Natural rubber in the 19th century was primarily harvested in South and Central America and in Africa. King Leopold II of Belgian develoed an especially cruel system for harvesting rubber in the Belgian Congo. The relative small quantities of rubber demanded in the 19th century meant that the demand for rubber could be satisfied through harvesting from wild rubber trees. Much of it was from the Pará rubber plant originating in the Amazon basin. Imense fortunes were made in Brazil. Brazil placed legal restrictions on exporting seeds of the plant, but they were smuggled into England in 1876. The seedlings were sent to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). The promixity to India led to rubber being commoinly referred to as India Rubber. The British also began to cultivate rubber in other tropical colonial possesions especially on the Malay Peninsula. Malaya had been a minor outpost of the British Empire. Rubber and the development of effective plantation methods turned Malatya into one of the most valuavle colonial possessions.
The Dutch opened plantations on Java and Sumatra, launching the East Indies rubber industry. The efficient cultivation of rubber in the East Indies soon surplanted the wild collection of rubber in Brazil. American rubber companies so as not to be shut out of the market, expanded plantations in Liberia and in South and Central America. Even so the vast proportion of the World's rubber was produced on or near to the Malay Peninsula.
Natural rubber in the 19th century was primarily harvested in South and Central America and in Africa. King Leopold II of Belgian develoed an especially cruel system for harvesting rubber in the Belgian Congo. The relative small quantities of rubber demanded in the 19th century meant that the demand for rubber could be satisfied through harvesting from wild rubber trees.
Much of it was from the Pará rubber plant originating in the Amazon basin. They were discovered by Native Americans who collected latex and used open fires to create rubber. There is an ongoing debate among scientists studying Native Americans as to how much they shaped the Amazon. It was noted by Europeans after the conquest, but was not a particularly valuable commodity. Only after the industrial revolution was well underway in the 19th century did the industrial potentual of rubber becomes increasingly realized. These were limited, however, because of the difficulty working with the material. This changed dramatically when Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process. The result was a very sharp increase in the demand for rubber. The large scale production of rubber began in Brazil. The economy of the Brazilian Amazon boomed. The Government regulated the industry. Those individuals who obtained the right to collect latex from the Amazon became fabulously rich.
Rubber was a priduct of marginal importance in the early 19th century. It was a scientific curiosity with only limited industrial application. The invention of the Vulcanization process changed this. Researchers inF rance and England developed process to use rubber in the early 19th century. There were a variety of problems with natural rubber. The most serious flaw was that rubber had a tendency to form a gooey mess in hot weather. This was a serious impediment in countries which had climates with consderable temperature fluctuations. Charles Goodyear, an American, solved that problem when he stumbled on to the vulcanization process (1839). This set in motions a series of developments which were to make rubber an essential commodity in an industrial economy. New York and London investors began taklking about the Age of Rubber. Rubber became the earliest important plastic. Rubber began appearing in a host of product. Ther were applications in the clothing indusry, but this was only a small part of the overall demand. One early product was gutta perca used for products as diverse as Daguerreotype cases and electricl insulation. Useful rubber products rrived just atatime when electicity entered the industrial age beginning with telegraph wires and trans-Atlantic cables to be followed with electrical lighting. This was just a begiining. A huhe number of applications were found for rubber. Industrial creations like locomotives, tractors, automoblies, battleships, nd many others are very complicated piece of machinery and include a host of rubber parts. Moden industy would scarcely be possible without rubber. And of course with automobiles and trucks as well as bucycles there was as an eed for rubber tires. The demand for rubber this expanded at an unbelievable rate.
Brazil placed legal restrictions on exporting seeds of the plant. The country placed a heavy tax on the export of seeds (1884). A total ban, however, was not implemented until much later (1918). By that time, however, the British had obtained seeds and established plantations throughout their Empire.
Henry Wickenham, a never-do-well who considerhimself a naturalist/explorer, was born into a comfortable family (1846). When he was only 4 years old, his father died (1850). The disappearance of the breadwinner left the family consisting of three small children nearly destitute. His mother srtuggled to survive as a milliner. Henry is described as a dreamy boy with aspirations to be an artist. He set off to remake the family fortunes in the Americas. His quest took him from the Mosquito Coast to the Orionoco where he hoped to become a planter. Along the way he learned about harvesting rubber and the tropics, especially insects and diseases. Joseph Dalton Hooker, director of Kew Gardens (the Royal Botanical Gardens) learned about Wickham and offered him a reward if he could deliver rubber seeds. Wickham took up the challenge, both for the reward and apparently as a patriotic British subject. He managed to smuggle 70,000 seeds of Pará fina (Hevea brasiliensis) into England (1876). [Jackson] He personally delivered them to Hooker. Wickham was later knighted (1920) and honred as the "father" of the ruubber industry in Britain. Brazilians had a different view. He was variously described as the executioner of Amazonas" and the 'Prince of Thieves'. Hooker carefully cultivated Wickham's seeds into seedings at Kew.
One author describes Wickhas violation of Brazilian law as an act of theft and 'biopiracy'. [Jackson] This raises a wide variety of ethical questions. Particularly, does a nation or group of nations have a permant claim to its indegenous flora and fauna and drugs (molecules) and other products derived from them.?. Does the originating country have a right to restrict production in an effort to limit production and keep prices high? Do they have a right to esabish monoplies/cartels? Does this equally apply to molecules (drugs) that Ameican and other drug companies develop. Does the impact this wold have on people around te world affect the answer? Does the fact that the profits gained by production in Brazil wet primarily to a small group of rubber barons rather than the people of Brazil? The blame Britain/America first crowd of course has a ready answer to this. One author writes, "An act of 'biopiracy' 130 years ago enriched England and devastated Brazil." [Yardley, p. 15.] This of course is a gross mischaracterization. It certainly is true that it enriched England, but Yardley leaves out the billions of people in the 20th century (including you and me) that benefited from inexpensive rubber. As to devastating Brazil, Yardley makes it sound like the people of Brazil were left impoverished. The fact is that the people of Brazil were impoverished before, during, and after the rubber boom. The Brazilians that were devastated were the small number of rubber barons. It was not the English who impoverished Brazil which Yardley suggests in his title. Basically it is an example of the closed-pie mentality of socialists.
After obtaining the Brazilin seeds, it took some time for Kew to produce actual seed producing trees which could be used to found a huge British rubber industry. Time was needed to grow adult trees, establish plantations, and the fairly small demand for rubber in the 19h century. This began to change by the turn-of-the 20th century. And the British came to dominate rubber cultivion nd production. The British Empire included may tropical areas suitable for rubber proiduction, but Malays soon became the primary center od Britih runner production. The Kew seedlings were sent to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). The promixity to India led to rubber being commoinly referred to as India Rubber. The British also began to cultivate rubber in other tropical colonial possesions especially on the Malay Peninsula. Malaya had been a minor outpost of the British Empire. Rubber and the development of effective plantation methods turned Malaya into one of Britain's most valuable colonial possessions. The British gave high priority to promoting a productive, profitable rubber industry in Malaya. This was policy begun in the early-20th century with the fondation of the industry and continued right up the point that Japan launced the Paciific war by attacking the American fleet at Pearl Harbor am invasing Malaya. (1941). Britain's Malayan rubber plantations had important advantages for the British and became on of tge illars of the Empire. The rubber plantations were a sourc of ubstantial income for British companies and their shareholders. The plantations also produced a strategically essential product in times of war. The importance of rubber increased substantially with the appearance of trucks on World war I battlefields, but vehicle tires was only one use of rubber. And rubber wasn important economic commidity with a range of industrial uses. Malayan rubber exports made an important contribution to Britain’s positive balance of payments. The British and Malayan Coloniak Governments adopted policies which heavily benefitted rubber estates owners. Tgese policies favored the estate owners over the plntation workers. By the time of world war II the workers were becoming increasingly restive and strikes were occurring. [Hagan and Wells, pp. 143-150.] The Dutch opened plantations on Java and Sumatra, launching the East Indies rubber industry. One author complains that this placed "in the hands of a single power a major natural resource". [Yardley, p. 15.] Some how it did not bother Yardley when theresource was in Brazilian hands.) Actually the British greatly diversified production. Seedlings were made available for cultivatin in other European colobies (Dutch East Indies, German East Africa, and Potuguese Mozambique as well as American comanies in Liberia and South and Central America.)
The efficient cultivation of rubber in the East Indies soon surplanted the wild collection of rubber in Brazil. Btitish plantations slowly increased production during the late 19th ad early 20th century. Fnally British plantation rubber roducton exceeded Brazilian wild production (1913). The British in that year produced 48,000t compred to 39,000 t in Brazil. Rubber was one of many products that the British naval blockade denied to Germany during World War I. The British by the end of Wold war I were able to fill 95 percent of the world demand (1919). Despite growing demand, the price of rubber plummeted. Rubber reached a high of $3.06 per pound (1910) to $0.66 even in the midst of World War I (1915). After the War, prices fell to a mere $0.12-22. [Jackson] Even so the vast proportion of the World's rubber was produced on or near to the Malay Peninsula. This concentration of production was almost disastrous when Japan very quickly after entering World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941) seized Malaya, Songapore, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma. The three largest producing in the early-21st century are Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. These three countries account for nearly 75 percent of all natural rubber production. Surprisingly, natural rubber is now not cultivated to any extent in its native enviroment of South America'a Amazonian Basin. The pronlen is theSouth American leaf blight, and other natural rubber tree predators.
Hagan, James and Andrew Wells. "The British and rubber in Malaya, c1890-1940" Proceedings of the Ninth National Labour History Conference (Sydney: 2005), pp. 143-150.
Jackson, Joe. The Thief at theEnd of the World: Rubber, Power, and theSeeds of Empire (Viking, 2008), 414p.
Yardley, Jonathan. "An act of 'biopiracy' 130 years ago enriched England and devastated Brazil" Book World (March 30, 2008), p. 15.
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