Guest post by Erica Handahan
The stately steamboats of the late 19th and early 20th century navigated the majestic Amazon River. They were crucial to the culture and economy, and changed the scenery from scattered missionary outposts to a network of towns and villages connected by steamship routes.
The Rubber Boom
Steamboats were the heart of the rubber boom, transporting hundreds of millions of dollars of rubber balls from far reaches of the forest to cities, such as Iquitos
Steamships were an essential factor in creating and sustaining newly formed settlements and communities along the river. They supplied towns with food, medicine, tools, and other supplies. All of the settlements along the river were serviced by steam launches and came to rely upon the passing steamers to bring imports from all over the world.
The large merchant houses did considerable business trading along the tributaries. A firm representative would visit rubber estates at frequent intervals and then take the rubber at a valuation depending on the price of rubber in Iquitos. The rubber tapper would then select from the shop carried on each launch.
Apart from those directly involved in the rubber trade, steamships served a variety of functions. They were used for transport of people and merchandise, border defense in time of war, mapping and exploration missions.
Ships were also frequently used as hotels. Many were brothels. One of the grandest of Manaus’ brothels was a floating ship, from where “its madam advertised ‘frequent sailings to all parts of the river, with champagne on ice and a gramophone all included.’”
The Rubber Bust
After the rubber bust at the onset of WWI, most steamers were no longer economically viable. The entire Peruvian Amazon felt the effects. As the boats were no longer around to supply the settlements, many of the Amazonian towns dried up and disappeared. The boats themselves were sunk and forgotten.
During the rubber boom, steamships had become a widely accepted mark of prestige for the rubber barons. Steamships were a merchant’s prize possessions and critics of the system blasted the rubber merchants for making a fetish out of ship owning. Ships became rubber merchants’ collectibles and they often acquired more than they needed.
While this was not necessarily a problem throughout the boom, when prices dropped it was no longer economically feasible to utilize ships at anything below full capacity, and many ship-owners preferred to leave their vessels in dry dock rather than operate them at a loss. Others attempted to auction off their fleets, but as local demand was so weak, made little profit. By the onset of WWI, many steamboats were lying idle and local newspapers devoted whole pages to notices for auctions of steamships.
The passage of time has not been kind to the majority of the riverboats from this boom. Any wooden hulled boats have long since rotted in the tropical climate. The steel hulled boats have survived better, though most have been abandoned, rusted or sunk.
The few boats that still exist today, thus, are important historical artifacts from the period. Aside from Iquitos and the boats themselves, there are not many historical remnants of the rubber boom. This is why historical conservation of the rubber boom vessels is so important.
Recent restoration projects by AmazonEco, including the historic launches the Ayaypua, the Clavero, and the Rio Amazonas, are vital in preserving the history of the region. (Articles on each of these three boats to follow).
Guest post by Erica Handahan
Steamships of the rubber boom; recovering history in the Peruvian Amazon
Hi, Bill Grimes here. If you would like to help recover the history of the Peruvian Amazon, book a cruise on the restored steamships the Ayapua or the Clavero. It’s easy to book your amazon cruise or get more information about it by emailing me, Bill Grimes, president of Dawn on the Amazon Tours and Cruises, at this email;
bill @ dawn on the amazon . com I will respond within 48 hours if humanly possible.
If you would like to read more about these historical steamships of the Amazon, click these links below;
Thank you for your consideration.