The Devil’s Milk
A Social History of Rubber
Published by Monthly Review
2011, 416pp, ISBN 978-1-58367-231-0, Paperback
Capital, as Marx once wrote, comes into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” He might well have been describing the long, grim history of rubber. From the early stages of primitive accumulation to the heights of the industrial revolution and beyond, rubber is one of a handful of commodities that has played a crucial role in shaping the modern world, and yet, as John Tully shows in this remarkable book, laboring people around the globe have every reason to regard it as “the devil’s milk.” All the advancements made possible by rubber—industrial machinery, telegraph technology, medical equipment, countless consumer goods—have occurred against a backdrop of seemingly endless exploitation, conquest, slavery, and war. But Tully is quick to remind us that the vast terrain of rubber production has always been a site of struggle, and that the oppressed who toil closest to “the devil’s milk” in all its forms have never accepted their immiseration without a fight.
This book, the product of exhaustive scholarship carried out in many countries and several continents, is destined to become a classic. Tully tells the story of humanity’s long encounter with rubber in a kaleidoscopic narrative that regards little as outside its range without losing sight of the commodity in question. With the skill of a master historian and the elegance of a novelist, he presents what amounts to a history of the modern world told through the multiple lives of rubber.
"John Tully’s The Devil’s Milk is a wonderfully fascinating social history of rubber’s terrors (including slavery and Nazi extermination camps) and pleasures (condoms, among others). Tully is an insightful historian and he narrates this centuries-long account of a commodity as essential to the modern world as oil or steel with great passion and compassion."
— Greg Grandin, author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City and professor of history, New York University
"John Tully has done an extraordinary job tying together the disparate elements—historical, geographical, sociological, anthropological—of the rubber industry. From the Amazon to Akron, Ohio, from Mesoamerican civilizations to the present, The Devil’s Milk is filled with insight. Tully provides a deft treatment of a complicated and typically overlooked natural (and synthetic) resource that remains fundamental to the world economy. I strongly recommend it."
— John Borsos, Vice-president, National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW)
Dr. John Tully is Lecturer in Politics and History at Victoria University in Melbourne Australia. He is author of three books: Cambodia Under the Tricolour: King Sisowath and the ‘Mission Civilisatrice,’ 1904-1927; France on the Mekong: A History of the Protectorate in Cambodia, 1863-1953; A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival; and two novels, Dark Clouds on the Mountain and Death Is the Cool Night.
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