The incredible tale of Henry Wickham

There are many heroes of the British Empire. Nelson, Wellington, Mountbatten, Jenkins (and his Ear), the Men at Rorke’s Drift and Wolfe at Quebec. However, there are some that contributed just as much to its creation and furtherance than just the military achievements. The British Empire was also built on trade. Admittedly, a good part of that was from the immoral slave trade, but the Governments at the time also realised that controlling other markets was just as important as gaining land via conquest. Sugar production, for example, and wool being another. However, one market evaded them. Britain could not get a foothold in South America. It was dominated by Spanish and Portuguese influence and control. The British eyed the continent with frustration. There was one substance they needed for the ongoing industrial revolution. It was rubber, and they were tired of having to pay for it. Just ask Rubber Moulding UK based company how important it is to manufacturing and production.

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How could the British gain the upper hand? They knew that the recent conquests and advances they had made in Singapore and Malaysia could provide a similar habitat as that of the rainforests. It was a fair assumption to make that they could grow the rubber tree in those countries. They could make improvements and even end up selling better rubber and products back to those who’d found it in the first place. What was needed was someone who knew the continent and where to get seeds. That man was Henry Wickham.

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His father dying when he was young had not daunted the young Wickham. As a young man of twenty, he set out for Nicaragua. It was the first of many trips, and he soon gained an intimate knowledge of the Eastern seaboard of countries. Crucially, he gained the trust and respect of the local authorities. On his next exploration, he was given a task. He would collect as many seeds from the rubber tree as he could and then smuggle them out of the country and back to Kew Gardens.

He arrived in 1875 and soon set about collecting seeds. The Brazilian authorities were told that he was merely collecting them for academic study. In fact, they were happy to give him a commission to collect the samples. It is surprising that they did not question the vast amount he had, some 70,000 seeds in total. He called them academic specimens. The authorities believed this to mean they were dormant varieties that could not be grown. After a year, Wickham returned the 70,00-90 seeds to Kew. After study and development, they were sent to South Asia and huge plantations were created. This effectively ended the monopoly of Amazon basin rubber for good.

Wickham was something of a showman. Thirty-five years after the event he told the tale of how he got them all out of Brazil. He wrote of dodging gunboats and made the whole attempt sound like some kind of wild boy’s own adventure. The reality was he just walked out of the country with them, totally unchecked and unchallenged.

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