The biopirate's dream
Joe Jackson begins The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire with an old Amazonian saying: God is great but the forest is greater. He then proves this adage by telling the tale of Henry Wickham, English adventurer, amateur botanist and "biopirate" extraordinaire. In 1876, Wickham smuggled thousands of rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil. It is a story of hubris that ultimately involved Henry Ford in one of several ill-fated attempts to tame the great Amazon forests.
Henry Wickham was a failure at most things, but he was not the sort to give up. Indeed, he would have died early in his South American adventures if his nature had been anything other than indefatigable. Jackson vividly portrays the rigors of life in the tropics, where cholera, malaria, vampire bats, electric eels and a host of other plagues make life tenuous in the best of times. As he notes of the British subjects who loyally pushed the boundaries of empire, "The things one took for granted at home - clean water, a bath, no killer fish in the tub - were luxuries out here." Wickham survived, however, finally finding himself in the right place at the right time as Britain schemed to plant its own source of rubber, a natural resource vital to modern technology.
The quest to steal the founding seeds of vast rubber plantations created a gold-rush mentality in which, as Jackson describes it, "The white milk that dribbled like blood became a mirror: In rubber's slick, obsidian surface, each man saw his need." Wickham needed a way out of the putrefaction of the jungle, and this incentive produced success that earned him a knighthood, ensured Britain's dominance and plunged Brazil into economic disaster. And as with most grand actions, the consequences echoed down through the decades, creating a litany of failed efforts to harness the wealth of the jungle, efforts that continue today in the great forests of the world.
Chris Scott writes from the temperate climate of Nashville.