BOGOTA — Fany Kuiru looks at an old black-and-white photograph of two of her ancestors — young Huitoto tribesmen from the Amazon standing bare-chested, wide-eyed and with European haircuts.
The men, known only as Omarino and Ricudo, were taken to England in 1911 to illustrate the brutality of the rubber trade. Ushered around by a controversial humanitarian who was eventually executed for treason, the men met the Archbishop of Canterbury, were photographed and painted by renowned artists, and were splashed across the front page of the Daily Mail.
Then they disappeared from public view.
Now Kuiru, a villager from La Chorrera, their isolated town in southern Colombia, is trying to solve the century-old mystery behind their disappearance.
“It just makes me so sad to think that they might have never made it home,” she said, as she looked at the archival photograph. “As a community, we need to know what happened to them so that the dead can rest in peace and the living can move on.”
The rubber trade brought massive amounts of wealth into the Amazon, giving rise to cities, ports and industries. But it’s also one of the hemisphere’s most shameful eras. Researchers estimate that between 30,000 and 60,000 indigenous people were enslaved, tortured or murdered as companies punched into the forest looking for rubber trees to satisfy the growing demand for tires and latex.
La Chorrera, deep in the Amazon along the border with Peru, was one of the epicenters of the trade.
A territory disputed by Colombia, Peru and Brazil, it was virtually lawless. Julio César Arana, a Peruvian rubber baron, set up shop there in 1903. To keep costs low, the company enslaved Huitoto and other Amazon tribes. Those who didn’t meet their quotas were often burned, strangled, beaten or killed. In 1907, the operation was renamed The Peruvian Amazon Company, or PAC, was registered in London and hired British directors.
Kuiru, 48, says the rubber boom still haunts the area. As a child, she remembers being terrified of her great-grandmother whose jaw was broken and face was disfigured by PAC foremen. The sound of a motor along the river was enough to send children screaming into the jungle. The word “Peruvians” still carries the weight of the boogeyman, she said. “It’s a phrase that causes terror. Peruvians — it sounds like death.”
The world didn’t find out about La Chorrera until a U.S. engineer and adventurer stumbled across the town in 1907 and wrote about it in the London press. The British government responded by dispatching Irish-born diplomat Roger Casement to investigate. Casement was already famous for exposing atrocities committed in the Congo Free State in Central Africa. On that continent he had traveled with renowned explorer Henry Stanley and befriended Joseph Conrad, who went on to write Heart of Darkness about his time there.
But what Casement saw in the Putumayo region was even more shocking than the Congo, he wrote. In his preliminary report, Casement said he witnessed “atrocious” crimes “including murder, violation, and constant flogging.”
“Women and even little children, were more than once found, their limbs scarred with weals [sic] left by the thong of twisted tapir-hide, ” he wrote.
Those who didn’t meet their production quotas were sometimes hoisted by chains around their necks until they lost consciousness. Others were starved to death or set on fire as punishment.
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