Friday, May 16, 2008
Henry Wickham was responsible for gathering 70,000 seeds from the rubber-bearing tree, Hevea brasiliensis, in the Manaus area of Brazil in 1876. These had been gathered at the behest of the eminent Victorian botanist Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of Kew. Wickham is a key figure in the story. Even though some people (and he himself) may have over-rated the contribution that he made to the subsequent establishment of the rubber plantation industry, there is no doubt that in 1873 he was the right man, at the right time, and at the right place.
Wickham, who was at that time living and working near Santerem in the Rio Tapajos region of the upper Amazon, was already interested in Hevea, and had published some information on the tree, thus satisfying Markham that he would be a suitable person to make a collection. Markham then arranged that the British consul in Belem should be instructed to obtain seeds of Hevea, with a mention of "a Mr Wickham, at Santerem, who may do the job".
The story of the way in which Wickham organized his famous collection of 1876 has been told many times, often with little reference to the facts. In later years, Wickham himself encouraged the idea that his seeds had been loaded aboard a ship under the nose of a gunboat which "would have blown us out of the water had her commander suspected what we were doing". Dean expressed the view that it was essential to Wickham's subsequent and largely unsuccessful attempts to achieve fame and fortune that he should foster the notion that his operation was attended by extreme personal danger. It is curious that no comprehensive biography of Wickham has been written, but much information on his life is provided in a series of articles by Lane (1953).
Sir Henry Wickham
In June 1876 seventy thousand of Wickham's seeds arrived at Kew Gardens; only 2700 seem to have germinated. According to the Kew records (see Baulkwill, 1989), 1900 of the seedlings were sent to the Botanic Gardens at Colombo, where 90 per cent survived; 18 went to the Botanic Gardens at Bogor, Indonesia, where two survived; and 50 went to Singapore where probably none survived.
During the same year, there was another collection of Hevea in Brazil, by Robert Cross, who departed from England after the arrival of the Wickham seeds; he returned in November with 1000 seedlings collected in the Lower Amazon.
The subsequent fate of these is a mystery; the general opinion seems to be that none of Cross's material survived, though Baulkwill suggests that "some small admixture of Cross genetic material cannot be entirely ruled out". This matter is of some importance, because the Wickham and Cross collections were made in different regions of the Amazon, so that their materials would certainly have possessed differing genetic compositions. The probability is that the entire Hevea industry has developed from Wickham's 2700 seedlings. collected in the Upper Amazon, a very narrow genetic base.
As just noted, during 1876 seedlings from Kew Gardens were received in Sri Lanka, Singapore (and subsequently Malaysia) and Indonesia. In India, the first were received in 1878, from Sri Lanka. It was in fact Sri Lanka which was the centre of early activity, the Heneratgoda Botanic Gardens in Colombo becoming a major source of rubber seeds, for domestic use and also for export. Much valuable early development work was done in Colombo, for example on latex flow and the use of acetic acid to coagulate latex (Parkin, 1910), and on diseases (Fetch, 1911).