“After he had put them into a deep sleep, the tigre negro entered the camp and killed them all, slashing their throats. It sucked the blood out of them. Only one saved himself by hiding in the forest. From there he heard his companions screaming. That’s how the tigre negro killed the rubber tappers.”
I heard that story from my father when I was a boy, sitting on the palm wood floor of our house on the island of Sarapanga in the Marañón River in northeastern Peru. With smoke from my father’s pipe wafting around us and the river flowing by just meters away, the tale of the tigre negro (literally black tiger, a reference to the black jaguar) capped his late-afternoon storytelling, after which he’d send us off to bed.
Years later, I heard it again as I visited villages with my colleagues from Radio Ucamara, a small station in the port town of Nauta. The members of the radio station staff (including myself, one of the authors, Leonardo Tello) are of the Kukama people, the Native group that predominates in villages along the lower Marañón. The station primarily serves Kukama communities.
When I first listened to it as an adult, the story struck me as odd. The reclusive jaguar is a selective predator, taking only the prey it needs. But gradually, the tale of the animal that slaughtered humans and drank their blood revealed a terrible truth. The tigre negro was not a feline of the forest but something more sinister—a metaphor for a rubber baron. The story captured the living memories of an era when rubber, the once-precious natural latex that drove the Amazonian economy, led to the death or forced displacement of thousands of Indigenous peoples. That reality is as vivid now as it was a century ago when the rubber boom was at its peak.
“Indigenous mythic histories are often non-linear. They’re not necessarily chronological. They may not be concerned so much with telling exactly what happened but with trying to socialize the events of the past so they can be placed into collective memory in ways that make sense within the Indigenous world view,” says anthropologist Jonathan D. Hill of Southern Illinois University, who has collected stories about the rubber boom era in Venezuela. “I think that’s a healing process.”
Very much worth your time, for the story itself and to learn more about just what terrible things the arrival of capitalism did to indigenous peoples worldwide.