1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Putumayo

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PUTUMAYO, or Ica (see 1.788), one of the larger tributaries of the Upper Amazon, rising in Ecuador in the Cordillera of the Andes, near Pasto, flowing in a S.E. direction and joining the Amazon at a point somewhat S. of lat. 4° S. The middle reaches of the river are also known as the Caquetá, the lower reaches being called the Caquetá or Yadurá. The Putumayo, which gives its name to the whole region through which it flows — a wilderness of tropical forest of which the sovereignty has been long in dispute between the republics of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia — obtained an evil notoriety in 1912 after the publication by the British Government of the Blue Book containing the evidence, collected by Mr. (afterwards Sir Roger) Casement, of the atrocious methods employed in this district by the agents of the Anglo-Peruvian Amazon Rubber Co. in order to force the natives to collect rubber. These crimes, which recalled those of the Congo and covered the whole gamut of hideous atrocity (there were some too horrible to publish even in the Blue Book), were first denounced in La Felpa and La Sancion, papers published at Iquitos, in 1907, shortly before the Peruvian firm of Arana Brothers — who had exploited this territory since 1896 — was merged in the Anglo-Peruvian Co., with its headquarters in London. It was not, however, till 1909 that the attention of the British Government was directed to this matter by the revelations of Mr. Hardenburger, an American traveller, in the British periodical Truth. Since certain British subjects, negroes from Barbadoes, were implicated in these charges, Mr. Casement, then British consul-general at Rio de Janeiro, was commissioned in 1910 to proceed to Iquitos and the Putumayo and institute inquiries on the spot.

As a result of the report submitted by him a Select Committee of the House of Commons investigated the matter, and its report was issued on June 9 1913 as a White Paper (148). This analysed the evidence with great care, and, as the result, decided that Senor Julio C. Arana (who had come over to give evidence), together with other partners of the firm, was responsible for the atrocities committed by his agents in the Putumayo. The Committee, however, was satisfied that he did not communicate his knowledge of them to the British directors of the company before the Truth revelations. These directors were severely censured for culpable negligence in respect of the labour conditions under the company, but it was found that they had not individually laid themselves open to any charge under the Slave Trade Acts. The Committee further reported that existing enactments might be extended so as to cover the gravest offences against the person and against the practices of forced labour which are akin to slavery. A committee, consisting of members of Parliament and others, subsequently met to devise and press forward legislation to this effect; but its labours were interrupted by the outbreak of the World War.

The Putumayo atrocities called attention to the whole system of “loan slavery” and forced labour as practised throughout Latin America. For it was clear that the treatment of the Putumayo Indians was exceptional only in the maddest demonstrations of its inhumanity, and that the slave-driving habit which made it possible was not confined to one region of the continent. The Putumayo region, though vast, is but a small part of the rubber-producing territory of the Amazon; and in all there was evidence that similar conditions prevailed to a greater or less degree. The root of the whole evil was the so-called patrón or “peonage” system — a variety of what used to be called in England the “truck system” — by which the employee, forced to buy all his supplies at the employer's store, is kept hopelessly in debt, while by law he is unable to leave his employment until his debt is paid. Not only natives but many foreigners — including British immigrants — have been caught by this system. The peon is thus, as often as not, a de facto slave; and since in the remoter regions of the vast continent there is no effective government, he is wholly at the mercy of his master. His main safeguard against the worst forms of cruelty is his commercial value; for labour is scarce and, as was said to the present writer by a planter from the Beni in Bolivia, “You do not kill a man who is worth £80.”

This safeguard has, however, in effect, proved insufficient; for the rubber-gatherers have been more concerned to make rapid fortunes than to look to the future. One result has been a hideous wastage of labour. In 1906 the Indian population of the Putumayo was estimated to number 50,000; five years later Mr. Casement put it at 10,000 at most; while a writer in the South American Supplement of The Times (Feb. 25 1913) spoke of the labour difficulty in the Brazilian rubber districts, due to “the dying-out of the native races from disease and bullets.”

That the same process of extermination was proceeding in other districts is shown by a pastoral letter “on the amelioration of the actual condition of our Indians,” issued on March 14 1913 by Dr. Manuel Polit, Bishop of Cuenca in Ecuador:—

“Our Ecuadorian Oriente has nevertheless not been free from the man-hunts (corrias) and outrages of these inhuman traffickers, rubber-gatherers (caucheros) and others, who, ascending unhindered our navigable rivers, have despoiled of their poor possessions and of their liberty hundreds of savage Indians, torturing and killing those who resist. And if formerly the action of our missionaries, supported by the Government, was able to prevent or to remedy a great part of these evils, nowadays, when the missionary has been expelled, the hunters of men can operate unchecked; and the banks of the Napo, Aguarico and Curaray, of the Pastaza, Morona and Santiago, have more than once presented scenes similar to those enacted on the Putumayo.”

Similar evidence is given in the reports of Padre Estanislao de Las-Corts, Apostolic Prefect of the Caquetá and founder of the Colombian settlement of Puerto Asis on the upper Putumayo, who speaks of “the arms of the devil for dragging the poor Indians down to hell, some with the title of corregidor, others calling themselves doctors, and all in league with the caucheros, who style themselves patrónes.”

In addition to the martyrdom and partial extermination of the Amazon Indians, this savage exploitation of the wealth of the Amazon forests has produced another result — the rapid destruction of the wild rubber trees, tapped by unscientific methods, never replaced, and of late years deliberately destroyed by the Indians as the source of all their woes. Many solutions of the problem have been suggested, of which the most notable is perhaps the proposal of an international control of the whole rubber-producing region by a commission representing the Amazon States, and scientific exploitation of these regions by means of imported Chinese and Japanese labour. There are already Japanese colonies on the upper Amazon, and both Chinese and Japanese mix and intermarry freely with the more civilized native “Indians,” whose ultimate affinity with the Mongol race is at least highly probable.

The Putumayo revelations led to movements for reform in Latin America itself. Apart from the devoted work of Capuchin Friars, Marist Fathers and Franciscan Sisters in the Colombian districts of the upper Amazon, by the Salesian Fathers in the recently established diocese of Cuenca in Ecuador, by the com- munity of the “Discalced” Franciscans of Lima in Peru, or by the Franciscan missions of Guarayos in Bolivia,[1] lay effort has not been wanting. In Peru the Sociedad Pro-Indigena of Lima took up the cause of the natives with great zeal, and the Colombian and Bolivian Governments both passed remedial legislation. But the Colombian reforms were necessarily limited in scope —  and, indeed, till the international boundaries are fixed all effective reform is impossible — while the Bolivian decree of Nov. 25 1913 regulating “loan slavery” remained a dead letter in a country whose vast distances made any effective supervision impossible. To provide that “all contracts between master and man shall be registered at the nearest police office” is not much use in a country where the police offices are scattered hundreds of miles apart, and “where a journey of 200 m. by launch is a serious undertaking, and much more so when runners and canoes are alone available.”

Authorities. — Hardenburger, The Putumayo; G. Sidney Paternoster, The Lords of the Devil's Paradise (1913); N. Thompson, The Putumayo Red Book (1913), inspired partly by desire to vindicate the Colombian claims to the Putumayo region; Joseph F. Woodroffe, The Upper Reaches of the Amazon (1914), the outcome of eight years of personal experience; J. F. Woodroffe and H. H. Smith, The Rubber Industry of the Amazon (1915). Several valuable articles on the Amazon rubber industry, the peonage system, etc., were published in The Times South American Supplement during 1913 (see index, in the issue of Jan. 27 1914). (W. A. P.)


  1. The work of these missions, actively supported by the Government at La Paz, has produced astonishing results. At Urabicha, a “model town,” for instance, silverware and jewelry are made, and there are workshops for cutting and polishing ebony to be used in making fine furniture. At Yotau expensive machinery for crushing and refining sugar has been installed. At Ascension carpentry is taught on a large scale. The “Discalced” Franciscans of Lima conduct a flourishing school of agriculture. The Capuchins of Colombia, turned sappers and engineers, constructed a wonderful mule-road over the Andes from Pasto to Mocoa. These and other instances of effective zeal are, however, it must be confessed, exceptions which only serve to heighten by contrast the effect of the inertia of the Church in Latin America.