A Pulitzer Prize FinalistA National Book Award FinalistA National Book Critics Circle Award FinalistIn 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. His intention was to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious bid to export America itself, along with its golf courses, ice-cream shops, bandstands, indoor plumbing, and Model Ts rolling down broad streets. Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became the site of an epic clash. On one side was the car magnate, lean, austere, the man who reduced industrial production to its simplest motions; on the other, the Amazon, lush, extravagant, the most complex ecological system on the planet. Ford’s early success in imposing time clocks and square dances on the jungle soon collapsed, as indigenous workers, rejecting his midwestern Puritanism, turned the place into a ribald tropical boomtown. Fordlandia’s eventual demise as a rubber plantation foreshadowed the practices that today are laying waste to the rain forest. More than a parable of one man’s arrogant attempt to force his will on the natural world, Fordlandia depicts a quixotic mission to recreate the small-town America that the Ford factory system did much to dispatch. As Greg Grandin shows in this mordantly observed history, Ford’s great delusion was not that the Amazon could be tamed but that the forces of capitalism, once released, might yet be contained.
“Historian Greg Grandin has taken what heretofore seemed just such a marginal event—Henry Ford’s failed attempt to establish a gigantic agricultural industrial complex in the heart of Brazil’s Amazon Basin—and turned it into a fascinating historical narrative that illuminates the auto industry's contemporary crisis, the problems of globalization and the contradictions of contemporary consumerism. For all of that, this is not, however, history freighted with political pedantry. Grandin is one of a blessedly expanding group of gifted American historians who assume that whatever moral the story of the past may yield, it must be a story well told. Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City is precisely that—a genuinely readable history recounted with a novelist's sense of pace and an eye for character. It's a significant contribution to our understanding of ourselves and engrossingly enjoyable.”—Tim Rutten, Los Angeles Times
"In 1927, Henry Ford was the world’s richest man, with a company so strong it tried to do something only countries usually manage: It became a colonial power. Seeking a source for tires and gaskets, Ford exacted a concession from the Brazilian government for a piece of Amazon jungle the size of Connecticut and set out to build a rubber plantation. Moreover, he decreed the town of Fordlandia would be an all-American place, never mind the habits of the locals (bandstands and ice-cream shops were built; Prohibition was enforced). From page one, it’s clear Fordlandia was doomed. Two things keep you reading: curiosity over how long this harebrained scheme could go on, and Ford himself, who, in his later years, was less a visionary than a wack job, full of crackpot ideas about diet, sociology, and (as everyone knows by now) Jews."—Christopher Bonanos, New York magazine
"Henry Ford dreamed big as a matter of course, and in 1928 he decided to find and develop the ideal location to revive commercial-level rubber production in the depths of the Amazon rain forest. Greg Grandin tells the fascinating tale of Ford's campaign to transplant modern industrial methods that had succeeded for him in Detroit to the site he had selected along the Tapajós River, a branch of the Amazon. Brazil, of course, welcomed its illustrious benefactor with open arms (and, in many cases, open palms). But financial largesse and benevolent attitudes can mask less selfless motives in a donor's agenda. After all, latex was the sole component for his industry that Ford didn't control, and he had plans for changing that with his Brazilian venture. As part of his jungle dream, Ford also planned to build a town, Fordlandia, that would showcase all the virtues of the American 19th century small-town life of his youth. Imagining Brazilian plantation workers thriving under his personal ideal of high wages and healthy, moral living, he 'built Cape Cod-style shingled houses for his Brazilian workers and urged them to tend flower and vegetable gardens, and eat whole wheat bread and unpolished rice.' Ballroom dancing and golf were leisure activities that he promoted. Nobody had the temerity to ask, 'In the middle of the Amazon rain forest? Are you deranged?' Even if people had challenged him, Ford was so fixated on his idea that he probably would have ignored them. The Amazon (or, rather, his idea of the Amazon) represented a fresh start in an environment he considered uncorrupted by all that he saw blighting the American commercial landscape (like unions). Ford believed his will, capital and expertise could mold the world and was either ignorant of, or dismissed, 'the emotions of nationalism and deaf to the grievances of history.' For starters, humidity, rainfall, dense forest and bugs proved to be severe challenges for managers used to less extreme conditions in the American Upper Midwest. Fretting endlessly over finding a factory whistle that would not rust in the jungle, they remained dangerously clueless about the culture they had invaded. As one local priest astutely observed, the Ford men 'never really figured out what country they were in.' The inevitable came in December 1930, when a manager changed the way food was served to workers: he may have considered the change trivial, but the workers rioted and reduced Fordlandia to rubble. Today the site of Ford's dream town is a ghost city, decayed and overgrown, along the still-wild Tapajós."—John McFarland, Shelf Awareness “Magic happens when a gifted historian and master storyteller finds a treasure trove of untapped materials to exploit. And Greg Grandin’s book on Fordlandia is simply magical. Here is the truly epic tale of American adventurers dispatched by Henry Ford in 1928 to conquer and civilize the Amazon by constructing an industrial/agricultural utopia the size of Tennessee. Among the dozens of reasons I will be recommending Fordlandia to friends, family, colleagues, and students is the scale and pace of the narrative, the remarkable cast of characters, the brilliantly detailed descriptions of the Brazilian jungle, and what may be the best portrait we have of Henry Ford in his final years as he struggles to recapture control of the mighty forces he has unleashed.”—David Nasaw, the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of Andrew Carnegie
"In 1927, Henry Ford was the richest man in the world—so when he needed cheap rubber, he simply bought a Brazilian rainforest and set about turning his little corner of the Amazon into a model American town. In this lively history, Greg Grandin enlists a cast of union-busting thugs, a Norwegian sea captain, and a cranky botanist to tell the story of the short-lived Fordlandia plantation. More than just a company town, Fordlandia was an ambitious feat of sociological engineering. Indigenous workers lived in cozy cottages straight out of the Midwest and Swiss-style bungalows. Alcohol was forbidden; instead the company provided wholesome fun in the form of square dances, swimming pools, a golf course, movies, and recreational driving in company cars. Though Ford paid his workers more than they would have earned harvesting rubber elsewhere and provided free health care and education, he wasn't motivated by altruism alone: Happy laborers, he reasoned, would be more efficient. In the end, caterpillars and blight took hold, the rubber trees refused to thrive, and by 1945, the experiment had completely collapsed. And so died Ford's utopian vision of profit-driven paternalism—a sentimental notion unrecognizable in an era of multinationals, slums, and sweatshops."—Lauren R. Rice, Mother Jones
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire’s Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and the award-winning The Blood of Guatemala. An associate professor of Latin American history at New York University, and a Guggenheim fellow, Grandin has served on the United Nations Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New York Times.
Greg Grandin discusses Fordlandia at The Strand in New York City. The full video can be viewed at Booktv.org.