Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 30, 2008


Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire

By Joe Jackson

Viking. 414 pp. $27.95

On June 10, 1876, a self-styled explorer and adventurer named Henry Wickham arrived at Liverpool with his wife, Violet, having sailed from Brazil. He hastened to London and the offices of the Royal Botanic Gardens, commonly known as Kew Gardens, where he immediately presented the director, Joseph Dalton Hooker, with a sample of the precious cargo he had brought: 70,000 seeds of "the valuable rubber known as 'Par¿ fine,' " its proper botanical name being Hevea brasiliensis, or simply hevea, as Joe Jackson refers to it in The Thief at the End of the World.

Wickham had committed, as Jackson writes in this excellent account of his life and its lasting consequences, an act of "biopiracy." He had stolen seeds native to the Amazon forest and made them available to imperial Britain for planting in its Asian colonies. Jackson writes:

"Henry's theft was no different than that by scores of others before him -- and yet, in a fundamental way, it was. He did not steal one seed, or even a hundred; he stole seventy thousand. . . .Thirty-four years after Henry's theft, the British rubber grown in the Far East from Henry's seeds would flood the world market, collapsing the Amazon economy in a single year and placing in the hands of a single power a major world resource. In 1884, the state of Amazonas levied a heavy export tax on rubber seeds, and in 1918, Brazil banned their export entirely. By 1920, when Henry was being knighted and called the 'father of the rubber industry' in Great Britain, Brazilians dubbed him the 'executioner of Amazonas,' 'the prince of thieves,' and called his theft 'hardly defensible in international law.' "

The effects of Wickham's theft were nothing short of stupendous. Though it took a long time for his seeds to take root and begin to produce rubber trees -- a period in which Wickham was scorned by Britain's scientific establishment -- eventually "hevea seeds were sent all over the world -- to Selangor in Malaya, Malacca, British Borneo, India, Burma, German East Africa, Portuguese Mozambique, and Java," and in 1913, just as World War I was about to begin -- with the huge demand for rubber it would generate -- Britain's triumph was sealed:

"That year, the British plantations turned the corner and produced 47,618 tons of high-quality, acetate-cured rubber compared to Brazil's 39,370 tons. In 1916, Brazil produced as much as ever, but the game had now changed. In three more years, British plantations would produce enough hevea to fill 95 percent of the world's need for high-quality rubber. Such fantastic supply seemed unimaginable just a few years earlier, and the price plummeted from the $3.06 high in 1910 to 66 cents per pound in 1915. By 1921, when Great Britain controlled the world market, plantation rubber sold for 12-21 cents a pound."

Wickham's story is dramatic and interesting in and of itself, but obviously its ramifications go far beyond its immediate details. "Biopiracy," as Jackson says, at its core "is about power and its imbalance -- the historical fact that poorer countries have been high in resources, while richer nations want -- and can take -- what they have." What Wickham did "became a symbol for every act of exploitation visited on the Third World" and raised an issue that probably never will be resolved: "Who owns the earth's riches?" Though "current international law holds that nations own their resources," common practice remains that "nature, and her 'improvement,' belongs to mankind," or, more bluntly, to whoever has the power to control it.

Thus it is no small irony that Wickham, though hungry for fame at a time when "the explorer was a central hero in an escape fantasy that gripped the British isles, a champion who trod the earth's wild places and interpreted what he saw through English eyes," was himself not unduly avaricious and whiled away his last years "poor, frightfully poor, spending most of his time at the Royal Colonial Club, surrounded by fellow imperialists, each spinning their separate tales." He was born in 1846 into a modestly prosperous family for which everything changed with his father's sudden death four years later, leaving his mother to support three small children through her very marginal work as a milliner. Henry seems to have been a dreamy boy who for a long time wanted to be an artist and showed some talent at it, but he was determined to regain such status as his family had lost and, like many in those days, thought that could be accomplished in the Americas.

So in the summer of 1866, the 20-year-old Wickham headed for the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. Two years later he had found his way to the Orinoco, working as a rubber tapper, aiming to set himself up on a plantation and to enjoy all the prestige that a planter's life entailed. He never really achieved that dream, there or anywhere else, but he learned a great deal about rubber. He also learned a great deal about tropical insects and tropical diseases, all of which Jackson describes in vivid, mildly nauseating detail. On any number of occasions Wickham could have died, but clearly he was a survivor, perhaps in part because he inhabited his own universe. Many years later he was deftly described as "a large-framed idealist, dreamy, sympathetic, artistic, a great wanderer and naturalist in tropical America, but not well qualified for official or commercial business."

More than anything, he was the right man at the right moment. He arrived in South America at "the beginning of what investors in New York and London called the Rubber Age." By 1860, "it had become obvious . . . that with the discovery of vulcanization, rubber would be the world's most useful plastic," employed in everything from telegraph wires to transatlantic cables to railroads to any number of essential applications in modern warfare. Between 1880 and 1910, "the three great developments dependent on rubber -- electricity, bicycles, and automobiles -- increased its worldwide demand at a rate that nearly doubled production every five, then every three years." Wickham was more an instrument of rubber's hegemony than a master of it, but the rubber boom would not have taken place as it did without him. No doubt someone else would have figured out how to smuggle hevea seeds out of Brazil and into the arms of Mother England, but Wickham was the one who pulled it off.

He had been in the jungle for a decade before he brought the seeds to Kew. He had tried his luck in various places with mostly discouraging results, but he declined to be discouraged. After yet another failure, this one only a couple of years before he stole the seeds, he became "a true believer in the British doctrine of world transformation, that nature's secrets could be secured and replanted -- all for the improvement of man, the empire and her queen." When Kew found out about him and offered him a reward should he succeed in bringing rubber seeds out of the jungle, he seems to have accepted the assignment not so much in hopes of personal gain -- though he was scarcely without such desire -- as from a peculiarly Victorian sense of patriotism.

Wickham, like all the more celebrated explorer/adventurers of his day, is a creature of the past. Big corporations now do the dirty work of extracting the Third World's resources and delivering them for the convenience of those of us in more privileged circumstances. But his remains a cautionary tale, as Jackson well understands. Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how it is done and by whom. Trade agreements that open the United States and other major markets to goods from poorer countries redress the balance to a degree, but the wildly disproportionate consumption of the world's resources by its richest countries continues, with no end in sight.

Jackson has made a first-rate book out of Wickham's story. A freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who works out of Virginia Beach, he has done a heroic amount of research, made a coherent story out of a huge mass of material and identified the larger themes that give the story its resonance. His writing is lucid, occasionally vivid, and he brings to the enterprise a welcome sense of humor, as well as, when it is useful, a sense of the ridiculous. The Thief at the End of the World not merely is informative and instructive, it also is immensely entertaining, an attribute always to be welcomed. *

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