This was something different! Lizzie Hessel, nee Mathys, and her husband, a young couple from genteel middle-class families in late Victorian London, went off to the Bolivian Amazon to make their fortune amid the rubber boom of the times. Lizzie wrote many letters to her close family back home, and this book is made up of those letters with a few explanatory comments. Sadly, they failed to make their fortunes, and Lizzie died, probably of yellow fever, after a few years there.
It’s an interesting story for many reasons. There are many tales of intrepid Victorian travellers, but the majority of those were men. And, of course, the Hessels weren’t explorers or archaeologists or just adventurers: they were there on business. Business isn’t the most glamorous of topics, but it’s the reason that most of the 18th and 19th century Britons who ended up in far-flung places were there: all the idea of the ideology and glamour of Empire came long after the East India Company and so on got going, and many of the people involved in business abroad were working in places that never were British colonies. Hey, we brought football to Brazil! The person credited with bringing football to Brazil was … the son of a British railway engineer, if I recall correctly. And we know the songs from Evita in which the Perons try to drum up popular support by talking about reclaiming their industries from the British. We probably killed the Amazon rubber boom, by getting a rubber industry going in what was then Malaya, but that’s beside the point!
So, we’ve got these intrepid Victorians, going off to the Bolivian Amazon. This is an area that’s very difficult to travel to and through even now, and, in this book, we’ve got a middle-class Victorian lady, used to polite afternoons in drawing rooms, coping with the heat and the insects and the difficult travelling conditions – and coping very well. It’s so sad that middle-class and upper-class Victorian women were often seen as being fragile, and encouraged to think of themselves as such. Lizzie Hessel coped admirably with conditions that most of us would struggle with pretty badly, and her letters contain very little in the way of complaints. She took it all in her stride, and even made a joke of things that you’d expect to have had a Victorian lady reaching for the smelling salts.
OK, that’s the Anglocentric stuff! Of course, there’s a lot else to this book. There are the border disputes between Bolivia and Brazil, in which poor Bolivia invariably came off worse. There are fascinating descriptions of wildlife. There’s the development of the use of rubber – think how many things we use it in! And, most importantly of all, there’s the absolutely appalling treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, treated effectively as slaves, and the victims of horrendous treatment which resulted in vast numbers of deaths. The abuses against them were chronicled by the British consul in Peru in 1910-11. It wasn’t just in Peru: it was all over the area. Lizzie mentions something of what was going on. Other people wrote far more about it, and the international outcry which resulted was one of the reasons why the rubber boom collapsed.
This is an area of history which doesn’t get a lot of attention, and this first-hand account of it is well worth reading.