Rubber tree leaves
The rubber tree originated in the Amazon. Latex has been used by Indians there since at least the 10th century for waterproofing clothes and footwear. Some South American Indians used the "woodskin" on their canoes. Up until a century a half ago only rainforest Indians knew how to tap latex from the tree.

In the 16th century, Spaniards with Cortes and Pizarro noticed Indians in the New World collecting white liquid from trees and using it to coat capes and moccasins and to make rubber balls for games. They called the substance "tree milk" but didn’t consider using it as a material themselves because it became sticky in hot weather.

Rubber was named in 1770 by the British chemist Joseph Drietsly, who was sent a ball of rubber from America and later discovered it rubbed out pencil marks. Although some Europeans knew of rubber, it didn't become commercially important until the 19th century. In the early 19th century North Americans began buying rubber from South America to make boots and coats but these tended melt in the summer heat and lose their flexibility in the cold. It wasn't until the 1840s, when amateur U.S. inventor Charles Goodyear discovered how to stabilize rubber, that it became widely used. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, December 12, 2015]

Vulcanization and Other Important Rubber Discoveries

In 1823 the Scottish chemist Charles Macintosh discovered that rubber dissolved in the coal-tar and the mixture could be applied to cloth. He invented the raincoat. In 1844, Charles Goodyear, an American hardware merchant, patented the vulcanization process, in which sulfur is added to rubber so that it doesn't melt in heat and go brittle in cold. Goodyear discovered the process after eight years of trying to make a useful rubber when he accidently dropped a mixture of India rubber and sulfur onto a hot stove. The rubber melted and bonded with the sulfur, producing vulcanized rubber.

Goodyear's daughter later wrote, "As I was passing in and out of the room. I casually observed a little piece of gum which he was holding near the fire, and I also noticed than he was unusually animated by some discovery which he made. He nailed the of gum outside the kitchen door in the intense cold. In the morning he brought it in, holding it up exultantly. He had found it perfectly flexible, as it was when he put it out." Goodyear patented the process. He spent a lot time in court defending his relights and never gained great financial success from his invention.

The air-inflated pneumatic rubber tires was invented by Scotsman J.B. Dunlop in 1887. After that the rubber industry really took off. Today, the tire industry — dominated by Bridgestone, Michelin, Continental and Goodyear— is the biggest consumer of rubber. High prices for butadiebce, an oil product used to make synthetic rubber, has caused tire maker to turn to natural rubber to make tires. Higher oil and rubber prices have caused tire companies to raise their prices.

In the “Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire”, Joe Jackson wrote: By 1860, "it had become obvious . . . that with the discovery of vulcanization, rubber would be the world's most useful plastic," employed in everything from telegraph wires to transatlantic cables to railroads to any number of essential applications in modern warfare. Between 1880 and 1910, "the three great developments dependent on rubber — electricity, bicycles, and automobiles — increased its worldwide demand at a rate that nearly doubled production every five, then every three years."

Rubber Boom

Rubber tree plantation
The great rubber boom occurred at the end of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. Practically overnight the price increased 400 percent and rich and poor alike came to Brazil to seek their fortune. Manaus — on the Amazon River about 1,600 kilometers from the Atlantic Ocean — was the center of the rubber boom. Situated near the confluence of the Amazon and Negros Rivers and founded by Portuguese colonists in 1699, it has traditionally been a boom and bust town. Before the rubber boom of the 19th century, it was a small insignificant outpost inhabited by prospectors and adventurers.

During the rubber boom between 1879 and 1907, Manaus was like a European city transplanted to the Amazon. During the boom years, rubber barons erected huge mansions, showed off their bejeweled mistresses and sent their laundry to France for cleaning. Splendid architectural masterpieces like the Amazonas Theater and Belle Epoque-style houses remain. .

The Teatro Amazonas is an extraordinary domed opera house in Manaus that hosted Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt, Nijinksy and other great European performers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Financed by a rich rubber baron and completed in 1896, this 656-seat theatere boasts French ironwork, Italian marble, a neo-classical façade and a multicolored dome covered with green, yellow, blue and red Alsatian tiles. The art nouveau interior is decorated with a huge ceiling painting by Domenico De Angelis. When the boom went bust, the opera house went into decline; it was restored in 1990. In 1997, the Teatro Amazona reopened to performances after an $8 million restoration.

Rubber barons captured and enslaved Indians and built an unfinished train into the jungle.T he Werner Herzog film "Fitzcarraldo" celebrates the opera mad Latino by the same name, who after Caruso in the opera house of Manaus, tried to drag a 320-ton steamboat over cloudmountain to bring opera to his own home town. The great rubber boom ended in 1907, when cheaper rubber from massive plantations in Asia flooded the market. There was another boom during World War II when refugees from the poverty-stricken northeast tapped rubber to make into tires for jeeps and bombers.

Henry Wickham — the Man Who Stole Rubber

Rubber trees were identified and studied in the Amazon by Sir Henry Wickham, who shipped 70,000 seeds — three-quarters of a ton worth — to Kew Garden. In the 1870s he and his wife were having a hard time trying to establish a tobacco and sugar plantation in the lower Amazon town of Santarém. After showed up in London with the rubber tree seeds British authorities were appalled when he demanded payment for every one of the s 70,000 seeds. Seedlings were sent from there to Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The British made a fortune with massive rubber plantations in Malaysia. Today, billions of dollars worth of the stuff is produced and profitably traded every year.

Jonathan Yardley, wrote in the Washington Post: “On June 10, 1876, a self-styled explorer and adventurer named Henry Wickham arrived at Liverpool with his wife, Violet, having sailed from Brazil. He hastened to London and the offices of the Royal Botanic Gardens, commonly known as Kew Gardens, where he immediately presented the director, Joseph Dalton Hooker, with a sample of the precious cargo he had brought: 70,000 seeds of "the valuable rubber...its proper botanical name being Hevea brasiliensis, or simply hevea. [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, March 30, 2008]

Wickham had committed, an act of "biopiracy." He had stolen seeds native to the Amazon forest and made them available to imperial Britain for planting in its Asian colonies. “Joe Jackson wrote in his excellent book “The Thief at the End of the World”: “Thus it is no small irony that Wickham, though hungry for fame at a time when "the explorer was a central hero in an escape fantasy that gripped the British isles, a champion who trod the earth's wild places and interpreted what he saw through English eyes," was himself not unduly avaricious and whiled away his last years "poor, frightfully poor, spending most of his time at the Royal Colonial Club, surrounded by fellow imperialists, each spinning their separate tales."

Yardley wrote: Wickham was born in 1846 into a modestly prosperous family for which everything changed with his father's sudden death four years later, leaving his mother to support three small children through her very marginal work as a milliner. Henry seems to have been a dreamy boy who for a long time wanted to be an artist and showed some talent at it, but he was determined to regain such status as his family had lost and, like many in those days, thought that could be accomplished in the Americas.

So in the summer of 1866, the 20-year-old Wickham headed for the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua. Two years later he had found his way to the Orinoco, working as a rubber tapper, aiming to set himself up on a plantation and to enjoy all the prestige that a planter's life entailed. He never really achieved that dream, there or anywhere else, but he learned a great deal about rubber. He also learned a great deal about tropical insects and tropical diseases, all of which Jackson describes in vivid, mildly nauseating detail. On any number of occasions Wickham could have died, but clearly he was a survivor, perhaps in part because he inhabited his own universe. Many years later he was deftly described as "a large-framed idealist, dreamy, sympathetic, artistic, a great wanderer and naturalist in tropical America, but not well qualified for official or commercial business."

More than anything, he was the right man at the right moment. He arrived in South America at "the beginning of what investors in New York and London called the Rubber Age." Wickham was more an instrument of rubber's hegemony than a master of it, but the rubber boom would not have taken place as it did without him. No doubt someone else would have figured out how to smuggle hevea seeds out of Brazil and into the arms of Mother England, but Wickham was the one who pulled it off.

He had been in the jungle for a decade before he brought the seeds to Kew. He had tried his luck in various places with mostly discouraging results, but he declined to be discouraged. After yet another failure, this one only a couple of years before he stole the seeds, he became "a true believer in the British doctrine of world transformation, that nature's secrets could be secured and replanted — all for the improvement of man, the empire and her queen." When Kew found out about him and offered him a reward should he succeed in bringing rubber seeds out of the jungle, he seems to have accepted the assignment not so much in hopes of personal gain — though he was scarcely without such desire — as from a peculiarly Victorian sense of patriotism.

Wickham died in 1928 is loathed in Brazil to this day. In Europe, he became a celebrity for creating a new industry. He wore a nautilus-shell tie clasp and a waistcoat fastened with silver chains, and sported curled mustache that hung below bottom of his face like a tropical snake. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, December 12, 2015]

Book:“The Thief at the End of the World, Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire” by Joe Jackson (Viking, 2007)

Rubber, Biopiracy and British Colonialism and Profits

Rubber tree in Vietnam.
Jonathan Yardley, wrote in the Washington Post,"Henry's theft was no different than that by scores of others before him — and yet, in a fundamental way, it was. He did not steal one seed, or even a hundred; he stole seventy thousand...Thirty-four years after Henry's theft, the British rubber grown in the Far East from Henry's seeds would flood the world market, collapsing the Amazon economy in a single year and placing in the hands of a single power a major world resource. In 1884, the state of Amazonas levied a heavy export tax on rubber seeds, and in 1918, Brazil banned their export entirely. By 1920, when Henry was being knighted and called the 'father of the rubber industry' in Great Britain, Brazilians dubbed him the 'executioner of Amazonas,' 'the prince of thieves,' and called his theft 'hardly defensible in international law.' " [Source: Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, March 30, 2008]

“The effects of Wickham's theft were nothing short of stupendous. Though it took a long time for his seeds to take root and begin to produce rubber trees — a period in which Wickham was scorned by Britain's scientific establishment — eventually "hevea seeds were sent all over the world — to Selangor in Malaya, Malacca, British Borneo, India, Burma, German East Africa, Portuguese Mozambique, and Java," and in 1913, just as World War I was about to begin — with the huge demand for rubber it would generate — Britain's triumph was sealed:

"That year, the British plantations turned the corner and produced 47,618 tons of high-quality, acetate-cured rubber compared to Brazil's 39,370 tons. In 1916, Brazil produced as much as ever, but the game had now changed. In three more years, British plantations would produce enough hevea to fill 95 percent of the world's need for high-quality rubber. Such fantastic supply seemed unimaginable just a few years earlier, and the price plummeted from the $3.06 high in 1910 to 66 cents per pound in 1915. By 1921, when Great Britain controlled the world market, plantation rubber sold for 12-21 cents a pound."

Wickham's story is dramatic and interesting in and of itself, but obviously its ramifications go far beyond its immediate details. "Biopiracy," as Jackson says, at its core "is about power and its imbalance — the historical fact that poorer countries have been high in resources, while richer nations want — and can take — what they have." What Wickham did "became a symbol for every act of exploitation visited on the Third World" and raised an issue that probably never will be resolved: "Who owns the earth's riches?" Though "current international law holds that nations own their resources," common practice remains that "nature, and her 'improvement,' belongs to mankind," or, more bluntly, to whoever has the power to control it.

Wickham, like all the more celebrated explorer/adventurers of his day, is a creature of the past. Big corporations now do the dirty work of extracting the Third World's resources and delivering them for the convenience of those of us in more privileged circumstances. But his remains a cautionary tale, as Jackson well understands. Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how it is done and by whom. Trade agreements that open the United States and other major markets to goods from poorer countries redress the balance to a degree, but the wildly disproportionate consumption of the world's resources by its richest countries continues, with no end in sight.

Rubber Plantations in Asia

Some of Sir Henry Wickham's seeds were sent to Sri Lanka and Malaysia and after a few decades revolutionized the economy in Southeast Asia. In 1901 British planters introduced rubber trees into the Malay Peninsula on a large scale. Seeds also made their way to French, and Dutch colonies in Asia. The soils and climatic conditions there were highly suited to rubber cultivation. In Thailand early government restrictions on foreign investment led to development of the industry by local smallholders, usually subsistence rice farmers who were able to start rubber tree stands on the relatively abundant free land in the area. By 1910 more than 50 million South American trees were growing in Asia. The following year, as Asian rubber flooded the market, prices in Brazil collapsed and rubber in Brazil went from being hugely profitable to bust in a few months.

The rubber industry got off to a slow start in Asia and didn’t really blossom until Brazilian rubber merchants tried to corner the market in 1905 and raised rubber prices high enough so that plantation owners in Asia could maker a profit. By 1915, three million acres of land was devoted to rubber in the Asia. Land under rubber cultivation in Thailand expanded rapidly in the 1930s, consisting mainly of smallholdings controlled by Chinese, Thai, and Thai Malays rather than large, European-owned plantations, as in other Asian countries.

Latex could be grown much more efficiently and profitably on plantations in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries than in Brazil. Asian latex was much quality than wild latex form Brazil, which was filled with impurities. Also many trees in Brazil have been lost to the South American leaf blight. Southeast Asia became ground zero for rubber production. H. brasiliensis farms and plantations were started Indonesia, and the southern parts of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Nouveau riche plantation owners bought up real estate in Singapore.Today, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand produce three quarters of the world's rubber as well as three quarters of the world's palm oil and large percentage of the coffee and cocoa crops. These crops were hit hard by the 1997 El Niño and their prices rose significantly.

Fordlandia — Henry Ford’s Ill-Fated Rubber Venture

Plantations in the Amazon didn't work because trees of similar species that are placed close together are vulnerable to leaf blight. The famous automaker Henry Ford didn’t realize this. He created the world’s biggest rubber plantation called Fordlandia on 2.5 million acres of the lower Amazon Basin in the 1920s. Ford lost a fortune after the blight destroyed a large portion of trees. He had planted his trees too close together, allowing the leaf blight to spread. [Source: William Ellis, National Geographic, December 1988]

Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic: In 1927 Henry Ford obtained his land on the Tapajós River, in the lower Amazon Basin. Detesting his dependence on Asian rubber, Ford had decided to create his own supply. Thousands of workers hacked out a new, midwestern-style city from the rain forest, stocking it with rows of clapboard bungalows, Baptist churches, and a Main Street with American bakeries, restaurants, tailors, cobblers, and movie theaters. Fordlandia, as the project was quickly nicknamed, had the only 18-hole golf course in the Amazon. The scale was grandiose: The city was big enough to house several hundred thousand people. All told, Ford spent about $20 million to build it, close to $300 million in today’s money.

“The project was that rarest of events, an unqualified disaster. Incredibly, the company laid out a rubber plantation half the size of New Jersey without consulting a single person who knew anything about growing H. brasiliensis. For starters, the property was unsuitable for large-scale rubber cultivation. The soil was too sandy and the rainfall too seasonal...In 1935 the inevitable occurred. Fordlandia’s rubber trees were denuded in just a few months — an ecological cataclysm, an economic ruin. Ten years later Ford quietly unloaded the land for pennies on the dollar. In the seven decades since, every attempt to create a rubber plantation in Central or South America has failed. In the end, the fungus always won.

While Fordlandia was operating, many workers did not like living there. Ford demanded that residents eat U.S.-style food, attend Baptist church services, and forgo alcohol. The shell of of Fordlandia’s power plant remains. Some people still live in houses built by Ford.

Competition from Synthetics

Many types of synthetic rubber were invented in the 1920s and 30, primarily in laboratories in the United States and Germany, but they did not become widely used until World War II, when the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia caused emergency shortages of natural rubber. At that time rubber was vitally important as a component of weapons and war hardware and in making them.

Many traditional rubber products are made with synthetics. But because synthetic substitutes made from petroleum are getting more costly and because radial tires require large amounts of rubber, natural rubber is making a comeback.

Spurred on by high oil prices and increased demand rubber prices doubled in the 1980s. The market then collapsed in the late 1990s. The price for some kinds of rubber dropped from $1,600 a ton in 1996 to $500 a ton in 1999, when oil prices collapsed, making synthetic rubber much cheaper than natural rubber.

Declining prices and competition forced many farmers to abandon rubber, and rubber tappers looked for new kinds of work. To revive the rubber industry, researchers are experimenting with high yield rubber trees and pushing rubber bearing on building foundations to offer shock absorption in earthquakes.

In 2004, Japanese researchers reported they had made rubber from edible wild mushrooms and that the rubber was superior to regular rubber in that it lacked a protein that cause allergies.

Rubber Innovations from in China

Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic: When rubber first came to Southeast Asia, it could grow only in the warm and wet equatorial forests of what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern tips of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar — places that mirrored rubber’s Amazonian home. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, December 12, 2015]

“During the Korean War the United States imposed rubber sanctions on China. Furious, China developed varieties of H. brasiliensis that could grow in the relatively cool district of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province, on the border with Laos and Myanmar. Xishuangbanna represents just 0.2 percent of China’s land area, but it houses many of China’s species: 16 percent of its plants, 22 percent of its animals, and 36 percent of its birds. All are now threatened by rubber. Armed with the new, cold-tolerant trees, the Chinese military established state-run plantations there. Small farmers later filled in most of the land that was left. Today you can stand on a hilltop in Xishuangbanna and see nothing but rubber trees in every direction.

Xishuangbanna isn’t nearly big enough to satisfy Asia’s demand. Promoted with state programs, sought after by Chinese corporations, H. brasiliensis has spread through Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam like suburban sprawl, replacing swaths of native forest along the way. Global natural-rubber production has jumped from 4.4 million tons in 1983 to more than 13 million tons today.

Image Source: Mongabay mongabay.com ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior” by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2022

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