this land of the “black gold”? Although numerous native politics had claimed it, it was mostly terra nullius — no man’s land — for the new Amazonian states. Indeed on most old maps the region was still “The Land of the Amazons” or “unexplored lands”  occupied by “Chunchos”: Giants and wild men. The old maps were suitably vague and often imaginary and a good cartographer could end up capturing tens of thousands of hectares by shifting a line here and there. The defunct treaties between dead empires provided plenty of grist for conflict, and often involved plenty of invention about places (and peoples) in the councils set up to adjudicate boundaries. And no one knew really where anything was. River boundaries were unreliable. Surveying was not so well developed, and the twisty Amazon tributaries made things especially tough. But the allure of those rich forests drew adventurers, explorers and labor from everywhere. The region was awash with boots (well, bare feet actually) on the ground as people from all over began to claim Amazon places. It was a lousy place to fight: swampy and thronged with “tame” and untamed wildings. The best strategy seemed to demilitarize the Upper Purus river, and set up adjudication through plenipotentate councils drawn from international rulers and advisors to decide the destiny of the forests.

The key idea for claiming places was settlement: the old diplomatic term from Roman law was uti possedetis: “he who has, keeps.” So as foreign ministers tried to make sense of this explosive situation, a bi-national survey team was sent up to review what nationality of people were occupying what/where so it could be adjudicated. So warfare and lawfare were both crucial in these territorial contests. This is where da Cunha comes in.

Q: Who is Euclides da Cunha?

A: Euclides da Cunha is considered by many to be Brazil’s greatest writer. He’s known for his famous chronicle “Rebellion in the Backlands” of an uprising by a millenarian and renegade ex slave community that was brutally repressed by the young Brazilian republic. He was important in the military coterie that had midwived Brazil’s first republic and was sent as an Aide to one of the generals, and as a kind of embedded reporter for the uprising. He begins in the world of clichés about civilization over barbary, but comes to write about nature and the backlanders in luminous prose, as the “bed rock of Brazil.” He’d been a propagandist for the young republic, and had originally been a great imitator of European ideas and styles. His “Rebellion in the Backlands” changed him, his politics and his writing to a politically more radical, nativist stance. His distinction brought him to the attention of the foreign minister, the Baron of Rio Branco. And as a military man, he had survey skills. He knew a lot about the northeasterners who now inundated Amazonia, he knew about guerilla warfare, he was a dedicated scientific scholar, he understood tropical nature, and he was a fervent nationalist.

Da Cunha’s Amazonian writings aren’t well known, but his ambition was to to do what he had done for the arid outback of the Northeast: to give it a history and a meaning in the emergent Brazilian nation and he dreamed of Amazonia as a new kind of tropical civilization. As much as Amazonia was about resource scrambles, it was also about utopias, and what he imagined was community based in the social lives and Amazon practices of what he called  the region’s Bronzed titans. This would be a tropical, nationalist counterpoint to northern imperialism, one  rooted in Brazilian people, cultural idioms and knowledge rather than transplanted European exercises.

Q: Why is da Cunha important?

A: He wrote about Amazonian environments and social history and in many ways he can be considered the first Amazonian scholar, pouring over Jesuit archives, old maps, explorations and diplomatic memos. Many of the foreign  explorations of 19th century naturalists like Bates, Wallace, Agassiz among others, were “pre-boards” for new imperial ventures. Da Cunha uses his scholarship  to frame a South American scientific tradition including the importance of the knowledge of its most humble actors as talented explorers of the Amazon. He situated Amazonia within national tropical experience rather than the exoticism that characterized the Amazon of outsiders. This was quite a radical position at the time, when knowledge systems were largely seen as European.

Da Cunha is important in other ways: He is a magisterial writer documenting a momentous time as one of its protagonists. Most colonial literature comes from outsider observers (think Joseph Conrad) who had no substantive political role in what they were  writing about. Others, engaging in imperial ecotourism plus espionage regularly defamed local populations as indolent or just simply backward in the social Darwinist language of the day, even as their toil provided the industrial world with one of its most coveted products. Imagine if Gabriel Garcia Marquez had documented Colombia’s Bolivarian revolutions! To have such a writer in place for such a transformative moment is really remarkable. And his environmental writing is the best there is. His sequel to "Rebellion in the Backlands" was supposed to be his “Lost Paradise” but he never completed it because he was later killed by his wife’s much younger lover. I think da Cunha has yet to be recognized for his Amazon contributions, and my hope is that this book brings his life and times into sharper focus. His writing truly does elucidate the new world’s Heart of Darkness, but also dreams of a New World in the Tropics.

Q: How did da Cunha help shape Brazil’s claim to the Amazon?

A: Da Cunha was part of a “team” assembled by the Baron of Rio Branco to define the Western boundaries. The Baron had envoys in Lima, La Paz, and Washington as well as Buenos Aires where the adjudication would take place. Da Cunha’s job was to head up a bi-national reconnaissance expedition on the Purus river — the great rubber river — with a Peruvian counterpart (whom he hated). They were to survey and map the river, indicate which nationality occupied where, and to document the cross watershed land routes. This was a guerilla  war zone at the time. These kind of mapping exercises were key inputs into the adjudications. They were also to write reports. These reports and letters haven’t been translated until now, and provide many insights into his more formal literary writings about the place and really give a flavor of the natures of the conflicts.

Q: Why no attention to the Scramble for the Amazon?

A: The simple answer is that Brazil and the other Amazon countries basically won the scramble for the Amazon, while European powers then tended to focus on their African and Asian properties. Also: the final moments of the scramble occurred a few years before World War I broke out, and Europe was overtaken in a "scramble" for itself. What's actually remarkable is how durable the Amazonian boundaries have been since that time in comparison with, say, Europe. And how comparatively non violent the Amazonian scramble was in light of the bloodsaturated European territorial wars.

Q: What is da Cunha’s Amazonian Legacy?

A: I think it is of several kinds: First, and most profoundly, he writes a social history of Amazonia, and was sensitive to the human imprint on the place. Next, he had a great deal to say about international imperialism, and the political ecologies associated with Amazonian occupation at the time. He wrote amazingly about Amazonia, but without the hyperbole, and he thought the lexicon would be best able to communicate the complexity of what he called  “the last unfinished page of Genesis.” Translating these writings was very difficult, because his language is complex, but he gives the best sense of the region, especially compared to almost everybody else who was a) basically traveling on the main channel; b) interested in a kind of “Amazon Safari” story (alligators, Tapirs, piranhas, jaguars, capyvaras and a lot of blasting away at stuff; and c) collecting information for foreign governments. He understood Amazonia. He also, as I’ve mentioned deserves attention as a kind of ”anticolonialist” Brazilian nationalist. He also helped make its map.

Q: Can you describe da Cunha’s violent death and how it affected Amazonia?

A: While da Cunha was toiling off in Amazonia, his wife fell in love with a companion of their older son, Dilermando de Assis — a gorgeous 17-year old who would become Brazil’s sharp-shooting champion, and later a General in the Brazilian army. Using court depositions, as well as self justifying books written by the principals I tried to clarify what happened in the various shootouts and what led to them. What is clear is that the da Cunha marriage was fraught even without the added complication of a lover. Da Cunha’s wife continued her involvement with Dilermando (including having children by him) while she was married to da Cunha. This became unbearable, and da Cunha challenged Dilermando  and was shot by him. This triangle  was a bloody one that took other victims, including Euclides' son who also challenged Dilermando and was killed by him. There were some other collateral victims too. Read the book!

Q: What do you hope the book achieves?

A: I want people to understand that Amazonia isn’t a wild place beyond “the Wall,” with only a biotic history, but a place with a rich, dramatic and very interesting social history that was as much about utopian aspirations as resource scrambles, and this is still true today. I also love da Cunha so much and feel that once his Amazonian writings are better known they might well take pride of place — even though this masterwork was not completed — along with "Rebellion in the Backlands." Also, I want this book to give people a different sense of Amazonia, not a place at the “Margins of History” but as central in many earlier periods of globalization, and as the source of one of the defining substances of modern life — something so ubiquitous we don’t notice it: rubber.

Finally, I’d like the book to give a sense of the regional history in the way that Euclides put it:  “Such is the River, such is its history, always turbulent, always insurgent.”

For more information on Susanna Hecht's book and her upcoming book event please click here