Fordlandia: the rise and fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten jungle city


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Fordlandia: the rise and fall of Henry Ford’s forgotten jungle city by Greg Grandin, Metropolitan Books, New York 2009

This book uncovers the complex history of Henry Ford’s attempt to create a secure source of natural latex in the Brazilian Amazon in the 1920s and ‘30s.  But it also reveals the complex and often contradictory character of Henry Ford himself.  Greg Grandin ably combines both these subjects, presenting them against the backdrop of changing politics and society in the US and Brazil.

Ford enjoyed immense commercial and cultural influence in the early ‘20s.  His claim to have invented the modern world could not be entirely dismissed.  Zealously standardising production methods, and controlling every minute of the workers’ day, helped to make the Ford company a powerful force on the international stage.  From his headquarters in Dearnborn, Michigan, Ford spread his business values (and increasingly his personal values) through the United States and beyond.  During the period in which the Brazilian project took shape, Ford the man and Ford the company appear to have been a single entity.

With a reputation for straight dealing and total efficiency, the plan to establish a massive rubber plantation on the Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon 400 miles from the sea, was greeted with optimistic excitement.  However, Grandin demonstrates Ford’s naivety in his dealings with the Brazilian government.  He bought vast tracts of dense jungle which the state would happily have given away for free in order to bring foreign investment.  Careful massaging by the provincial government secured the deal.  Naming the proposed settlement Fordlandia, the mighty industrialist placed a first heavy footstep into the deep Amazonian mud.

Throughout the book the author examines Ford’s political and economic motivations.  Given the scale of the lengthy, irrational and wildly expensive commitment to Fordlandia it is easy to see why Grandin should look for some justification for Ford’s actions.  In the late 1920s Ford had been thwarted in his attempts to redevelop an extensive area of the Tennessee River valley in Alabama.  His frustration at Washington’s lack of vision, and his strong distaste for Wall Street bankers was accompanied by a suspicion that Jews were gaining too much influence in the US.  Fordlandia was planned to produce natural latex, the raw material for industrial rubber, but it also gave Ford the scope to create a town to his own liking.  Unlike the first Spanish explorers, he went to the Amazon not to seek Eden but to build it; and he knew just what it should look like.

It would be easy to criticise Ford’s complacent American ignorance of the realities of life in the jungle, but he had cleared and developed wide areas of forestry in his home state of Michigan.  He built small model towns for workers in many locations in the States and his huge River Rouge plant set new standards in manufacturing infrastructure.  But as the author points out, outstanding success can bring a sense of infallibility.  Company policy forbad the use of experts.  Indeed Ford was strongly against book-learning and reports, preferring to get to work right away on any project.  Thus his intrepid first settlers sailed to Brazil at exactly the wrong season; the river was too low to carry them upstream.  The crane for unloading the tons of equipment had been stowed first. So it lay buried under the slowly rusting and rotting building materials.  These early omens were fulfilled as weather and ecology tormented the people and the project.  Through it all Dearborn telegraphed detailed instructions, expecting them to be carried out with typical Ford efficiency.  The difference between the smoothly whirring production lines in River Rouge and the utter chaos on the Tapajós could not have been greater.

The tribulations of Fordlandia’s founding fathers ranged from the comic to the tragic, but Ford determination and Ford money eventually cleared enough land to start a settlement.  Between 1930 and 1945 tens of thousands of rubber trees were planted, many being later ploughed over and replanted.  Huge staff turnover rates arose with hundreds of workers being hired while others walked back into the forest to attend to traditional season tasks. Disease and drought, followed by insects and floods repeatedly delayed the successful extraction of any latex. After a decade of investment Ford decided on a second settlement, on better flatter land seventy miles away at Belterra.  This too failed to produce.

Central to the plan was a civilising mission, bringing clean water, healthy living and correct behaviour to the local population.  Indeed, in the persistent absence of any latex, this rapidly became the enterprise’s sole purpose.  Ford paid close attention to the development of the new town, ensuring that it matched his vision of small-town USA.  The managers, all good company men, oversaw the building of neat rows of wooden bungalows and a town square with a dance hall.  Strongly opposed to the corrupting influences of modern music such as jazz, Ford insisted that traditional American folk dances, polkas and waltzes be played.  The image of white-shirted middle-managers attempting to force local men to hold their dancing partners ‘as you would hold a pencil’ encapsulates both the mission and its futility.  This sociological experimentation did not represent a racist American attitude towards ‘indigenous peoples however; Ford’s Sociological Department at company headquarters was just as intrusive into the lives of its US workers.

The second strand to this book is Henry Ford’s intriguing personality, which lay behind all the company’s policies at home and abroad.  It would be possible to present Ford as an entirely modern and sympathetic character, a model of the farsighted, ethically aware and ruggedly individual businessman.  Convinced that cows were the most inefficient of ‘machines’ he promoted the value of soybeans, as food, clothing and a source of industrial materials.  A passionate fan of recycling he bought decommissioned US navy ships in 1919 and stripped them down, reusing every nut and bolt until an oil-stain was all that remained.  He condemned the crude stripping of US forests and only engaged in sustainable harvesting.  At the outbreak of the First World War he campaigned as a pacifist, risking both his reputation and his money in the cause. In later life, Ford collected every piece of domestic and agricultural equipment that he could find for his heritage village of Greenfield.  Insisting that history was made not by so-called ‘great men’ but by the ordinary worker, he transported early American homesteads and recreated traditional workshops.  He would not permit any weapons in his collection of antique Americana.

Grandin presents all this and more alongside the many contradictions in Ford’s character. Severely autocratic, he overruled everyone, especially his son Edsel.  Ford’s fierce anti-union attitude was made flesh in the form of Harry Bennett, a thug who became far closer to Henry than Edsel ever was. Bennett’s gang of enforcers terrorised workers into obeying the company’s onerous timekeeping regulations, and an employee thinking of organising a union could receive a vicious beating. Close cooperation between the industrialist and his lieutenant meant there could be no doubt of Ford’s complicity in the machine gunning of protesters outside the gates of the River Rouge plant.  Apart from some public outcry Ford suffered no consequences for this startling act. Convinced of his own wisdom in all things, he closed down the accountancy department which Edsel established to bring rational procedures to the firm’s operations. When the end finally came this single move would symbolise the delusional core at the heart of the efficient Ford machine.

The book recounts Henry Ford’s well-known attitude to history, placing it in its proper context.  In the 1930s and ‘40s he repeated his belief that ‘history is bunk – bunk – double bunk… Why it isn’t even true’. The only history that should matter is the history that we are making today, in Ford’s own case that proves to be especially true.  He understood that history did not ‘recover an absolute truth’, but dealt with interpretations of the past. Grandin highlights this surprisingly modern historiographical analysis.  Even more surprising is Ford’s almost Marxian tone.  Dismissing ‘great man’ history, he felt that individual heroic events did little to drive progress.  ‘The real history of a people was not expressed in wars’, he said, ‘but in the way they lived and worked… The history of America wasn’t written in Washington, it was written in the grass roots.’  Refining his famous verdict on history he added that any history which ignored ‘harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk’.

Ford, the man and the company, hated and resisted big government and organised labour.  The book maps out the gradual erosion of this resistance by trade union activity and legislative change.  Horrified at the ‘big government’ innovations of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the US, Ford’s acceptance of the timely assistance of the Brazilian government in Fordlandia is indeed ironic. Getúlio Vargas’ revolutionary rise to power in 1930 led to increased centralisation of Brazilian government, ending the vagaries and corruption of the old provincial administrations.  Vargas followed FDR’s lead, introducing expansive government programmes, some of which benefited the struggling rubber plantation.  Having kept the unions at bay through careful surveillance and brute force, between 1940 and ’41 a combination of new legislation and court cases in both jurisdictions finally forced Ford to relent.

There is a certain pathos to Henry Ford’s final years.  His son and much abused heir, Edsel, died as the company began to creak under its outdated autocratic management system. As in the First World War, when a flood of government contracts washed away his pacifist isolationism, the second war brought profound change to the Ford empire.  State fears for the financial stability of this vital engineering enterprise prompted the retirement of the founder and the appointment of his grandson Henry Ford II, who was released from the US navy to take up this essential national task.  Many hearts must have rejoiced at his immediate decision to dismiss the brutal Harry Bennett.  Unsurprisingly, the new management discovered that the earlier decision to close the accounting department had produced a swamp of corruption and misappropriated funds.  Fordlandia’s successive managers had been castigated for failing to live up to the company’s famed standards of financial and administrative probity, now this fame rang hollow.  Washington, taking a keen interest in supplies of war materiel, effectively nationalised the company’s Brazilian concerns.

Henry Ford lived to see his life’s work overturned, although even before his forced retirement he had retreated into elaborate and well-funded nostalgia.  Spending increasing amounts of time on his beloved Greenfield Village he yearned for the simpler happier days before industrialisation and mechanisation – before the Ford motor company.  By the time of its abrupt demise in 1945, Fordlandia was a proven failure.  Young rubber trees planted in tight rows provided the perfect environment for blight, a problem not encountered by the wild trees growing in isolation.  Populations of parasitic insects boomed in the abundant rubber plantations, despite intensive campaigns of hand-picking caterpillars in their millions, and prolific chemical spraying.

In reality Fordlandia had long since ceased to be about rubber.  It was a missionary commitment by a determined and powerful individual to civilise and control the teeming jungle.  At a deeper level, for Henry Ford it seems to have been an attempt to impose order on the chaos of the very modernity he had helped to create.  Given his enormous investment in creating idealised towns in the US and Brazil, his attempts to change communities, families and workers, Ford can be accused of hubris.  ‘Fordlandia is indeed a parable of arrogance,’ Grandin writes.  ‘The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.’

Photos of Fordlandia in the past and in the present taken from The Henry Ford Flickr photostream and Juan Freire’s.

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'Ciarán Wallace has recently completed his PhD at Trinity College Dublin. His thesis is on "Local politics & government in Dublin city and suburbs 1899-1914", and his research interests include urban history and civil society.'

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