Steamships of the Rubber Boom: Recovering History in the Peruvian Amazon

by Captain Bill

Guest post by Erica Handahan

amazon-steam-ship-fleet

Part of the Amazon Steam Ship Fleet in port

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.

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The steamship La Republica in 1919

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.

Steamships Today

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The beautifully restored steam ship, the Ayapua

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).

restored-steamships-ayapua-clavero

These remarkable steamships, the Ayapua and the Clavero, restored by Richard Bodmer and AmazonEco. Beautiful labor of love

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.

Follow the Course of History on the Restored Amazon River Boat, Clavero, since 1876;

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mike Langford September 22, 2011 at 9:13 am

Excellent article Erica, look forward to travelling on one of these gracious old ladies in the future.

2 Mark Halliday September 22, 2011 at 11:50 am

Are any of these restored steamships offering commercial cruises yet ? (You could add one to your fleet, Captain Bill !)

3 Mark Halliday September 22, 2011 at 11:52 am

Oops, now I read the other link, see that Clavero is already in commercial service.

4 mike collis September 23, 2011 at 8:03 am

A great article Erica,

I have a question which you did not address. Can you please tell me what fuel these steamships used to raise steam. Was it wood, coal or oil ?

5 Alan Sinfield September 26, 2011 at 12:29 am

Bill, what a wonderful article, I found it to be fascinating reading. I was completely mesmerized by the story and found myself thinking how times must have been during the good old rubber boom days in Iquitos. Now, to look at these two old workhorses restored to their former splendor and glory is like taking a trip back to Victorian days long past. Just looking at the Ayapua and the Clavero under steam again majestically making their way down the Amazon River is surely a breathtaking experience. To actually be able to take a vacation or spend any time on either ship must be a dream come true for some world travelers. I don’t think one can underestimate the cultural and historical significance of seeing these ships brought back to life again in all their former glory. It is truly spectacular to see these prominent ships on the Amazon River with the backdrop of the Jungle and the incredible open skies above. I can imagine the rising hairs and Goosebumps on many a forearm looking at this incredibly sight while hearing echoes of Fitzcarraldo.

6 Captain Bill September 26, 2011 at 10:56 am

Thanks for taking the time to make such an eloquent comment Alan. I’m happy you were so inspired. Mike, it would be better if Erica answered. She is the expert. But I also know they used wood, because that was the natural resource in abundance.

7 Leo Jones October 7, 2011 at 10:42 am

Great article. It was well written, well documented, and well researched. I especially enjoyed the pictures. Kudos to both Erica and Bill.

8 Captain Bill October 7, 2011 at 10:22 pm

Thanks Leo, your opinion means a lot to me.

9 Bryan O'Mahony October 10, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Mike,

The ships used wood to power the steam engines. While coal is more energy dense, it would have cost a lot more to import this into a region where wood is available in abundance.

10 Captain Bill October 10, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Dear Bryan, thanks for joining our conversation with your answer to Mike’s question. Stay tuned for more…

11 Robin pearse wheatley February 24, 2015 at 11:14 am

In 1971 I was on a gap year in south America. I took the Barau de Cameta from Belem to Manaus. I later heard that it had sunk. Checking Cammell-Laird records i found an entry in 1881 which might have been this boat. Is this correct. I have photographs and distinctly remember the triple expansion engines.

12 Robin Pearse Wheatley December 1, 2016 at 6:50 am

Forty-five years ago I went from Belem to Manaus on the Barau de Cameta. I have pics if you are interested.
RPW

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