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The Peruvian Corporation of London

2 October 2019

From The London Review of Books:

Out of the shuddering car and into the dance. The holy medallion is still swinging like a hanged Disneyland midget in a gale. The eyes of the skull knob on the gearstick pulse dangerously. The migraine radio thumps to assert a fading connection with the world we have left behind. But the headlong momentum of the broken road, endured in a foetal crouch for so many miles, is swiftly absorbed when our modestly recompensed Asháninka hosts climb from their benches to greet and process the latest off-highway time travellers eager not only to witness but to participate in the old ways of the high jungle and brown river. Joyless but determined as penitents, credit-card visitors grasp the proffered tribal hands, sway and stamp to the beat of a small drum, as they try to evaluate the authenticity of the chanting voices and the provocations of a monkey-man trickster in a black bodysuit and red parrot feathers. His white-painted skull face is the gearstick knob brought to life. He waves a thick phallic wand and twangs his bond-market braces, the cocky lord of a museum universe.

We have arrived at the Upper Perené reservation (or theme park) of Pampa Michi, once a coffee estate: the collateral damage of a monumental but sanctioned land grab by the Peruvian Corporation of London in the 1890s. Who Michi was nobody is certain: a forgotten manager, an outsider, one of the chori or colonos called Michael? The other surviving settlements in the Perené Colony, Pampa Silva and Pampa Whaley, are also named after dead functionaries. In the version we hear from some of those who laboured on the plantation, all three bosses were killed by indigenous people. But not, as we surmised, in uprisings, late invocations of the spirit of Juan Santos Atahualpa, the charismatic mestizo leader of the 1740s push to expel the Spaniards, or in random acts of justified revenge for the loss of land. Instead, the bosses were speared in inter-estate squabbles. Rival plantation caciques manipulated barely repressed tribal feeling to pursue their own private vendettas.

An Asháninka group portrait from In the Amazon Jungles, a self-serving account published in 1932 by Fernando Stahl, a Seventh Day Adventist missionary, presents a prodigiously sullen group cradling chin-high bows and the occasional antiquated rifle. ‘A band of murderers,’ Stahl glosses. Photographs from the anthropological archives of the Smithsonian Institution show armed and volatile war bands. Armed, naturally enough, through barter with the ruthless invaders. Women and children squat at the feet of stern warriors with pudding-basin haircuts. These were taken before Stahl arrived to strike his duplicitous deal with the overlords of the Peruvian Corporation. He would be allowed to establish missions and schools, nucleated settlements, colonies within the colony, on the understanding that he would ‘tame’ intractable natives by persuading them to give up masato binges and polygamy and submit to a (totally alien) Protestant work ethic. They would become company dependants. Or, as they saw it, slaves.

. . . .

In War of Shadows: The Struggle for Utopia in the Peruvian Amazon by Michael F. Brown and Eduardo Fernández, it is claimed that a ‘white chuncho’, a reincarnation of Juan Santos Atahualpa, appeared in 1888. He was carrying ‘a carbine of the latest model and bandoliers of cartridges like necklaces’. This was Carlos Fermín Fitzcarrald, a brutal and precipitate rubber baron, and the inspiration for Werner Herzog’s very different, white-suited Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo. Stahl was a later emanation, imposing his own myths on those of the tribal people, successfully colonising the riverside settlements we were visiting, Pampa Michi and Bajo Marankiari, and building plain roadside chapels with generous parking for tourist buses.

Link to the rest at The London Review of Books

Non-Fiction, Non-US

2 Comments to “The Peruvian Corporation of London”

  1. The second sentence in the quote:
    The holy medallion is still swinging like a hanged Disneyland midget in a gale.

    That’s where I stopped reading.

    The first rule of chess is “Don’t play bad chess.” The second rule is “Don’t watch bad chess.”

    The rules of writing parallel those of chess. “Don’t publish bad writing” and “Don’t read bad writing.” IMO reading this screed would violate the second rule of writing.

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