Manaos and South America

The Amazon

The main river (which is usually between one and six miles wide) is navigable for large ocean steamers to Manaos. Smaller ocean vessels of 3,000 tons and 18 ft) draft can reach as far as Iquitos, 2,300 miles from the sea. Smaller riverboats can reach 486 mi higher as far as Achual Point. Beyond that, small boats frequently ascend to the Pongo de Manseriche, just above Achual Point.

The Amazon, and its hundreds of tributaries, flow slowly across the Brazilian landscape, with an extremely shallow gradient sending them towards the sea: Manaos, 1,000 miles from the Atlantic, is only 144 ft above sea level.

Seasonal rains give rise to extensive floods along the course of the Amazon and its tributaries. The average depth of the river in the height of the rainy season is 120 feet and the average width can be nearly twenty-five miles. It starts to rise in November, and increases in volume until June, then falls until the end of October. The rise of the Negro branch is not synchronous; the rainy season does not commence in its valley until February or March. By June it is full, and then it begins to fall with the Amazon. The Madeira rises and falls two months earlier than the Amazon.

The abundance of water in the Amazon basin is due to the fact that much of this lies in the region below the Intertropical convergence zone, where rainfall is at a maximum. Also, the basin lies in the Trade Wind zone, where moisture from the Atlantic is pushed westwards, and eventually forced to rise over the Andes, the second tallest mountain range on Earth, where the moist air cools and precipitates water. This combination creates more rainfall over a large river basin than anywhere else on the planet.

In the rainy season, the Amazon inundates the country throughout its course to the extent of several hundred thousand square miles, covering the flood-plain, called vargem. The flood-levels are, in some places, from 40 to 50 feet higher than levels during the dry season. During the flood, the level at Iquitos is 20 feet; at Teffe, it is 45 feet; near Obidos, 35 feet; and at Para, 12 feet, above the low-water extreme seen during the dry season.


The first direct foreign trade with Manaos was commenced about 1874. The local trade of the river is carried on by the English successors to the Amazonas Company —- the Amazon Steam Navigation Company -— as well as numerous small river steamers, belonging to companies and firms engaged in the rubber trade, navigating the Negro, Madeira, Purfis and many other streams. The principal exports of the valley are india-rubber, cacao, Brazil nuts and a few other products of very minor importance.

The city of Manaos is primarily a product of the rubber boom and in particular the child of visionary state governor Eduardo Ribeiro, who since 1892 has transformed Manaos into a major city. Under Ribeiro the Opera House was recently completed, and whole streets were wiped out in the process of laying down broad Parisian-style avenues, interspersed with Italian piazzas centred on splendid fountains. Manaos is now an opulent metropolis run by elegant people, who dress and house themselves as fashionably as their counterparts in any large European city. The rich have built palaces and grandiose mansions; time is passed at elaborate entertainments, dances and concerts. Gentlemen have their shirts sent to London to be laundered, while ladies sport the latest French fashions.

Manaos is the first Brazilian city to have trolley buses and only the second to have electric lights in the streets. Here is a map of the tramways, and more information and pictures. The famous opera house has a driveway made of rubber composition, to deaden the sound of carriages. The population rose from 20,000 persons in 1889 to nearly 50,000 by 1895. Many of the imports to Manaos are construction materials, in some cases the entire components of buildings, including furniture! Throngs of carpenters, masons, painters, etc. are hard at work in many of the city's neighborhoods.

The port itself is an unforgettable spectacle. A constant throng of activity stretches along the riverfront, while the ships tied up at the floating docks bob serenely up and down. Boats are getting ready to leave, or having just arrived are busy unloading. People cook fish at stalls to sell to the hungry sailors and their passengers, or to the workers once they’ve finished their shift of carrying cargo from the boats to the distribution market. Hectic and impossibly complex and anarchic as it appears to the unaccustomed eye, the port of Manaos is in fact very well organized, if organically so. During the day there’s no problem wandering around, and it’s easy enough to find out which boats are going where just by asking around. At night, however, this can be a dangerous area and is best avoided: many of the river men carry guns, knives, or machetes. There are also many floating houses on the river. [Biologists are still 2005 unable to identify about 30% of the fish in the market!] The local tribe is the Sateré-Mawé.

The spelling "Manaos" is correct for


In 1839, Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process which made natural rubber durable, and in 1888 John Dunlop patented pneumatic rubber tires; in 1896 rubber tires for automobiles have just been introduced. The immense popularity of bicyles in America and Europe has produced an unquenchable demand for rubber, and the price of rubber on international markets has soared. Exports of rubber from Brazil have doubled in the last ten years.

In 1884, the same year that Brazil abolished slavery, a feudal production system was established that locks the seringueiros (rubber tappers) into a cruel serfdom. Driven from the sertão by drought, and lured into the Amazon with the false promise of prosperity, they sign away their freedom to the seringalistas (owners of rubber plantations).

The seringalista sell goods to the seringueiro on credit -- fishing line, knives, manioc flour, hammocks --and purchase the seringueiro's balls of latex. The illiteracy of the seringueiro, the brutality of pistoleiros (the hired guns of the seringalistas), deliberately rigged scales, and the monopoly of sales and purchases all combine to perpetuate the seringueiro's debt and misery. The seringueiro also have to contend with loneliness, jungle fevers, hostile Indian attacks, and all manner of deprivation. Seringueiro who attempt to escape their debts are hunted down and beaten by the pistoleiros.

Raw latex is gathered from August to January; the tappers walk a long path from tree to tree, and at the end of the day they smoke the resin into rough balls of partially-purified rubber. These balls are sold, or more often traded for goods, to the plantation owners.

Despite Brazilian efforts to protect their world rubber monopoly, foreign governments and merchants have smuggled out rubber tree seeds for cultivation elsewhere. In 1876, the Englishman and aspiring author and rubber expert, Henry Wickham, smuggled 70,000 seeds to London, a feat for which he earned Brazil’s eternal opprobrium and an English knighthood. After experimenting with the seeds, 2,800 plants were raised at the Royal Botanical Gardens in London (Kew Gardens) and then shipped to Perideniya Gardens in Ceylon. In 1877 a case of 22 plants reached Singapore and were planted at the Singapore Botanical Garden. In the same year the first plant arrived in the Malay States. Since rubber trees need between 6 to 8 years to be mature enough to yield good rubber, tapping began in the 1880s. The price of rubber, delivered to London, is about 400 pounds sterling per ton; Brazil produces about 30,000 tons per year.

Also, the Martian gumme, while still more expensive than rubber, is being shipped in increasing quantities to the Earth. Even so, Brazil still produces 90% of the world's rubber.

Besides Manaos, the Peruvian city of Iquitos is known for its rubber plantations, and has many fine mansions, including the Iron House, designed by Gustave Eiffel. Here are some photos of Iquitos, giving a good impression of life in an Amazonian city. [The 1982 movie "Fitzcarraldo", about the life of rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, was filmed near Iquitos.]

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