The train that killed 6,000 people before it started rolling


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The indigenous people of the Amazon used the term “cautchouc” (the weeping tree) to refer to rubber. And it is that, really, this elastic polymer arises as a milky emulsion -latex- of several plants, mainly, of the Hevea brasiliensis.

In the 18th century the French government sent the scientist Charles Marie La Condamine to South America on a geographical expedition. When he returned to the Gallic country, five years later, he did so with several rolls of raw rubber, together with a description of all the products that the native South Americans made with him.

This was the beginning of a scientific interest in knowing its singularities, as well as its possible practical applications. Thus, for example, in 1770 the British chemist Joseph Priestley He discovered that the rubber band could be used to erase the marks left by the pencil.

The rubber rush

In any case, the rubber would not have passed from a mere vegetable anecdote had it not been for the American Charles Goodyear. In 1839 this inventor devised an industrial process -vulcanization- from which he was able to transform it into a rubber that did not alter with thermal changes.

Four decades later a Scotsman, John Boyd Dunlop, made a virtue of necessity by creating an inflatable rubber tire for his son’s tricycle, he tried to reduce with his invention the noise it caused when it moved on a cobblestone terrain.

After several experiments he got the first pneumatic tire in history derived from vulcanization. Its application was immediate in the world of cycling.

Thanks to this invention, bicycles became more manageable and comfortable, and they even modified their appearance, adopting the one we all know now. From that moment everything was “rolled”, the new tires marked a turning point in the world of transport.

This had, unfortunately, its consequences beyond the seas. The price of natural rubber soared and caused a massive arrival of foreigners to Brazil seeking to make profitable rubber production. Production intensified and little by little the workers went into the jungle in search of new trees, generating many border conflicts with other countries.

Rubber was usually transported by boat from the depths of the jungle to the Brazilian port cities; But this was not enough, it was necessary to lower costs and reduce transport times. The construction of a railway line was necessary to cross those sections that river transport could not cover.

The Demon Railroad

In 1846 the construction of a railway began on the banks of the Madeira and Mamoré rivers. The project was not an easy task, to the inhuman working conditions had to be added heavy rains, frequent seismic activities, poisonous snake bites, jaguar attacks and, especially, tropical diseases.

Without doctors or hospitals, thousands of workers succumbed to diseases such as malaria, hepatitis or yellow fever. It is estimated that the work of the Demon Railroad, which is how it was known, claimed the lives of some six thousand indigenous workers.

Misfortunes never come alone. When the train started to roll it was too late, the price of Brazilian latex had begun to fall and it would never reverse that trend.

The reason was very far from the Amazon basin, it was in Asia. The so-called Malaysian rubber had the same properties as Rio de Janeiro, but at a much more competitive price. Better planning, coupled with better distribution and organization, resulted in lower rubber producer prices in the British Asian colonies and attracted investor interest.

By the way, when you go to Edinburgh be sure to visit the National Museum of Scotland, there is exposed, among other wonders, the first tire of the bicycle that Dunlop developed.

M. Jara
M. Jara

Pedro Gargantilla is an internist at the Hospital de El Escorial (Madrid) and the author of several popular books.

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