Henry Wickham (explorer)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Sir Henry Wickham
photo of Sir Henry Wickham from the Library of Congress catalog
Henry Alexander Wickham

(1846-05-29)29 May 1846
Hampstead, London, England
Died27 September 1928(1928-09-27) (aged 82)
Paddington, London, England
Spouse(s)Violet Case Carter

Sir Henry Alexander Wickham (29 May 1846 – 27 September 1928) was a British explorer and bio-thief. He was the first person to successfully export a large and fresh enough batch of Brazilian rubber seeds to the British Empire under false pretenses.[1] The British had long planned to create rubber farms in Southeast Asia, and using Wickham's batch, the resulting plantations brought about the collapse of the Amazon rubber boom.[2][1]

Smuggling of Rubber Seeds[edit]

Wickham took about a year to collect the seeds from commercial rubber groves in Brazil after having been commissioned opportunistically due to his existing location in Brazil. Historian Warren Dean notes that it would be odd for a British expat to collect so many seeds in broad daylight using local labor without local authorities having been aware of it; he also had the permission of the rubber grove operators where he sourced his seeds. This stands starkly against the "piracy" narrative that Wickham later built in order to elevate his own reputation as a daring hero.[3] 70,000 seeds were falsely declared in their export as "academic specimen" (which the Brazilians usually used to classify dead animals or plants, not fully functional seeds). They arrived in London's Kew Gardens on June 15, 1876. A few weeks later, only 2,700 of the 70,000 had successfully germinated, the rest was discarded.[4] While that fraction seems low, it was enough to start a long chain of duplication in Southeast Asia, practically the sole source of rubber plantations that outcompeted the South American production of rubber.

30 years after the fact, he claimed in 1908 publicity that he was responsible for stealing about 70,000 seeds[5] from the rubber-bearing tree, Hevea brasiliensis, in the Santarém area of Brazil in 1876. However, there was technically no law at the time forbidding their export although there was a requirement for export licence (which he obtained under false pretense in Belém), and from the embellishments added to his original account (such as having to hide from gunboats)[1] it would appear that Wickham was trying to make his actions more exciting than they really were.[6]

The Ayapua Boat Museum (Museo Barco Historicos) in Iquitos, Peru calls his actions "the greatest act of biopiracy in the 19th century, and maybe in history", citing that the seeds were never properly registered in ship's manifest and that the resulting plantations in Asia brought the rubber boom in South America to a grinding halt. The museum also claims that he was specifically paid by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to collect the seeds.[7]

These seeds he accompanied to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London,[8] from where seedlings were dispatched to British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), British Malaya (now Peninsular Malaysia) and Singapore, (though the latter was not used for rubber), Africa, Batavia in Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta in Indonesia), and other tropical destinations, thus dooming the Amazon rubber boom.

Personal Life[edit]

Henry Wickham was born in Hampstead, north London. Wickham's father, a solicitor, died when young Wickham was only four years old.[9][10][11] At age 20 he traveled to Nicaragua, the first of several trips to Latin America and South America.[10] Returning to England, he married Violet Carter in 1871, whose father would publish Wickham's writings.[10] His first book Rough Notes of a Journey Through The Wilderness from Trinidad to Pará, Brazil, by way of the Great Cateracts of the Orinoco, Atabapo, and Rio Negro, was published by W.H.J. Carter in 1872.[10] He would take the entire family to Santarém, Brazil, where his mother, sister Harriette, and the mother-in-law to his brother, John, would all die by 1876.[10] Wickham was knighted in the 1920 Birthday Honours "for services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East."[12]

Economic Impact[edit]

Rubber plantations in Asia were much more efficient and outproduced Brazil and Peru. This was because the Asian rubber plantations were organized and well suited for production on a commercial scale whereas in Brazil and Peru, the process of latex gathering from forest trees remained a difficult extractive process: rubber tappers worked natural rubber groves in the southern Amazon forest, and rubber tree densities were almost always low, as a consequence of high natural forest diversity. Moreover, experiments in cultivating rubber trees in plantations in the Amazon showed them to be vulnerable to South American rubber tree leaf blight fungus and other diseases and pests - essentially limiting the South American pioneership in rubber production to hunting-gathering rather than agriculture.

In spite of decades of research in selecting highly productive and disease resistant rubber trees, many commercial rubber trees throughout the world are descended from the seeds Wickham took to Joseph Dalton Hooker in London.

In Brazil, Wickham is labeled as a "bio-pirate" for his role in smuggling the rubber seeds that broke the South American monopoly.


  1. ^ a b c Dean, Warren (1987-08-28). Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521526920.
  2. ^ Ponting, Clive (2007). A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-14-303898-6.
  3. ^ Dean, Warren (1987-08-28). Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History. Cambridge University Press. p. 20. ISBN 9780521526920.
  4. ^ Dean, Warren (1987-08-28). Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History. Cambridge University Press. p. 24. ISBN 9780521526920.
  5. ^ Ponting, Clive (2007). A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-14-303898-6.
  6. ^ Musgrave, Toby & Will (2007). An Empire of Plants: People and Plants that Changed the World. London: Cassell & Co. p. 173. ISBN 0-304-35443-0.
  7. ^ Ayapua Boat Museum exhibit as of 2019. https://casamorey.com/boat-museum/
  8. ^ National Archives: Wickham, Sir Henry Alexander (1846-1928), Knight, explorer and planter – Correspondence relating to the smuggling of rubber seeds from Brazil to Kew, accessed November 2017.
  9. ^ Wickham History: Sir Henry Alexander Wickham (1846-1928) Archived 2017-11-13 at the Wayback Machine, accessed November 2017.
  10. ^ a b c d e Sir Henry Alexander Wickham - at bouncing-balls.com
  11. ^ Dean, Warren (1987). Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.14. ISBN 0-521-33477-2
  12. ^ "No. 31931". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 June 1920. p. 6315.


  • Jackson, Joe (2008). The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire. Viking.
  • Lane, Ann (2008). "Chapter 11 The Pacific as rhizome: the case of Sir Henry Alexander Wickham, planter, and his transnational plants". Transnational Ties: Australian Lives in the World. ANU Press. pp. 183–196. JSTOR j.ctt24hcg1.14.
  • Lewis, D. C. (2004). "Wickham, Sir Henry Alexander (1846–1928)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Money, Nicholas P. (2006). "Chapter 8: Rubber Eraser". The Triumph of the Fungi: A Rotten History. Oxford University Press. pp. 85–100.
  • "Sir Henry Alexander Wickham (1846-1928)" (PDF). Wickham History Society. 2016. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2017-11-13. Retrieved 2017-11-12.
  • "PIONEER IN RUBBER IS DEAD IN LONDON: Sir Henry Wickham Made It Possible for World to Ride on Auto Tires". New York Times. 28 Sep 1928.

External links[edit]