Dripping blood and dirt from every pore

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Aug 26 09:24:54 MDT 1999

Gary McLennan:
>modernity as we have experienced it comes to us dripping blood and dirt
>from every pore to borrow an expression from Marx. Hegel's description of
>the 'slaughter-bench of history is a very apt one.

Michael Taussig, "Shamanism, Colonialism and the Wild Man," start of
chapter 3, "Economy of Terror":

He was the best of a bad lot because he killed for rubber rather than for
sport. We recall Urcenio Bucelli’s exclamation on seeing company officials
burning Indians alive to celebrate a birthday: "They bring in so much
rubber and still they are killed!" Where was the sense in that?

One way of finding it was to make it with the cleaver of reason, splitting
the morass of viciousness into two distinct parts, dividing the rational
from the irrational, the economically sensible from the frivolous, as if by
this ordering procedure the analyst and commentator was still, so to speak,
on top of things, understanding, taming, coping if not dealing with the
horror. Thus Charles Reginal Enock, F.R.G.S., in his introduction to
Hardenburg’s book could write:

<<There is yet a further trait of the Latin American which to the
Anglo-Saxon mind is almost inexplicable. This is the pleasure in the
torture of the Indian as a diversion, not merely as a vengeance or
"punishment." As has been shown on the Putumayo, and as happened on other
occasions elsewhere, the Indians have been abused. tortured, and killed por
motivos frivolos—that is to say. for merely frivolous reasons, or for
diversion. Thus Indians are shot at in sport to make them run or as
exercise in tirar al blanco or target practice, and burnt bypouring
petroleum over them and setting it on fire in order to watch their agonies.
This love of inflicting agony for sport is a curious psychic attribute
[sic] of the Spanish race. >>

"In Matanzas," notes the anonymous letter writer published by La Felpa and
quoted by Hardenburg, I have seen Indians tied to a tree, their feet about
half a yard above the ground. Fuel is then placed below, and they are burnt
alive. This is done to pass the time."

Casement recorded the Barbadian Stanley Lewis as saying:

<<I have seen Indians killed for sport, tied up to trees and shot at by
Fonseca [the station manager] and others. After they were drinking they
would sometimes do this. They would take a man out of the "cepo" [stocks]
and tie him to a tree, and shoot at him for a target. I have often seen
Indians killed thus, and also shot after they had been flogged and their
flesh was rotten through with maggots. . .>>

Aquileo Torres was one of Arana’s station managers. Before working for the
company he had been an independent Colombian rubber trader. He had been
captured by the company and placed in a cage, tortured for over a year,
some said. A Peruvian employee of the company told Casement that Torres
"had from sheer brutality or sport, according to Pinedo, killed this man.
He had put his rifle to the Indian’s face, and had told him ‘as a joke’ to
blow down the barrel. The Indian obeyed; then Torres pulled the trigger and
blew his head off."

Earlier Torres "for wanton sport" had shot an Indian woman. The Barbadian
overseer told Casement that Torres had taken his knife to cut off the ears
of living Indians for sport. Chase saw him do this several times. "Once he
cut of a man’s ears and then burnt his wife alive before his eyes." Chase
also described how Fonseca used his long rifle, a Mannlicher, from the
veranda to shoot Indians in the stocks. The last time Chase saw this was
when a young girl had her mouth, ears, and eyes covered over by Fonseca and
was then made to walk away, blindfolded, while Fonseca shot her as sport
for his friends."

But in the wantonness of the sport and in the sheerness of the brutality
lies an excess of meaning that undermines the very separation of reasonable
torture from the unreasonable—which poses a block to explanation.

Yet the consul-general had his job to do and that was to write a report
that made sense to Sir Edward Grey and, through him, Parliament and public
opinion. On the surface it seemed straightforward: the creation of a
searing indictment of a searingly awful situation, just like his earlier
report on the Congo atrocities. But there he had already felt the problem,
as he had put it to his friend Alice Green, that he was struggling with
opposed ways of making sense of the situation. There was the way with which
the Foreign office felt familiar, the market-price way of understanding
social events, political economy as official common sense, and then the
other way, which was Casement’s way, seeing with "the eyes of another race
of people once hunted themselves, whose heart was based on affection as the
root principle of contact with their fellow men, and whose estimate of life
was not something eternally to be appraised at its market price." The eyes
of the hunted were many; the Congolese mutilated for rubber, the Irish and
Putumayan Indians, and the homosexual, too.

But it was into the official common sense of political economy that the
author, willy-nilly, had to squeeze reality. It was this that created the
contradictions in the official report where so much sense-making was made
dependent on market rationality to produce the following type of argument:

It was not rubber but labor that was scarce in the Putumayo. This scarcity
was the basic cause of the terror. Putumayo rubber was of the lowest
quality, its remoteness made its transport expensive relative to most other
rubber zones, and wages on the open market were very high. Hence the
company coerced labor by means of debt-peonage and terror.

It was, then, a mode of interpretation that created capitalist sense from
the raw material of the terrible cruelty meted out to the Indians. Unlike
the Capital of Karl Marx, for instance, subtitled A Critique of Political
Economy, this cost-accounting way of building sense presupposed and hence
reinforced as eternal verities the notions of market pressure, the
capital-logic of commodities, and the rationality of business. Thus even in
blaming the market, its mode of appropriating reality and creating
intelligibility was upheld.

Yet there was neither a commodity form of labor nor a market for it; only
Indians with their quite different modes of exchange and evaluation,
coexisting with various forms of colonial domination; patronage,
concubinage, slavery, and debt-peonage. Indeed, this was the initiating
point of Casement’s analysis—that free labor barely existed on the
Putumayo. There was no labor market. As for the rationality of the business
in the Putumayo, surely that was what most needed explanation?

Casement argued that terror was efficacious for the needs of the labor
system, and this heightens the most significant contradiction to emerge
from this report, namely, that the slaughter of this previous labor was
vast beyond belief and that, as Casement himself stated, not only were the
station managers costing the company large sums of money but that "such men
had lost all sight of rubber-gathering—they were beasts of prey who lived
upon the Indians and delighted in shedding their blood." To claim the
rationality of business for this is unwittingly to claim and sustain an
illusory rationality, obscuring our understanding of the way business can
transform terror from a means to an end in itself. This sort of rationality
is hallucinatory, like the veil that Conrad and Casement faced earlier in
the Congo, where, as Frederick Karl points out, Conrad abandoned the
realism practiced by Casement for a technique that worked through the veil
while retaining its hallucinatory quality.

As for the labor scarcity belabored by Casement, it needs to be pointed out
that this "scarcity" can hardly have meant a scarcity of local Indians, who
were to all accounts in surprising abundance ,but rather that they would
scarcely labor. They would not work appropriately, and this is a
sociopolitical and cultural issue, not a demographic one. Casement avoided
this feature, now often referred to as the "backward-sloping supply curve
of labor" (even though he had himself complained in the Congo that the
problem there was that the natives would not work), and confidently stated
that if paid with more goods, the Indians would work to the level required
by the company without force or torture.

There is in this confident assumption that curious and fundamental optimism
of liberal decency that, when confronted by the brutality of labor
exploitation in the tropics, proposes higher wages as a substitute for
coercion. Higher wages would also prevent the short-sighted creoles from
destroying tropical labor supplies—supplies that were then considered by
some people as important if not vital to the future of the world economy.
Viscount Bryce wrote in 1915, for instance, in his "Foreword on the Latin
American Indian" (for Joseph Woodroffe’s book, The Rubber Industry of the
Amazon) that an effort should be made to protect the tribes of the Amazon
forest and preserve their labor. "Some of them are docile and industrious
in their own way and capable of being educated," he went on, and it is the
unjust oppression practised by so many of the whites which has turned these
tribes against us, the European races, kept them at a low level, and made
their work of no benefit except when given under compulsion, and of much
less value even then that it would be under conditions of freedom. Owing to
this I am glad to see that you pointed out nearly three years ago, just
after the publication of [Casement’s] Putumayo Report, that, however
uncertain and unsatisfactory the Brazilian native labourer may be, if Latin
America is to be of permanent value as a producer of foodstuffs and raw
materials to herself, to ourselves, and to others, steps must be taken at
once, not only to stop the atrocious policy of cruelty and decimation which
went on in the Putumayo region, but also to enable the number of natives to
increase [and] if this is not done, trouble of a serious character will
befall the regions mentioned, as well as Europe, as far as it depends on
Latin America for supplies and a return on money invested out there.

The Putumayo terror was like an omen of an impending disaster. Bryce was
British ambassador in Washington and played an effective part in bringing
Casement and his report to the attention of the U.S. government and to
President Taft himself. Bryce concluded his foreword by quoting from his
own editor’s article:

<<When our investments in Latin America suffer by their railways being
still and their docks are deserted and idle for want of freight and traffic
through the absence of labour; when many of our factories have almost
ceased work for want of orders from overseas, or through lack of tropical
products at home, then perhaps John Bull and Uncle Sam will wake up to a
sense that all is not well—wake up, that is, to cure the disease only to
find the patient already dead.>>

There was thus a high value attached to aboriginal labor supplies. The
horror occasioned by the Putumayo atrocities was in part due to the strange
but pervasive fantasy current at that time that the tropics would breed
forth an endless supply of wealth-creating colored labor, provided it was
not choked off in its infancy by the unbusinesslike predilections of creole
entrepeneurs. That was long before all the talk about overpopulation in the
third world that we hear today.

Harold Hamel Smith warned in his introduction to Woodroffe’s book on rubber
in the Amazon that

<<if something is not achieved very soon in this way the "white" continents
will soon be calling out for supplies of foodstuffs for their homes, and
raw materials for their factories, and they will call in vain, for being
totally unfitted to stand the life of toil under the tropical sun that is
the lot of the dark-skinned people, we have no one to take the place of the
latter, who will soon practically disappear off the face of the earth if
steps are not taken to conserve what we have and then to increase their
numbers. The marvel is that such wanton destruction of this, the most
valuable of all the tropical "products," has been tolerated so long. If
Formosa were to burn out her camphor forests, India or Java their bark
trees, or Ecuador, Malaya, and other centres their cacao, rubber, and
coco-nut plantations, we should indeed think that they were bereft of their
senses, and perhaps (needing the produce) take concerted action to stop
such wanton destruction. To destroy these crops, however, in such a
fashion, stupid as it would be, cannot be compared, so far as the welfare
of the universe is concerned, for sheer criminal wantonness to the mania
that has always existed with the whites, and the colored half-breeds under
them, to work or otherwise ill-use out of existence the darker-skinned
people with whom they have come into contact. Such conduct, slowly but
surely, removes for all time that which we can never replace. To replant
the forests may be costly, but it is comparatively easily done, but to
replace an exterminated race is beyond our powers, at any rate up to the
present. Synthetic labour has still to come; its arrival, I fear will not
be just yet.>>

While Hamel Smith singled out the mania of the whites and the colored
halfbreeds serving under them as the basic cause of the extermination of
the human life of the tropics, Casement’s report was ordered by the concept
of the businesslike rationality behind the slaughter. What was grossly
irrational from the business point of view of one man, was rational from
the business point of view of the other. In his official report, at least.

Louis Proyect

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