The Rubber Thief of Brazil
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the earliest biopiracy stretched from the Amazon to your car tires.
By Shannon Sims
The pale-skinned, 30-year-old Brit made his way down the Amazon River in 1876, searching for trees. He hung a left down the Tapajós River, drifting eventually onto the riverbank near the town of Boim. After clearing a path up the highlands with a machete, he reached the sweet spot, where legend said the strongest trees grew.
He paid local families to fill woven baskets with as many seeds as they could, and to wrap them individually in banana leaves. Loading all 70,000 seeds onto his boat and casting off toward the Atlantic horizon, Henry Wickham might have looked back at the jungle and smiled. After all, he had just become the world’s first biopirate.
Today, when you roam through the Brazilian Amazon, you’ll hear his name mentioned in the forest, in museums, even in the poor riverside villages. Though you may have never heard of him, Wickham’s name is legendary in Brazil — and not in a good way. If you compliment the beauty of Teatro Amazonas, the Amazon’s grandiose theater made of European marble and gold-rimmed balconies, locals will point out that it’s one of the only signs remaining of the region’s former wealth, thanks to Wickham.
The Amazon’s 19th-century villain may not have been shooting for infamy, but he might not have minded either. The son of a British lawyer who fell victim to cholera, Wickham found himself scrambling to regain his family’s lost fortune. As Joe Jackson, author of The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire, told OZY, at that time “the way to become rich was as an adventurer or a planter.” Which explains why Wickham was traipsing around the Amazon, asking through a translator how to find Hevea brasiliensis — aka rubber trees.
He brought his haul back to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, where botanists worked to resuscitate the seeds, soggy and in rough shape after months at sea. Against all odds, and thanks to those carefully wrapped banana leaves protecting them (sopping up their natural oils), 12 percent germinated successfully. British scientists grew those seeds until they became sturdier, and then sent them across the world to British Asian colonies in Malaya and India. There, back in a more familiar tropical climate, the plants flourished, and Britain would soon end up controlling 95 percent of the global rubber economy. With his bold act, Wickham had singlehandedly broken the back of Brazil’s rubber monopoly, “collapsing the Amazon economy in a single year,” and plunking the region back into the jungle.
It’s perhaps a little unfair to label Wickham a biopirate. Back then, Wickham was just a businessman, and not a very good one. He left a trail of failed plantations, from Australia to Honduras, and he never returned to Brazil after making off with the seeds. Famed Brazilianist author Warren Dean went on record in 1989, defending Wickham in an op-ed for The New York Times. “The British did not ‘sneak’ rubber seeds out of the Amazon. An open and unfettered exchange of commercially valuable plant materials was characteristic of the 19th century,” he wrote. But Wickham was not exactly forthcoming: He told Brazilian customs officials he was exporting “exceedingly delicate botanical specimens designated for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty’s own Royal Gardens at Kew.” And Jackson agrees that while Wickham didn’t break the letter of the export laws at that time, “given the magnitude of his theft, he certainly broke the spirit of the law.”
And that’s why people in the Amazon remember him as a thief. His theft became a symbol of malicious imperial forces stripping natural resources from Brazil for their own greedy gain. Jackson found this out firsthand when, in 2008, he retraced Wickham’s boot-strapped steps up the banks of the Tapajós. Everyone had heard of the renowned Brit, Jackson says, and “there was still an awful lot of anger about what he’d done.”