Henry Wickham (1846-1928)

From a paper read by Michael Palin at the Athenaeum Club:

“…Henry Alexander Wickham, an adventurer and explorer (had) come to the attention of Joseph Hooker through a book of Wickham’s which had contained drawings of Hevea brasiliensis, the most commercially productive of all the Brazilian rubber trees. Hooker, then Director at Kew, wrote to Wickham commissioning him to secure seeds of Hevea brasiliensis and somehow get them back to England. ‘Spare no expense to get living seeds’, Hooker insisted. The expense, as it turned out, according to John Hemming, one of the best contemporary writers on the Amazon, was £1,505 4 shillings and tuppence. It was paid for, significantly, by the India Office. In 1876, at the port of Santarém, Henry Wickham boarded a ship from Brazil to Britain carrying with him thousands of seeds which were to drastically change the fortunes of both countries. 

Wickham’s precious cargo duly arrived in Liverpool and was rushed to Kew. 2,800 of the Hevea seeds were germinated, and sent out to the British possessions in Malaya and the sub-continent…”

From a review in The Times of The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power and the Seeds of Empire (2008), by Joe Jackson:

“On June 14, 1876, at 3am, 30-year-old Henry Wickham threw pebbles at the bedroom windows of Joseph Hooker, the director of Kew Gardens. Wickham had just arrived from Brazil and was too excited by his cargo to wait until a more suitable time. He had smuggled 70,000 seeds of Hevea brasiliensis (the rubber tree) from the Amazon valley, the only place where they grew. The rubber from these plants was the best in the world – and was used in British factories to make everything from machine belting and tubing to rainproof coats and plimsolls. Essential to industrialisation and the growing consumer societies, it was almost as important to the Victorian economy as oil is today.”

From a review in Farm Progress, serving United States:

“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.”

From: Chapter XVIII – July, One Summer – America 1927 (2013), by Bill Bryson:

“Wickham returned to England around 1910 to find himself a national hero. He was given a life annuity by the British Rubber Growers’ Association and knighted by the king.”

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