Quicksilver

The Romans called it hydrargyrum, which means water-silver.  When I was little, I had a small test tube that was brimful of this magical substance, harvested from broken thermometers. The vial was heavy―a cubic inch of the stuff weighs about eight ounces.

You could pour it out carefully onto the floor, since the glittering glob is a liquid at room temperature. And you could flick it like a marble, whereupon it would split into mini-globs, each one a perfect replica of its larger parent, and these would skitter across the tiles. And if you aimed the droplets at each other they gradually got sucked in and regrouped, until the parent was once again whole. It was like the big bang all over again, and you got to play it backward at the end.

You can eat mercury in its inert state, and no harm will come to you, it’s indigestible. But that’s not the case for all its forms. When quicksilver is combined with other substances, it can become very toxic indeed. The mad hatter, made famous by the mathematician Charles Dodgson, writing under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll, was driven mad by mercury. More specifically by mercuric nitrate, used in a process known as felting. Pretty much all the hatters from the XVIIth century until the end of the Victorian period were nuts.

This shiny liquid, so dense that you can easily float a coin on top of it, has fascinated humans for thousands of years. Because it can bind with gold, and gold can be recovered from it, the ancient alchemists toiled to discover how it might be converted to gold or silver, and used to generate untold wealth.

Only a few centuries ago, it was held as a cure for syphilis, prompting the expression:

A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.

In 1908, a company was set up in southwest Japan, in the small town of Minamata, to produce fertilizer. At its heyday, the Chisso Corporation employed a quarter of the town’s workforce and paid half the municipality’s tax revenue. It was also responsible for the worst environmental disaster ever due to mercury poisoning. Japanese per capita fish consumption is the highest in the world, methyl mercury shoots up the food chain, and human endeavour is punctuated by ignorance and denial. A perfect storm, that caused a disaster that went on for decades,  left forty-six people dead, and many more irreparably damaged. By the early 1960’s, along with Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, it had sown the seeds of environmental movements in the U.S. and Europe.

In the same year that Chisso embarked on its deadly mission, another company was created to manufacture fertilizer, this time in the small town of Barreiro, Portugal, across the water from Lisbon, on the south bank of the Tagus Estuary. It was the start of the Portuguese industrial revolution. The facility was set up by an entrepreneur called Alfredo da Silva, who in time would become one of the country’s wealthiest men, owning shipyards, banks, insurance, and tranportation―a textbook example of vertical integration.

His chemical company CUF dumped substantial amounts of mercury in the estuary, to the tune of a few tons per year, and was responsible for contamination of fish and shellfish in the adjacent bay. As I drove through the large industrial complex yesterday, I gazed out at a landscape of industrial wasteland, abandoned factory buildings from fifty years ago. Only an hour before I had been standing high up on a mountain, looking down on the Atlantic Ocean, the vegetation around me an almost impossible perfume of rosemary, lavender, and oregano.

The view from the top. There is a Capuchin convent nearby, the Arrábida mountains are a place of beauty and meditation. Previously occupied by the Moors, the area was conquered by the Portuguese eight hundred years ago. A tract inciting the faithful to Jihad was found in the vicinity, the caliphate equivalent of a Bin Laden tape.

During the fascist dictatorship, CUF was one of the hotbeds of communism, a fertile ground of labor disputes, hardship, and the tug of war between capitalism and proletariat. In the time of Salazar, it had the dubious distinction of housing its own national guard post within the compound.

The chemical complex is now rebranded as an eco-friendly facility, but still bears the scars of half a century of production of ammonium fertilizer, pyrite roasting, and manufacture of sulphuric acid. Within the premises are the living quarters for the industrial magnate, whenever he was on site. At the first opportunity, I sneaked upstairs for a few pictures of this monument to social anachronism, the luxurious beauty of the interior, the chilling legacy of the surroundings.

The sink in Alfredo da Silvas private bathroom at the old CUF industrial complex in Barreiro.

Visions of recent trips to China came rolling in. The same toxins, the same suffering. Same place, different time. Same time, different place.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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One Response to “Quicksilver”

  1. Frances Says:

    Nice cornucopia this week. I particularly enjoyed the view from the mountains and the bathroom. I’m sure the proletariat didnt have ornamented hand-basins! As regards hatters – the most famous these days is Philip Treacy, who although Irish seems well in with the English royals. His creations are pretty mercurial!!
    We used to long for broken thermometers and were actively encouraged to play with the mercury.. I did think it was dangerous but all that splitting and binding was way too tempting to avoid. Same thing with burning my initials with the magnifying glass!! No risk assessments back then – happy days! Thanks for the distraction.. F

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