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When rubber ruled the world

It was the greatest act of biopiracy of the 19th century, and maybe in history. In 1876, Henry Wickham emerged from the Amazon jungle with 70,000 stolen rubber seeds. Under absolute secrecy, he tucked the precious cargo in the hold of a steamship and sailed for England. Without even recognizing the ramifications of his theft, Wickham had permanently flipped the fortunes of world trade.

There was a time when rubber ruled the world, and as a commodity, rubber was elevated by industrialization. Steam, steel, railroads and factories all required increasing tons of rubber. The demand was literally insatiable — telegraph wires, military goods, gaskets, hoses — the exploding list of items requiring rubber was dizzying. Then came the bicycle/inflatable tire craze of the 1890s; followed closely by the automobile craze. Maybe it’s apocryphal, but steel magnate Andrew Carnegie supposedly looked at all the money changing hands and lamented, “I should have chosen rubber.”

From 1850-1913, the Amazon Basin controlled the rubber trade. When tapped, rubber trees weep a milky latex that is the base form of natural rubber. Despite a wide variety of trees, the highest quality rubber on the planet came from the Para tree that grew only in the Amazon. The Para tree produced “hevea,” the most sought after rubber of all. The Para trees grew in relative isolation, spread across millions of acres. To the outside world, the source and location of hevea rubber was shrouded, another mystery of the jungle.

England was quick to catch the hevea scent and essentially hired Wickham to find the hevea source and steal some seeds — payment on delivery. Joe Jackson’s “The Thief at the End of the World” tells Wickham’s remarkable tale. Scratching his way into the heart of the jungle, Wickham found the Para trees and collected 70,000 seeds. With each seed being approximately three-quarters of an inch long, his illicit seed haul weighed over 1,000 pounds.

When the ship carrying Wickham and his seeds hit English shores, the fate of the Amazonian rubber industry was sealed.

England planted Wickham’s seeds in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. It would take 35 years of trial-and-error planting, but by 1913, the rubber trade belonged to the British. Jackson writes: “In 1913, the rubber from seventy thousand seeds smuggled from Brazil and planted in Britain’s Asian plantations flooded the market, outselling the more expensive “wild” rubber and tossing it from the stage. The bust dealt the Amazon Valley a blow from which it never recovered: In 1900, the region produced 95 percent of the world’s rubber. By 1928 … the Amazon produced barely 2.3 percent of its needs.”

Besides Wickham, the Rubber Age brought out other unusual characters. By the 1920s, America was consuming three-quarters of global rubber, and Henry Ford’s vehicles were the primary reason. Tired of paying the British for rubber, Ford bought 2.5 million acres of Amazonian rainforest on the Tapajos River in 1927. It was a vast tract of land that Ford had never visited — and never would. The Tapajos, a tributary of the Amazon, was 600 miles from the Atlantic — remote in the extreme. Ford invested $20 million in the project, micromanaged with a tycoon’s obsession, and watched as Fordlandia collapsed upon itself. Ford sold the land back to Brazil for a pittance in 1945.

Ironically, economists are once again predicting a global rubber shortage by 2020, and U.S. researchers are tinkering with domestic plants as alternative rubber sources. Southeast Asia, and not the Amazon, is still the global market’s main source of natural rubber — thanks to Henry Wickham, the thief at the end of the world.

For more on the Rubber Age and the characters it produced, see:

The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

The Goodyear Story: An Inventor's Obsession and the Struggle for a Rubber Monopoly

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