James C. Scott
- Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City by Greg Grandin
Metropolitan, 416 pp, $27.50, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 8050 8236 4
It was clear that Henry Ford’s audacious attempt to establish a vast rubber plantation in Amazonia had failed long before the first shipment of latex from Singapore arrived in Brazil in 1951. When the plantation, which was larger than the state of New Jersey, was set up in 1928, the Washington Post’s headline had boasted that it was expected to provide the latex for two million cars a year streaming off the assembly line in Dearborn, Michigan. Not only did it fail to achieve that, it couldn’t even supply Brazil’s modest needs. Why did the richest man in the world fail so abjectly to duplicate his North American successes in Brazil?
The story of Ford’s not-so-excellent adventure in the jungle is a writer’s dream and Greg Grandin takes full advantage of its dramatic potential. Along the Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon, Ford fought two battles in which the lessons he had learned in Michigan turned out to be handicaps. The first was with the workers of the Brazilian frontier, the second with tropical nature. Ford lost both.
The decisive engagement with the Brazilian working class began in the new dining-hall in Fordlandia on 22 December 1930. The spark that ignited the riot seemed trivial. At first, common labourers had sat at one end of the dining-hall, foremen and craftsmen at the other, and each group had been served by waiters. Then, at the suggestion of a supervisor fresh from the Dearborn assembly line, a cafeteria system was instituted, meaning that the men had to queue for their food. As the workers waited in the stifling heat, someone shouted: ‘We are not dogs that are going to be ordered by the company to eat in this way.’ One worker took off his company badge and handed it to the American payroll officer who monitored the dining-hall. The officer laughed. This infuriated the workers. The man who had handed over his badge turned to his colleagues and said: ‘I have done everything for you, now you can do the rest.’
Everything in the dining-hall was smashed by the rioters: furniture, crockery, pots, glasses. Other workers came with knives, rocks, pipes, hammers, machetes and clubs and destroyed everything they could reach: the power house, the office building, the garage, the sawmill, the radio station, the receiving building. They burned the company records and tried to remove the pilings from the pier; company vehicles were looted and burned, and the time-clocks smashed. Then they went looking for liquor – and for the North American bosses. One of them claimed he heard the workers chanting, ‘Brazil for Brazilians. Kill all the Americans.’ In fact no one was killed. Most of the Americans escaped on a launch kept at the ready for just such an emergency, while provincial troops were summoned to put down the insurrection. Fordlandia staggered on, but it never really recovered.
The notion of making the cafeteria self-service was unremarkable and led to such destruction only because the workers were already disaffected. Any excuse would have done. The nature of their unhappiness tells us a great deal about Henry Ford as well as about the sort of workforce he was dealing with. Ford wasn’t merely a capitalist squeezing all he could out of the working day – though he certainly did that – but an autocratic utopian who wanted to control the whole man, not just his labour. Fordlandia is best understood as an idiosyncratic amalgam of New Lanark and the Shakers. The company town was laid out on a grid, with barracks for the workers and cottages (copied from smalltown Michigan) for the administrators. Ford’s deputies conducted a relentless campaign against liquor and the bordellos which catered to a workforce made up largely of single men. Unmarried workers were required to take their meals in the company dining-hall; if they didn’t, the price of the meal was still deducted automatically from their pay. On Ford’s orders, the menu featured, ‘for health reasons’, wholewheat bread, unpolished rice, canned peaches (imported from Michigan) and oatmeal. The new dining-hall itself was no more appropriate: instead of cool thatch, it had asphalt shingles and galvanised metal and a low roof that trapped the heat.