Having being engaged since childhood with Arthur’s story as adventure – picaresque episodes, remote peoples, mountains, jungles, snakes, mules, rafts – it took some time (and hard information mined by Farne) to appreciate the true dimensions of the 1891 expedition. Arthur and Alexander Ross were fellow planters and visiting agents in Ceylon. They were investors, speculators in the booming coffee market. P.D.G. Clark, the invisible and unpublished third man, whose lengthy handwritten report to the Peruvian Corporation Farne tracked down, was a civil servant, employed by the Royal Botanic Gardens (in association with Kew) at Peradeniya, near Kandy in Ceylon. What has now been made clear, through books such as The Thief at the End of the World by Joe Jackson, is that Kew, in unacknowledged partnership with the India Office, operated a covert system of bio-piracy, plant smuggling on a massive scale along the Amazon and its headwaters. The basic pitch being to employ desperate men, crazed and addicted solitaries on a survivalist budget, to asset strip fertile non-imperial territory for the benefit of the British Empire. ‘Liberated’ rubber plants could then be propagated at Kew, before being shipped to Ceylon or Malaya. Economic guerrilla warfare carried out in conjunction with rapacious London corporations and bankers.

Sinclair and Ross were under contract, on a monthly stipend (in case they didn’t make it), to the Peruvian Corporation of London. Born in modest circumstances, his father a small farmer and village thatcher, Arthur experienced a life of travel, making regular reports to the Aberdeen press. He was now, by the standards of the time – his investments blown, gold prospecting in Tasmania eating into his resources, a family to support – an elderly man. He was almost sixty. But it was always a done deal with the Peruvian government who couldn’t honour their bonds on borrowings for railway expansion. The land was there for the taking: how best to exploit it? Sir Arthur Dent had no hesitation in appointing Sinclair and Ross as competent (and perhaps expendable) scouts. The two men, whatever their virtues as surveyors and witnesses, were obliged to return positive reports: to be delivered as books, lectures and promotional tours. I am struck by the conjunction of two appointments made, after meetings at corporate headquarters in Brussels and the City of London in 1890. Arthur Sinclair to the ‘Headwaters of the Amazon’. And Joseph Conrad as riverboat captain to the Congo.

Arthur’s account, which is delivered with the verve of a period novel, says very little about the reasons behind his journey. Events simply happen, carrying him along, like the approach to the Ipoki rapids. What is striking is his evident awe for the power of the landscape and his tender rapport with the fecundity of the flowers, plants and trees. Which he sketches, photographs and evaluates. 

‘Coca, from which the invaluable drug cocaine is obtained, is a native of this locality… Of the sustaining power of coca there can be no possible doubt; the Chunchos seem not only to exist, but to thrive, upon this stimulant, often travelling for days with very little, if anything else to sustain them. Unquestionably it is much superior and less liable to abuse than tobacco, betel, or opium of other nations… The flavour is bitter and somewhat nauseating at first, but the taste is soon acquired, and, if not exactly palatable, the benefit under fatiguing journeys is very palpable. Cold tea is nowhere, and the best of wines worthless in comparison with this pure unfermented heaven-sent reviver.’


Arriving by way of another impossible road at Pampa Whaley, the most successful coffee plantation of the Perené Colony, is to, visibly and emotionally, jump back in time. Back to archival photographs from the Smithsonian Institute of armed Asháninka standing against these very recognisable buildings in 1910. Back to the stories we were told of the range wars: how the plantation labourers killed the managers, not in a spirit of rebellion, but under instruction; the less successful operations jealous of the position and prestige of Pampa Whaley. The garden of broken concrete pillars was not a homage to Ballard or an art installation but collateral damage from the time of Shining Path. The present co-operative, dependent, it appeared, on a distant voice at the end of the telephone in Lima, came into existence when the Peruvian Corporation land was broken up and awarded to selected workers and applicants, but never (or rarely) to the Asháninka.

The Colony lasted much longer than we thought, even with shifts of ownership: it was still functioning in the 1970s. All the former plantation workers we interviewed delivered standard riffs on maltreatment, ‘slavery’, the violence of the ‘corporals’ and overseers. All of them, that is, up to the managerial class, the technicians of the co-operative. Those men spoke, very carefully, of employment opportunities, schools, medical care. And a splendid cinema screen, still present: a white wall with a decorative border at the end of the storage shed. Here the entire workforce, managers in armchairs, truck drivers, cooks and labourers scattered on the floor to watch ‘mute’ Mexican films, romances and gunfighter epics. ‘We were made to grow coffee,’ say the Asháninka, ‘but we do not drink coffee. We were made to grow cocoa, but we do not drink cocoa.’ 

We were walked through the entire coffee production process: from arrival of trucks, through baths, grading, drying and ovens, to packaging in grey sacks and departure. It was as slow and precise and repetitive as alchemy. Then we broke for lunch and presentation of the documents we had recovered concerning the history of the Corporation.


Towards the end of his narrative, Arthur suddenly remembers that he is supposed to be making a report to London. It is a requirement of his contract. The contract that rewards him with shares in future prosperity. He delivers a panoramic rhapsody, barely touching on practical difficulties, the near impossibility of transporting product.

‘The Perené valley, however, for a tropical climate, seems remarkably healthy; there is little or no malaria, few mosquitoes, while leeches – the great pest of Ceylon – are unknown… There is an abundant supply of the purest water, flowing freely from the snow-topped mountains, almost within sight. On the banks of the Perené we nightly slept in the open air, and drank almost hourly of its waters, unfiltered…’

And the reality of this paradise? ‘This beautiful valley of the Perené has now become the property of a British Corporation, the concession having been duly ratified by the Peruvian Government, and arrangements are in progress for establishing a planting colony upon a scale never before attempted in Peru.

This land, as selected and conceded, extends to 1,250,000 acres, sufficient to grow the world’s present requirements in coffee, cocoa, coca, chinchona, rubber, sarsaparilla, and vanilla, for all of which both soil and climate are admirably adapted. Here will be a favourable opening for many a trained Indian planter, and many a restive youth in England and Scotland will find elbow-room of the most interesting and lucrative description, helping, I hope, to solve many an anxious father the problem “what to do with our boys”’.


At the lunch table, Farne handed over a letter from a Colony manager, back in the ‘30s. He was asking for practical advice. Could somebody send him a book of instructions? He knew nothing about coffee, the machines, the methods. All of it a mystery to him.

Don Armando, the operations chief, a man who worked in the last days of the Peruvian Corporation as a soil fungus specialist, gave us the tour. And now led us through the old company offices: the huge safe, the iron doors behind which wages were kept, the primitive telephone exchange, cranking a particular number for each of the other plantations. And then, taking us by surprise, behind bars, the true archive of the entire history of the Perené Colony. (In Lima records have vanished or been shredded.) Sack after coffee sack spilling across the floor, tattered and rodent-gnawed papers, letters, account books, maps, legal documents. Paper history for an impossible paper chase. Here it is, here it decays. The evidence from which an adequate history of this painful episode might be assembled.


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