W is for Wickham

by Fazlin Azrimi Abu Hassan and Dennis Ong

The history of planting rubber trees or Hevea brasiliensis in the Malay Peninsula does not date back very far. We think of rubber when we talk about British botanist Sir Henry Wickham. There was a time when demand for rubber was elevated by industrialisation and the rubber business boomed when British inventors Charles Macintosh and Thomas Hancock figured out how to make good raincoats from rubberized fabric.

A photograph of Sir Henry Wickham.
Source: Library of Congress, USA

Later, due to the properties of rubber, which melted in hot weather and was stiff in the cold, an American inventor named Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanisation process by accident in 1839 after dropping some latex in sulphur. The vulcanisation process essentially allowed rubber to become more durable and elastic, thus making it more attractive for commercial use. While capitalists and inventors saw great potential, the biggest problem with rubber, however, was that there was still a scarcity of the material. At the time, the world’s rubber was mainly harvested in South America and Africa.

That was about to change in 1876 when about 70,000 rubber seeds wrapped in banana leaves arrived in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. Collected by locals at its source in the hills and plateau in Boim, Brazil, the seeds were purchased at a price of £10 per 100. The expedition was financed by the government of (British) India, and led by Wickham who was then 30 years old.

A sketch of Wickham as a young man.
Source: http://www.bouncing-balls.com/timeline/people/nr_wickham1.htm

Bearing the responsibility to re-establish his family’s fortune after his father’s death due to a cholera epidemic, the option to become a planter during that time was one of few viable options to get rich. Finding rubber trees in the Amazon for Britain proved to be promising. Wickham had experience in the Amazon prior to Boim. At 20 years old, he embarked on an exploration in Central America and spent nine months collecting exotic birds whose feathers had been sold and appropriated for millinery use. Subsequently, he returned home and revisited the Amazon where he tapped wild rubber trees as part of his adventure. One can very much see that Wickham had an appetite for thrill and exploration.

Life happened and he married a woman named Violet. It is commonly believed that the publishing business Violet’s family ran helped make Wickham’s travels possible. Wickham’s interest in the Amazon evinced in the first book he published, which has a rather long title: Rough Notes of a Journey Through the Wilderness from Trinidad to Pará, Brazil, by way of the Great Cataracts of the Orinoco, Atabapo, and Rio Negro.

A back profile of a woman believed to be Violet, whom Wickham had sketched in some of his journals. She was in Wickham’s company to Boim whence the rubber seeds were collected. Source: http://www.bouncing-balls.com/timeline/people/nr_wickham1.htm

Britain’s intention was simple – to germinate the seeds and plant them for rubber. Soon enough, botanists at Kew successfully germinated some 2,800 seeds. Most of the lot was sent to Ceylon, Singapore, and Java. Then came H.N. Ridley (aka “Mad Ridley”), a botanist at the Singapore Botanic Gardens who zealously propounded the idea of planting rubber as a cash crop. Although there were supplies of seeds, no planters took up cultivation with the exception of Thomas Heslop Hill in Negeri Sembilan. In 1897, the price of rubber shot up. This coupled with recommendations by experts in Ceylon and elsewhere led many planters to begin planting rubber trees. Convinced by Ridley’s proposal, Tan Chay Yan started the first rubber plantation in Malaya with seven million seeds.

Despite the thriving industry in the Far East, Wickham suffered significant drawbacks in his life. This included having to pay his debts from loss of possession during his period in Queensland where he planted tobacco and coffee. He then clinched a position as a civil servant in British Honduras. Wickham’s constantly wandering mind yet again got the better of him when he was slapped with a legal problem, which forced him to sell his property, upon which, he returned to Britain. Undeterred, he ventured into other prospects but failed. During these times, Wickham continued to suggest recommendations cultivating rubber trees and even proposed several tools for rubber tapping. However, his ideas were deemed either unsuitable or as impractical failures.

H.N.Ridley with an assistant posing next to a rubber tree tapped using the herringbone method. Source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Henry_Nicholas_Ridley

Necessity is the mother of invention. The herringbone method for tapping rubber trees was introduced by H.N. Ridley. It left V-shaped channels on the trunk, removing only a thin layer of bark each time, thus allowing a smooth flow of latex. The methods became so efficient that latex can be collected three times a day. On the flip side, this also meant that labourers in the industry were at the mercy of ensuring efficiency and productivity. They were also subject to potential risks at the workplace. To say the least, the industry was reliant on a constant stream of labour to maintain its processes.

Three photographs depicting Indian labourers who made up the majority of the manpower of the rubber industry in Malaya. These labourers were recruited based on the Kangani system and were largely subject to unfair exploitation. The subject of class and employment power structure often form the crux of the historical debate in topics relating to colonial economy.
Source: https://aliran.com/thinking-allowed-online/the-real-story-behind-those-faded-photos-of-tamil-plantation-workers-in-malaya/

At the end of 1905, there were 40,000 acres of planted rubber trees in the Federated Malay States and more than 85,000 at the close of 1906. By January 1907, there were 10,000,000 trees planted. The output of dry rubber was about 130 tons in 1905 and three times as much in 1906.

By 1910, Malaya was one of the biggest producers of rubber. Expectedly, the combined production of rubber across Britain’s colonies exceeded that of Brazil’s, causing it to lose its monopoly in the rubber industry.

A fun fact about the rubber tree cultivated for latex.
Source: Wonder Book of Rubber, 1947.

However, there has been a debate about whether Wickham’s actions qualify as an unethical act of smuggling or an act of formal exchange between governments. Laying out the facts, sources have described that Wickham had misrepresented his cargo as ‘exceedingly delicate botanical specimens specially designated for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty’s own Royal Gardens at Kew’ in order to be granted permission to export.

Notwithstanding the trials and tribulations in Wickham’s life, he was knighted for “Services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East”. Wickham passed away in 1928, regretfully perhaps, with an unfulfilled dream for enterprise.

Bust of Wickham at Muzium Negara.


Bouncing Balls. (n.d.). Sir Henry Alexander Wickham. Bouncing Balls. http://www.bouncing-balls.com/timeline/people/nr_wickham1.htm

Schurz, William Lytle; Hargis, O.D.; Manifold, Courtland Brenneman & Marbut, Curtis Fletcher. (1925). Rubber Production in the Amazon Valley (p. 169). Washington, Govt. Print. Office.

Sims, Shannon. (2015). The Rubber Thief of Brazil. OXY. https://www.ozy.com/true-and-stories/the-rubber-thief-of-brazil/60424/

Veloo Saminathan. (2020). The real story behind those faded photos of Tamil plantation workers in Malaya. Aliran. https://aliran.com/thinking-allowed-online/the-real-story-behind-those-faded-photos-of-tamil-plantation-workers-in-malaya/

Wright, ArnoldCartwright, H. A. (1908). Twentieth century impressions of British Malaya: its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. Lloyd’s Greater Britain Publishing Company, Limited.

In this Series

Click HERE for a list of articles in the ‘A-Z at Muzium Negara’ series.


Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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