In the summer of 1927, a thirty-seven-year-old Ford Motor Company executive named Willis Blakeley arrived in the Brazilian port of Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River, following a tedious, two-week boat journey from New York City. Employed as a personnel manager in Henry Ford’s Services Department, a union-busting operation run by Ford’s chief enforcer, Harry Bennett, Blakeley had been sent to Brazil on a secret mission. He was to negotiate concessions with the Brazilian government and establish a rubber plantation and settlement on land the company had identified along a tributary of the Amazon, the Tapajós, six days and 650 miles upriver from Belém.
The plan, two years in the making, was the most ambitious example of Henry Ford’s “village industry” project—the building of small, self-sustaining settlements in which industry and agriculture would coexist and benefit each other, freed from the corrosive forces of market capitalism. As Ford envisioned them, they were quintessentially middle- American communities, consisting of clapboard houses set around village squares, with sawmills and hydroelectric plants, and organized activities such as golf and square dancing providing moral uplift to their inhabitants.
Beginning in the early 1920s, Ford launched several of these communities in the US—including Greenfield Village, Alberta, Iron Mountain, and Pequaming. Now, in this remote and inhospitable location on the equator, he set out both to free his company from its dependence on foreign rubber—the project, called Fordlandia, would be one of the first examples of vertical integration in corporate America—and to import his midwestern values to the jungle. It would offer nothing less, said Ford’s son Edsel, than the “redemption” of the Amazon.
As the representative of this noble experiment, however, Blakeley cut a less than impressive figure. On board the boat down to Belém, Blakeley, though he had been told to keep mum, bragged to fellow passengers about Ford’s plans. Upon his arrival in Belém, a boomtown described by the Brazilian writer José Maria Ferreira de Castro as the “Mecca of the world’s harlotry,” Blakeley caroused, drank heavily, and became involved in a scheme with the US consul to buy up bonds issued by Pará state’s bankrupt treasury, then resell them at a huge profit once word got out about the project. He stayed in a corner suite on the second floor of the opulent Grande Hotel with a verandah and floor-to-ceiling windows, walking around naked and having sex with his wife in plain view of the pedestrians on the central square below. “It’s the talk of the town,” said the hotel’s manager, who tried unsuccessfully to throw Blakeley out.
Then, after obtaining virtually everything that Ford wanted from the Brazilian government—tax breaks,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.