At its heart, colonialism was not so much a quest to dominate peoples as it was to dominate environments.

Take the case of Hevea brasilienes, the rubber tree that transformed our lives. British imperial botanists introduced this tree into alien environments, hoping it would flourish. It did, thus meeting the growing demand for rubber throughout the empire, soon to become insatiable in the age of the automobile. As a result, fortunes were made, nations were built (so much easier to administer all those rubber plantations from a single hub) and wars were fought.

(Yes, wars. Why do you think the Japanese went after Malaya? It was so they could gain access to a crucial source of rubber, which, as you might imagine, was an important component in all sorts of war machinery.)

The Hevea comes to the Old World tropics from the New World tropics. For reasons unknown, in its native habitat, the Hevea is confined to a semi-circle on the right bank of the Amazon river. Whenever the Hevea tries to overreach, a tree blight, a fungus called the microcyclus ulei, sends the tree scurrying back.1

The native tribes of the Amazon had known of and used latex (the sticky milk from the rubber tree) for quite a while, and other European colonisers had applied native technologies to limited industrial purposes like the manufacture of  rubber shoes that unfortunately stuck to the pavement in the hot summer. But it was only after Charles Goodyear invented vulcanising–the process of combining rubber with sulphur to “de-stickify” it–that demand for rubber took off.

 

But the jungles of the Amazon would not cooperate. Demand for rubber from the Hevea vastly outstripped the supply, and the British could not get their hands on enough to take advantage of the economic opportunity.

 

Colonial officials would not back down in the face of seeming defeat. Clements Markham of the British Foreign Office came up with the idea of transplanting rubber trees from the New World tropics to the Old World. After all, he had done the same with the cinchona tree (the source of quinine) with much success.2

Two men, Henry A. Wickham and Robert Cross, set off to bring rubber seeds back from Brazil. Cross, the timid scientist, confined himself to the more easily accessible swamp lands, where he collected the less robust specimens of Hevea. But Wickham, the intrepid adventurer, knew better. He ventured inland, to the highlands where the best specimens were found.

Not one to let facts get in the way, in his account of events Wickham told a story of cunning and subterfuge, of how he smuggled the seeds out of Brazil, thwarting not just customs officials (never mind that there actually wasn’t any law against the export of rubber seeds) but nature itself. His version of events fit well with the overall narrative of British daring and enterprise, and so it stuck.

Although both Cross’s seeds and Wickham’s seeds were eventually shipped to the Old World tropics in June 1877, the records indicate that it was Wickham’s hardier stock that survived the journey and went on to father the vast rubber plantations in the Old World.