In the midst of a vast solitude
August 19, 2016 4:13 AM   Subscribe

In the 1920s the US industrialist wanted to found a city based on the values that made his company a success – while, of course, producing cheap rubber. The jungle city that bore his name ended up one of his biggest failures
Drew Reed, Fordlandia – the failure of Henry Ford's utopian city in the Amazon, The Guardian (19 August 2016).

This essay forms the last installment in a series of essays on Lost Cities that the Guardian is running as part of its Cities sub-site. The other essays, in order of publication:
In the 19th century, European visitors to this abandoned medieval city refused to believe that indigenous Africans could have built such an extensive network of monuments. Such ignorance was disastrous for the remains of Great Zimbabwe.
Mawuna Koutonin, Lost cities #9: racism and ruins – the plundering of Great Zimbabwe, Guardian (18 August 2016).
Long before Columbus reached the Americas, Cahokia was the biggest, most cosmopolitan city north of Mexico. Yet by 1350 it had been deserted by its native inhabitants the Mississippians – and no one is sure why.
Lee Bey, Lost cities #8: mystery of Cahokia – why did North America's largest city vanish?, Guardian (17 August 2016).
Recent laser surveys have revealed traces of a vast urban settlement, comparable in size to Los Angeles, around the temples of Angkor in the Cambodian jungle. The ancient Khmer capital was never lost … it just got a bit overgrown.
Oliver Wainwright, Lost cities #7: how Nasa technology uncovered the 'megacity' of Angkor, Guardian (16 August 2016).
Ancient Egypt’s gateway to the Mediterranean – submerged and buried under layers of sand – is an eerie reminder of how vulnerable cities are to nature’s forces
Jack Shenker, Lost cities #6: how Thonis-Heracleion resurfaced after 1,000 years under water, Guardian (15 August 2016).
Once the world’s biggest city, the Silk Road metropolis of Merv in modern Turkmenistan destroyed by Genghis Khan’s son and the Mongols in AD1221 with an estimated 700,000 deaths. It never fully recovered.
Kanishk Tharoor, Lost cities #5: how the magnificent city of Merv was razed – and never recovered, Guardian (12 August 2016).
Of all the lost cities in the world, ancient Pompeii is the most ‘found’. The volcanic eruption that destroyed the Roman city also froze it in time – but now, 2,000 years later, it is alive with people who threaten its existence all over again.
Emily Mann, Lost cities #4: Pompeii was preserved by disaster. Now it risks ruin all over again, Guardian (11 August 2016).
In the first century BC it was one of India’s most important trading ports, whose exports – especially black pepper – kept even mighty Rome in debt. But have archaeologists really found the site of Muziris, and why did it drop off the map?
Srinath Perur, Lost cities #3 – Muziris: did black pepper cause the demise of India's ancient port?, Guardian (10 August 2016).
The location, and even the existence, of the city that inspired Homer’s greatest works has been a source of dispute throughout the ages. Hisarlik in Turkey is the strongest candidate – and its discovery was an epic tale too.
Naomi Larsson, Lost cities #2: the search for the real Troy – 'not just one city but at least 10', Guardian (9 August 2016).
Besieged by wars and weather, ‘restored’ by Saddam Hussein, what has become of mystical Babylon?
Justin Marozzi, Lost cities #1: Babylon – how war almost erased ‘mankind’s greatest heritage site’, Guardian (8 August 2016).
posted by Sonny Jim (18 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
The British began growing rubber in Sri Lanka, after a rubber tree’s seeds were famously smuggled out of Brazil. And by the beginning of the century, this produce was vastly outperforming Brazil’s rubber crop. The Amazon basin, heavily dependent on proceeds from rubber sales, was devastated.

I literally cannot handle how much and far and deep imperialism has reached and ruined.
posted by FirstMateKate at 5:23 AM on August 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Great Zimbabwe

thank you Sonny Jim, I love lost cities!
posted by infini at 5:25 AM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I literally cannot handle how much and far and deep imperialism has reached and ruined."

Yes. rubber seeds were smuggled out in 1879. The impact of the first Brazil rubber boom created wealth and ruination. Brazil also had another rubber boom in the 40s, I'm assuming it was to replace the loss of SE asia rubber.
Huh, I never thought of the place as a city.
posted by clavdivs at 5:48 AM on August 19, 2016

This is amazing, thanks! I love these stories. I can't figure out how people can be so imaginative and ambitious with a track record of success while also being so backwards and misguided. It's like real life bioshock.
posted by lownote at 6:00 AM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

IIRC, Bill Bryson devotes an entire chapter to Fordlandia somewhere. Great post, thanks!
posted by Melismata at 7:25 AM on August 19, 2016

More photos of Fordlândia, taken by photographer Scott Chandler (via the Guardian comments section).

Unnatural Histories: Amazon (via BBC Four)—for the benefit of those who can get around the geo-blocking.
posted by Sonny Jim at 7:26 AM on August 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

My buddy the guide Gil Serique contributed mightily to both Thief at the end of the world about the fortune hunter Henry Wickham and his collaboration with the empire that fueled, then abandoned him. In 1876, Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the rainforests of Brazil and delivered them to Victorian England's most prestigious scientists at Kew Gardens. Gil also helped Greg Grandin with Fordlandia The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City.
posted by adamvasco at 7:51 AM on August 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

The ancient Khmer capital was never lost … it just got a bit overgrown.

I think this is true of a number of city sites in temperate jungle regions, like a sophisticated pre-Columbian monument-building society whose developments covered 155 miles and were only re-discovered thanks to satellite photography.

Certain aspects of the Brazilian Atlantic forest could return within 65 years, and that's a huge area of modern deforestation.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:10 AM on August 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

Daniel Ludwig, one of the richest people in the world at the time, also tried to conquer the Amazon with his ideas, spending over a billion dollars and actually shipping an entire Japanese built paper factory up the river.

It too flopped and, similarly, the area now has had somewhat of a resurgence.
posted by eye of newt at 9:11 AM on August 19, 2016

Good Ford!

O brave new world,
That has such cities in't.
posted by Herodios at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

"oops there goes another rubber tree plant"
posted by clavdivs at 12:42 PM on August 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

The problem with Fordlandia was the branding.

Hankopolis might have been epic.
posted by rokusan at 12:49 PM on August 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I forwarded the Guardian article to Gil who reminded me about Ford´s Nazi connections. He also told me that on his last recent trip to Fordlandia he found his great-grandmother´s grave.
posted by adamvasco at 12:52 PM on August 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

My recollection is that one of Richard Powers' early novels, either "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance", or "Prisoner's Dilemma" discusses Fordlandia at some length.
posted by hwestiii at 2:03 PM on August 19, 2016

Henry Ford "took pride in the fair treatment of his staff" --- you betcha, he was all about fair treatment for everyone, as long as they were white, Protestant males. Jewish or Black or any shade of brown? Nope, nope, nope. Irish or Italian or even worse Mexicans? More damn foreigners, more nopes. Women? Only if the little dears stay in their kitchens where they belong. Catholic? Another nope here, because everybody knows they're not true-blue Americans: they'll always follow the pope's orders. And on, and on....

Yes indeedy, "fair treatment for everyone"!
posted by easily confused at 7:55 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ford is the very model of a "patriarch" in a "patriarchy". That is not a compliment.
posted by maxwelton at 10:58 AM on August 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

While researching a bit more about Ludwig, I found this site (use Google to translate from Portuguese) that lists several "company towns" built with great fanfare in Brazil, including Fordlandia, and Ludwig's Monte Duarado (translated as Golden Hill), not all of them failures, especially if they are around mines that are still producing.

Apparently in Fordlandia the local population was forced to eat unfamiliar American food.
posted by eye of newt at 2:43 AM on August 21, 2016

"Ford is the very model of a "patriarch" in a "patriarchy"."

I'd up that to the status of autopatriarchy. This occurs when the persons name is synonymous with inanimate objects on a global scale.
posted by clavdivs at 4:57 PM on August 21, 2016

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