Fitzcarraldo

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Volume 16

There is something hallucinatory about the wealth generated by rubber, comparable in our own time to the empires built on the back of the narcotics trade. One such hallucinatory kingdom was briefly forged by Carlos Fermin Fitzcarraldo, son of an Irish-American sea captain, whose life has been popularly mythologised by the Werner Herzog film. In 1879 he entered the lands of the Upper Ucayali, a great tributary of the Amazon River, and ten years later emerged as the overlord of the territory. In 1894, using hundreds of enslaved Ashaninkas and Piros Amazindians, he hauled a river steamer, the Contamna, across the isthmus separating the headwaters of the River Ucayali from those of the River Madre de Dios, enabling rubber-workers working the rubber-rich territories of the Madre de Dios, Beni and Madeira rivers access to the cheaper markets of Iquitos. In 1897, following his premature death, aged 35, in a riverboat accident, Fitzcarraldo’s kingdom collapsed. All that remains of his mark on the world is a line of overgrown mango trees leading to the house where he once lived.
As legends of rubber barons permeated the forests of the Amazon, the true tycoon of the age, who pioneered a manufacturing dynasty that thrives to this day, was Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. His father, William, had left Cobh in 1847 aboard a famine ship, and his mother, born to Belgian immigrants, was orphaned young and raised by Irish foster-parents. In 1903 Ford set up his first factory, and by 1913 was producing almost half the cars in the US. By the 1920s his name was synonymous with a new production ethos, based on heightened production efficiency, standardisation and the assembly line.

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