Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City 
by Greg Grandin.
Metropolitan, 416 pp., $27.50, June 2009, 978 0 8050 8236 4
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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.

Ford had always wanted to remake the world by integrating factory life and farming in a modern Arcadia. In the 1920s he tried to buy a huge tract of land at Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River to realise his grandiose plan. Congress rejected his bid, although the same area would be transformed almost as comprehensively under the New Deal by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the precursor of many Third World regional development programmes. In Brazil, Grandin astutely observes, Ford’s civilising mission for his workforce was even more ambitious than the plans of the nearby Franciscan friars for the Tupi-speaking native people. There were rigorous standards of sanitation and hygiene, and these were strictly enforced. Stray dogs were killed. Officials periodically inspected houses and compounds to make sure food was stored properly, corrals were tidy and well drained, laundry was properly hung on lines to dry, latrines were clean and well maintained, families were using company-provided toilet paper, and waste was properly disposed of. Employees were given physical examinations to check for sexually transmitted diseases; they were vaccinated and required to take anti-malarial pills (much detested for their side effects), which were dispensed when workers clocked out. The regimentation was only slightly more extreme than in Ford’s many enterprises in Michigan. Ford believed the measures constituted a noble effort to raise the nutritional, hygienic and moral well-being of his benighted workforce.

When the detachment of soldiers arrived by hydroplane at Fordlandia after the riot they were met by a delegation of workers with a list of grievances. Most of them had to do with ‘the right of free movement’. What Ford confronted in Amazonia was a buccaneering, independent, frontier proletariat who moved from job to job according to whim and opportunity. Many had worked on the Panama Canal, on the railroads, as stevedores on the river, as pioneer smallholders. They were not remotely domesticated: they didn’t like following routine or the time-discipline of industrial work, and they bitterly resented whistles, badges, time-clocks and surveillance. They were candangos: originally derogatory, the term meant a man without qualities, without culture. Years later, President Kubitschek, praising these men for their heroic role in building Brasilia, his new capital in the wilderness, called them bandeirantes, after the adventurers who penetrated the interior.

The candangos’ habits being what they were, the turnover of workers at Fordlandia was many times higher than in Dearborn. With a fishing line, a little plot of manioc, a pig, a rifle and a bit of foraging, anyone could subsist. The cash to buy the kerosene, matches, machetes, cloth, salt and gunpowder needed to make good this independence could be earned by brief spells of wage labour. Like the emancipated slaves of the ex-Confederate States after the Civil War, this proletariat treasured its autonomy.

Ford’s workers in Amazonia were mostly male and had migrated there in search of work. As in any ‘company town’, social relations and labour relations were one and the same. Labour historians have long recognised that such conditions make for labour militancy and strikes. Fordlandia had something in common with lumber camps, mines and the merchant marine, where dangerous work, physical isolation and male camaraderie conspired to create a belligerent working-class culture.

Though Ford’s efforts to ‘civilise’ the workforce blew up in his face, his village for the plantation’s North American managers was moderately successful in re-creating the small-town creature comforts of the Midwest. No detail was overlooked. There were cottages with front lawns and porches; sidewalks, streetlamps, a clubhouse where the men played cards, a pool, a tennis court, a movie theatre, a golf course and an ice-cream parlour. It was a lovingly created colonial enclave where gringos could insulate themselves from Brazilian workers. The Brazilians on the plantation joked that after one year in the Amazon, the Americans had learned enough Portuguese to say ‘Uma cerveja’ and, after two years, enough to say ‘Duas cervejas.’

If nature had not thwarted Ford at every turn, it’s conceivable that he might eventually have realised his hopes for a latex empire in Amazonia. The first problem was that his managers were, at the most basic level, not accustomed to the tropics: the humidity, the insects, the snakes, the heat. They had hardly arrived when, unpacking office supplies from their vessel, they discovered that the typewriter carriages had rusted and the paper was mouldy. Many found ways to return quickly to Michigan. But there was more to the problem of tropical nature than this. The initial assumptions made by the structural and mechanical engineers sent to establish the rubber plantation were beguilingly simple, and catastrophic. It was, they believed, simply a matter of clearing the land of jungle, selling off the timber for capital, planting rubber tree seedlings in rows, tending them until they matured, and then tapping the latex. Wasn’t the rubber tree a native of the Amazon, after all? They were merely repatriating the South-East Asian descendants of the 70,000 rubber seeds that the ‘imperial rogue’ Henry Wickham had illegally gathered not far from Fordlandia in 1876.

Hevea brasiliensis is indeed native to Brazil as well as to parts of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and its latex had indeed fuelled a rubber boom in the late 19th century that made Manaus a city. But the tree, like teak, naturally grows in mixed groups with many other trees and plants, never in plantation-like single-species stands. That way, the insects, mammals, fungi and diseases that evolved alongside the rubber tree had other targets and never became too serious a problem. Had Ford’s managers bothered to ask, they would have learned that Brazilians had already tried and failed to grow rubber on the plantation model.

It was true that the rubber tree had been grown with stunning success in plantations in Sumatra and Malaya. But that success was due to the fact that, in Sumatra, Hevea brasiliensis was an exotic: away from most of its obligate pests and diseases it could thrive in single-species plantations, just as the sunflower can be grown more easily as a row crop in Europe, where it is an exotic, than in North America, its original home. The logic behind the rubber tree’s brilliant career in South-East Asia is the logic behind the troubling ecological success of ‘invasive’ plants and insects in virgin territory. The most successful invasive sub-species, of course, is the European variant of Homo sapiens, whose endemic diseases were fatal to the indigenous peoples of the New World.

Ford’s people also failed to take into consideration the differences between tropical and temperate ecology. In general, temperate ecologies are more uniform than tropical ecologies. Even a small patch of Amazonian jungle will contain a huge variety of species of birds, mammals, plants and insects, but relatively few examples of each. The further north one goes, the fewer the species, and the greater the number of representatives of those species. Because they were reasoning from the relative visual uniformity of temperate forests, a plantation in the jungle did not seem a radical step to Ford’s people.

By 1936, 700,000 rubber trees were growing in Fordlandia and five million seedlings were being prepared for planting, but Ford’s North American operation was increasingly impatient with an enterprise that was swallowing more and more capital without even a glimmer of profit on the horizon. Worse, the number of pests, so far kept in check, was about to reach a critical level: leafhoppers, white flies, various caterpillars, red mites, leaf blight and fungi crippled and killed many of the trees. Expensive fumigation followed; in the end, the company was reduced to picking insects off the trees by hand.

The search for pest-resistant stock was renewed, but it turned out that the most resistant trees were the least productive. Ford called in James Weir, a specialist in tropical rubber who had worked for Goodyear in Sumatra. He proposed bud-grafting using South-East Asian plant material: taking a proven root-stock and grafting onto it a shoot from productive and resistant stock. This worked, but it was expensive and time-consuming, and Fordlandia’s troubles were multiplying. As the trees matured, their crowns touched one another and a series of diseases swept through the canopy, killing thousands of trees. The heroic solution to this assault was to create a baroque tribute to the bud-grafter’s art: a triple graft. A tree with three genetic ancestors (clones actually): one for the root-stock, one for the rubber-bearing trunk and one for a resistant, photo-synthesising crown. This could be done, but it was not remotely economical and the resistance was far from total; the result was a plantation of triple-hybrid, genetically identical individuals prone to new epidemics. Weir quit in despair; Fordlandia staggered on until November 1945, when it was abruptly closed. The workers weren’t told until the day the Americans boarded the ship that took them home. ‘Goodbye,’ the wife of the last manager said to her servant. ‘We’re going back to Michigan.’

There was a wilful ignorance at work here. What else can explain Ford’s refusal, until it was far too late, to summon the botanists and plant pathologists who might have told him what was and was not possible in Amazonia? What else can explain the stubborn adherence to the original plan for Fordlandia long after it was apparent that it could never work? Why did Ford’s men ignore the fate of earlier rubber plantation schemes in Brazil and, for that matter, the success and failure of other North American company towns in Latin America? Ford’s brilliant success in Michigan was surely one reason for his hubris. He believed that an efficient enterprise or community had a particular look. The efficiency of a factory, a town or a sawmill could be ascertained from its visual order. Achieving this ‘look’ was an obsession for Ford and his deputies. As Fordlandia’s first manager reported back to headquarters in late 1929, ‘We are having a hard time [making] this place look as a Ford plant should.’

Grandin has not set out here to write another biography of Henry Ford. But insofar as Fordlandia was an expression of Ford’s idiosyncratic utopian philosophy, he could scarcely ignore his protagonist. Grandin’s assessment of Ford is by turns critical and sympathetic, but always subtle. There are times when Ford sounds like a proponent of the Annales School of materialist history from below in his rejection of ‘great man’ theories of history and his call for a history of the ‘everyday life and work of ordinary people’. At other times, he might be a prophet of the communist utopia – without the communists, naturally – foretold in Marx’s early work. In response to the fear that overproduction threatened capitalism, he claimed that ‘the day of actual overproduction is the day of emancipation from enslaving materialistic anxiety.’ Ford had no trouble reconciling these attentions to the history and welfare of the working class with less elevated practices. He was notorious for the surveillance of his factory workers, working with the FBI to target labour organisers and hiring thugs to threaten and, when it seemed useful, beat them up. His anti-semitism was also notorious, and he was forced under threat of a lawsuit to apologise publicly to an activist he had slandered.

He envisioned, as did the early Marx, utopian communities of farms and factories in which the farmers would provide both food and industrial raw materials for the factories, and factory workers would spend part of the year in the fields. The plant on the River Rouge in Dearborn was an example of the ‘industrial sublime’. Though a Marxist, Diego Rivera fell under its spell when he painted his murals of what he called a ‘wonderful symphony’. The painter and photographer Charles Sheeler represented the complex but austere geometry of the factory yards as a new version of pastoralism.

Inevitably, however, utopian schemes encounter insurmountable human and natural obstacles. Compromises spoil their symmetry and beauty. At this point the utopian is tempted to retreat, to create small, relatively self-contained, utopian spaces where perfection might be more nearly realised. In model villages, model cities, military colonies, show projects and demonstration farms the number of rogue variables and unknowns can be minimised. The limiting case, where control is maximised but the impact on the external world is minimised, is the museum or theme park. Miniaturisation has long been used as a form of creative play, control and manipulation. This can be seen in toy soldiers, model tanks, trucks, cars, warships and planes, doll’s houses, model railways and so on. Such toys let us play with representations when the real thing is inaccessible or dangerous or both. But miniaturisation is also a game for presidents, generals and captains of industry.

Ford’s favourite toy was his own utopian theme park, Greenfield Village. It was an odd combination of Ford’s collection mania (Lincoln’s Illinois courtroom, Thomas Edison’s lab, the homes of Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe, Luther Burbank’s botanical lab, the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop and so on) and a lovingly replicated small Midwestern town complete with a town hall, blacksmith’s shop, schools, fire station, covered bridges, clapboard houses with gardens – everything but a bank, which Ford refused to include. As Grandin observes, Greenfield Village was of a piece with Ford’s preoccupation with symmetry and order in his model towns and village industries throughout Michigan, in his Dearborn factory town, in his rubber plantation in the Amazon and in his plan for the Tennessee Valley. The difference was that in Greenfield Village there was no objective other than display. As an old man, Ford spent more and more time in the village because he felt most at home there. The irony is that it was essentially a pre-industrial village, a museum of a way of life now long gone thanks in large part to Fordism. The New Republic captured the paradox: ‘Mr Ford might be less interested in putting an extinct civilisation into a museum if he had not done so much to make it extinct.’

Ford’s utopia in Amazonia miscarried in every conceivable way, but his dream of transforming the Amazon is now in the process of being realised as mammoth 900 horsepower machines clear the land for huge expanses of soy beans, a crop that Henry Ford promoted long before he had his dream of rubber.

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