Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Man Who Brought Down Manaus

In the years before the First World War, Manaus was one of the richest places in the Americas – North or South. It was the first city in South America to install an electric grid; the first to have a telegraph link with Europe; the women wore French fashions; the children were sent to France to be educated; the per-capita consumption of champagne was higher than anywhere else in South America.

The opera house (above) was built with marble from Carrara and hand-painted tiles from Portugal. It featured chandeliers of Baccarat crystal and huge decorative vases from Sèvres. The rafters rang with the great voices of the age, Sarah Bernhardt and Jenny Lind among many others. All of which is pretty surprising when you consider where Manaus is located. It’s nine hundred miles from the sea, smack in the middle of the Amazon jungle.  Even today, there are no roads that will take you there from Brasilia, or Rio de Janeiro, or São Paulo. You have to fly, or you have to take a boat.
So how come Manaus was so rich?
Back in those days Brazil had a monopoly on all the rubber in the world.

Rubber trees were native to the Amazon rainforest - and existed nowhere else. Naturally, the Brazilians wanted to keep it that way, To that end, they made it illegal to export the seeds or the seedlings of the rubber tree, and made it clear they’d classify anyone who did it as a thief.
Enter this man, Henry Wickham:

Wickam, in defiance of Brazilian law, stole 70,000 seeds and bore them off to the Royal Botanical Garden at Kew. They were planted the day after their arrival. Over two thousand of them germinated.
The descendants of those seedlings were sent to Sri Lanka, to Singapore and to India. With them, the English established their own rubber trade, a trade that ended up being far more successful and lucrative than the Brazilian one.
And that for one reason: every other place in the world the trees could be planted in groves; but not in Brazil. The Amazon rainforest, you see, harbors a blight that exists nowhere else in the world, a blight that attacks rubber trees. If one tree is infected, the blight kills all the other trees in the neighborhood. The Brazilian trees, therefore, are always spaced throughout the jungle. The harvest of their latex is an expensive proposition, too expensive to compete with the plantations, and low labor costs, of the East.
Brazil’s loss.
England’s gain.
Henry Wickham got a knighthood.
Manaus got shafted. These days, it's no more than a backwater.

And is known for little more than the “meeting of the waters”, the place where muddy brown of the Rio Solimões meets the black of the Rio Negro and forms the beginning of the Rio Amazonas, the true Amazon.

And yet...and yet...there's a very good reason to go there: to see the place where most of the action takes place in my latest book, Dying Gasp, just now beginning to appear in bookstores and libraries across the United States.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Can't be too many people who were knighted for theft! Never knew about the dreaded blight. At least phylloxia didn't get to South America - thank goodness!

    Does Brazil make any wine?


  2. Written like a short story itself, this post drew me in and spit me out. A monument to the dirty war that is nation building. And a sad story of greed and loss. Thank you for the education. (And subtle, well-done book promotion.)


  3. What an absolutely fascinating tale. I think I heard it once but it's so interesting I was enraptured. How one man can change the world so drastically.

    I will look for your book when it comes out. Keep us posted.


  4. Having read DYING GASP, the picture of the boats in the blog is evocative of the story. This is the place the reader is plunked down and steeped in the horror confronted by the characters.

    The picture of the Opera House is beautitul in its composition and subject. It doesn't fit with the Manaus of DYING GASP. So I turned to Wikipedia, the first choice of people too lazy to do real research, for some context for the picture. Wikipedia showcases a beautiful city, elegant and cosmopolitan. The Manaus of the book is cosmopolitan only in so far as it attracts men from beyond Brazil eager to sample the product of the dark side.

    The comparison of the picture of the shore and boats in your comment to that of the shore and boats on Wikipedia is stunning. Manaus of DYING GASP is a place where souls are destroyed, not a place where souls are nourished by beauty and opera.

    To those who have read the book and to those who will - the author's note should not be missed. In light of that information,the reader will see that the book is based on facts that Wikipedia has overlooked in order to provide a palatable fiction.

    About that last paragraph, Leighton. You set out another mystery.


  5. Leighton,

    I agree completely with Michele's comment and only slightly amend the view of Ann to reflect my take on your piece: I was enraptured how one man can charge the world so dramatically! Happy New Year.

  6. What a fascinating story about rubber trees. I learnt a bit about Brazil when I was ten (I only remember, because we had an excellent teacher), but nothing about this significant theft.

  7. Hi Leighton,

    Very interesting, especially after reading your books. I can't believe your describing the same place.

    The Baccarat chandeliers had to be stunning. Is the Opera House still there as it was? I was very surprised that Sarah Bernhardt performed there, I can't imagine how that would come to be especially so long ago.

    Great photos as always. :)

  8. Hi Folks,
    Thanks for all the comments. Let me take them in order:

    Stan, you're quite right. The wine louse never made it to South America. And it wouldn't matter if it made it to Brazil, because the wines, by and large, are pretty awful. At home, we drink the wines of our neighboring countries, Chile and Argentina, with a few exceptions. On special occasions, we drink French or Italian. We don't drink South African, not because we don't enjoy them, but because they are seldom imported. And we don't drink Australian because Eide and I lived in Australis for three years, and although we love the country, there are not many wines that we are particularly fond of. (Don't feel bad, readers from Oz. This also holds true for wines from the USA.)
    As to Brazil, there is, to be fair, a decent red made with nibbilino grapes planted by some Italian immigrants in Caixias do Sul in the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul. Not pretentious. Drinkable. Doesn't age. There's also a sparkling wine produced by Chandon, kind of like the Spanish cavas and almost as good. Get this: by Brazilian law, they are allowed to call it champagne! And they use the charmat process to make it.

    Michele, did you think it was subtle? I was afraid it was a little too heavy handed. At least I did until I saw Ann Elle's comment.

    Ann Elle, the book IS out.


  9. Dorte, this guy Wickham is fascinating. Like Livingston, Speke and Burton, he was a Victorian adventurer. Unlike them, he did much to enrich the empire. But they got the fame, and he didn't. One wonders why.

    Beth, I had a look at that picture on Wikipedia. The angle and the distance deceive. The city is by no means beautiful, elegant, or cosmopolitan. The closer you get, the uglier it gets. Physically ugly, but also morally ugly. One of my enduring memories is that of a little prostitute, sitting on the front steps of the opera house waiting for her next customer. She was playing with a doll. She was that young.

    Jeff, a Happy New Year to you.

    Susie, the opera house is still there. Much smaller than it looks in the photo, the auditorium comports less than 500 spectators. It was, after all, not built for the general population of Manaus but only for the great rubber barons and their families. And they had no intention, or desire, to rub elbows with the people they considered to be their inferiors.
    The building has been renovated and brought back (almost) to its former glory. This at great cost, and at the great lining-of-pockets of the people who put out the contracts.
    A while back, I saw a performance there of Carlos Gomes' "O Guarani".

    Very well done, BUT:
    The State Secretary of Culture and Tourism saw fit to blow most of his budget for the year on that one show. He brought singers, and musicians, and experienced theatrical production staff up from São Paulo to stage it. One of my wife's cousins was among them.

    Here's one little story that I was privy to:
    The feathers to make the costumes for the Indians (lots of them on stage) could have been obtained locally. But they weren't. They were brought up from the south (although they'd probably originated there in the north in the first place) BECAUSE they'd be more expensive if they were "imported".

    And why, might you well ask, should it be important for them to be more expensive?

    Ah! Use your imagination!
    Or read my comments about the corruption in that town in the author's notes of "Dying Gasp".

    On the opening night, as I made my way to the front door, I had to wade through a crowd. Not because there were going to be that many spectators. (Remember, there are less than 500 seats)
    It was a protest staged by people who would have liked to have seen the show (paid for by their tax money) and knew they couldn't. (I was able to get in because our cousin's husband had seen the dress rehearsal, elected not to go and gave me his ticket.)

    As to the Devine Sarah, she, like every performer of her age, had to reach the site of her performance by ship. Yes, Susie, the cost to get her there was enormous. And for such a small audience! But it didn't matter. Not to those rubber barons. They had money coming out of their ears.

    Google the opera house in Manaus and you're going to find allegations that Enrico Caruso sung there.

    I have it on good authority, however, that he didn't.

    But Sarah Bernhardt did tread the boards of that stage. Absolutely. I've personally seen newspaper clippings from that time.

    All: Jeff Siger (above) writes Greece. You, dear readers, who enjoy reading crime novels from around the world, are likely to enjoy his latest, "Assassins of Athens".

    Check out Jeff's website at:

  10. Wikipedia is information by committee and the article I mentioned in my earlier comment suggests that the committee was comprised of people who had something to gain by conjuring Manaus as a city similar to Oz after the bad witch was killed.

    I trolled through 22 pages of hits on Manaus using the Yahoo search engine and the only reference that was in anyway negative was a piece submitted by the CDC warning of the Dengue virus in the Manaus area. Power fueled by money can control image with an iron fist.

    Lord Acton's comment about power is frequently quoted and generally one important word is left out. He wrote, "Power TENDS to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He wasn't writing about government. Lord Acton came from a Roman Catholic family and he was vehemently opposed to the doctrine of papal infallibility when it was introduced in 1870.

    Lord Acton's actual quote cuts powerful groups some slack by using the word "tends". Power doesn't, by definition, have to be corrupting, it just usually is.

    The corruption in the church, of which the clergy sex abuse scandal is the most recent, is still being revealed. The corruption of the church in Latin America, that the church supported the powerful while ignoring the poor and the conditions in which they lived, led to the rise of liberation theology. That movement was not supported by the leadership of the church in Rome because it was allied with Marxist groups. The mission of the liberationists should have been supported by the church.

    BLOOD OF THE WICKED and DYING GASP contain scenes in which Catholic clergy are murdered for speaking out against the corrupt forces in government and the treatment of the poor. They are examples of the power of the church being subjugated by the power of privilege and money. I think Leighton was reminding people of the death of Oscar Romero in the opening of BLOOD OF THE WICKED. Romero's death horrified the world because he was killed while offering Mass, the central part of the Catholic faith. He died in 1980; I doubt many people today know anything about him or the reasons for his murder.

    Leighton writes about a city that has created an identity and an economy for itself based on evil. Manaus is a long way from its original success as city built on rubber. Manaus in the 21st century is built on the murder and defilement of children in the cause of greed and power.

    The author's note at the end of the book should, perhaps, be read before reading the story. Getting back to Lord Acton, money can corrupt absolutely as well. The action in DYING GASP takes place in Brazil but the crime comes to light in Europe. Pornography is not a victimless crime and those who spend money on it are providing financial incentive to those who rape, degrade, mutilate, and kill under the guise of providing a service that is supported by freedom of speech. Brazil is the locale of the book but the action takes place in every part of the world where poverty dehumanizes the poor.

    Read DYING GASP. You won't forget the little girl with the doll.

  11. Beth,

    I truly love your contributions.
    And invariably find myself agreeing them, as we Brazilians say, "in both degree and number".

    I thought I knew Acton's quote.
    And now you tell me I've been misquoting his Lordship for something like half-a-century.

    Tends, huh? Thanks for that. Makes much more sense. And I didn't know the background to the remark. I thought it was purely motivated by the English politics of his time.

    Your point about the ommissions in Wikipedia articles was also an eye opener.

    I'll bet they don't mention, either, that the area around Manaus is home to almost 300 kinds of mosquitos.

    But maybe we should stop here, huh? I visit the place occasionally and I don't want to get lynched.

  12. Leighton - Catholic education and history major. The things we learn.

  13. By constitutional determination regarding the educational system, the aforementioned legislation still applies as long as it does not go against the Constitution. This ambiguity is a consequence of the absence of a new Bases and Guidelines Law and characterizes a transition phase until the new law is finally elaborated and enacted. The bill has already been submitted to congress.


  14. Hello,
    I was wondering if I could use the image of the Manaus opera house for a presentation I am doing for a university course on international student services. I visited Manaus and the opera house in 2002, but unfortunately I lost all of my photos.
    Thank you,
    Paul Collins