Herbert Dickey in the Devil’s Paradise

Herbert Dickey in the Devil’s Paradise:

"I haven’t had an adventure and don’t expect to have,” Dr. Herbert Spencer Dickey wrote in 1929 about his full-time career exploring the unknown interior of South America. He criticized many of the much-publicized Amazon expeditions of the early 1900s as “sport,” not science. On his own travels on the eastern side of the Andes, he made contact with an unknown tribe, witnessed a Jivaro head-shrinking ceremony and searched for the source of the Orinocco River, all the while minimizing “real danger.” Partly sponsored by Gorge Gustav Heye and the Museum of the American Indian, he brought back some of the finest items still on display at the NMAI.

But his “better judgement” was hard-won during his youthful career as a “tropical medico” wandering the headwaters of the Amazon and Orinocco rivers. As a young, fortune-seeking doctor, he faced repeated credible threats to his life, all the more serious because they came, not from the jungle or Native tribes, but from employees of a major corporation.

Dickey found himself, not once but twice, at the heart of one of the great atrocities of the early 20th century, the enslavement and systematic brutalization of Amazonian Indians during the Putumayo rubber boom. He was a staff doctor for the principal villain, the Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company. But he also served as source and guide to the British diplomat who did the great work of exposing the crimes, Sir Roger Casement. This naturally put him in a precarious position.

Dickey tells the story in his remarkable memoirs, Misadventures of a Tropical Medico (Bodley Head, 1929). This little-known book (still available in an expensive reprint) is not only a great read, it is also a powerful warning about corporate exploitation of indigenous peoples.

As a medical student from Highland Falls, N.Y., Dickey rather naively shipped for Colombia in 1899, seeking an exciting way to make a living. He reels off an amazing string of misadventures, some comic, some horrifying and many both, landing as he did in the middle of a Colombian civil war. But the comedy fades as he follows his fortune deeper into Amazonia, drawn by the boom in rubber. As he was soon to learn, some of the greatest corporate crimes against Native peoples in the early 20th century were fueled by demand for automobile tires.

By good chance, so he thought, Dickey found an opening for a staff doctor at El Encanto, a Peruvian Amazon Company station on a tributary of the Putumayo River. It was only gradually that he learned what was going on in that district, a disputed zone between Peru and Colombia, in which the rubber company was the only law. He witnessed the brutal flogging of six Indians with a tapir-hide lash. He learned Weetoto (or Huitoto), the language of the tribe taking the brunt of the rubber exploitation, and Indians at the station whispered to him about casual murders committed by company managers. He also heard the drunken bragging of company minions. An expose had already been published in London by an American journalist who had briefly visited the outpost. But Dickey tried to put it out of his mind. The company steamer called only every three months, and he was living cheek by jowl with people who he was convinced wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate a further source of damaging stories.

His escape came at great physical cost. While hunting bird specimens, a hobby that kept him away from the station, he stumbled on a travelling band from an unsubjugated tribe. The group didn’t know him and took revenge on a generic white man. They tied him to a tree, his arms raised behind his back, and then slashed the bark above his head. The sap attracted an army of ants, which swarmed over him as he hung there for 22 hours. Finally rescued by Huitotos, he was brought back to the station a physical wreck and clearly had to be evacuated.

Dickey said that his mental recovery began the moment the company river boat pushed off from the dock of El Encanto. Leaving the Putumayo, he thought forever, he eventually set up practice in more congenial surroundings, a Brazilian border town on the Javary River named Remate de Males, or “Culmination of Evils.” “No town was ever better named,” he wrote. Fugitives from Peruvian justice flocked there, while fugitives from Brazilian justice flocked across the Javary River to the sister border town in Peru, less aptly named Nazareth.

James Ring Adams is Senior Historian at the National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian and managing editor of American Indian magazine.