The rubber terror

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That a popular consumer product would have a dirty secret hidden far from end users’ eyes in the Global South is almost to be expected these days.

A century ago, the bicycle was high on this list.

1890 was the year that a company called Dunlop Rubber formed primarily for the purpose of producing a newfangled and incredibly popular product — the inflatable bicycle tire, which provided a much smoother ride than their predecessors, the aptly named “boneshakers.”

The demand for bicycles surged. The first golden age of cycling had arrived. Many in Europe and North America — particularly the women’s movement — found liberation in having access to cheap, fast transportation for the first time.

This freedom came with an external price that was paid, in this case, by millions of workers and their families on rubber plantations throughout what was then the colonial world.

“The Rubber Terror” is what activists at the time dubbed the situation in central Africa. The Congo was, from 1885 to 1908, the private colony owned by (though never visited by) King Leopold II of Belgium. In the early 1890s, the king responded to the ever-growing demand for rubber by pressing millions of workers into unpaid labor, enforced by his brutal private army that was quick to mutilate, torture, and murder workers deemed slow or rebellious — or their families.

The resulting holocaust is calculated by some to have claimed the lives of 15 million people — over two thirds of the vast region’s population.

Though the Congo was hardly the only site of such atrocities, it was the focus of a major public campaign — the first major international humanitarian movement. Leopold fought back, hiring influential representatives to paint him as a philanthropist dedicated to uplifting the Congo’s native people. His PR efforts were successful, though his image in the U.S. suffered after his representative there didn’t like the way he was being treated by his employer and sold their correspondence to William Randolph Hearst.

But despite widespread knowledge of the atrocities committed on Leopold’s watch, it took a personal scandal to rein in his commercial rampage — popular opinion and the Belgian government turned against him only after it became known that he had secretly married his much younger mistress.

The demand for rubber for bicycle tires was, while huge, just one part of the picture. The automobile, starting in about 1900 took bicycle technologies and materials and ran with them; the amount of rubber, and everything else, needed for these horseless carriages was vast. Rubber coating made possible the spread of electrical wiring to every urban building. And the military couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

Nowadays natural rubber has been replaced by cheaper synthetics. But the parable of the Rubber Terror is still relevant.

It’s difficult in this era of fast, global communication, to do exactly what Leopold did, but just as in his time it is far easier to hide atrocities than to document them, and all too easy for consumers and policy makers not to dwell on the far-off origins of materials we take for granted, produced by people whose lives we know little about.

Bicycles today are hardly immune from problematic supply and production methods, starting with those same tires — which in modern times are made not of rubber, but from a petroleum-based synthetic substitute (here’s a detailed video showing how they’re made, if you love that stuff).

The automobile, once again, though, is the ubiquitous consumer product to watch. The humanitarian and environmental impacts of oil extraction hit close to home last year, with the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Less well covered by our news media is the story of Nigeria, one of the world’s primary oil producing regions where for the last fifty years private oil interests have devastated the landscape, economy, and resources upon which residents of the region rely, and created a humanitarian crisis with disturbing resemblances to the one in the Congo a century ago, complete with summary executions and the Rubber Terror’s signature amputations.

Though the impacts of bicycle production pale in comparison to the humanitarian and environmental devastation wreaked by their more resource-intensive cousin the automobile, they still add up. And the bicycle industry is not an unlikely place to find people willing to put their money where their environmental and ethical conscience is, leading to a new boom in U.S.-made bicycles, from the high end custom builders to the mad scientists cobbling together a new economy of parts.

For every bike frame that gets welded in a shed in Portland, though, the provenance of the essential plastic-molybdenum gizmo that holds the lights on goes overlooked. And for every company touting its corn-based chain lube, there’s the entire petroleum industry with its armies of spin doctors, carrying on with impunity until, presumably, some scandal is finally scandalous enough to rein it in.

The historical sources for this article are taken from these two excellent books:

The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire by Joe Jackson

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

Also, Chris Carlsson has already covered this topic well. For historical context about the bicycling movement during the Rubber Age, check out this fascinating essay of his.