The Thief at the End of the World : Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire Hardback
by Joe Jackson
In 1876 a man named Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the rainforests of Brazil and delivered them to Victorian England's most prestigious scientists at Kew Gardens.
Those seeds, planted around the world in England's colonial outposts, gave rise to the great rubber boom of the early 20th century - an explosion of entrepreneurial and scientific industry that would change the world.
The story of how Wickham got his hands on those seeds - a sought-after prize for which many suffered and died, and for which he faced deadly insects, poisonous snakes, horrific illnesses, and, ultimately, the neglect and contempt of the very government he wished to serve - is the stuff of legend.
His idealism and determination, as well as his outright thievery, perfectly encapsulate the essential nature of Great Britain's colonial adventure in South America.In this utterly engaging account of obsession, greed, bravery, and betrayal, Joe Jackson brings to life a classic Victorian fortune hunter and the empire that fuelled, then abandoned, him. In his single-minded persuit of glory, Wickham faced deadly insects, poisonous snakes, horrific illnesses, and, ultimately, the neglect and contempt of the very government he wished to serve.
His idealism and determination, as well as his outright thievery, perfectly encapsulate the essential nature of the Great Britain's colonial adventure in South America. "The Thief at the End of the World" is a thrilling true story of reckless courage and ambition.
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 432 pages, Illustrations
- Publisher: Duckworth Overlook
- Publication Date: 21/08/2008
- Category: Biography: historical, political & military
- ISBN: 9780715637937
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Review by pierthinker
Writing about obscure events in history and showing Western European colonialism, especially British colonialism, in the worst possible light is all the rage these days. This book does both, but is saved by the quality of the writing and by the extraordinary character of the man it describes.More than the story of how Britain seized the initiative in becoming the dominant rubber producer at a time when that material was comng into its own as a key component of technology, this is the life of Henry Wickham, the man who found and transported rubber plant seeds from Brazil to Kew Gardens and then on to the Far East where the Malay rubber plantations were born.Wickham was a second-rate chancer who managed to screw up evrything he did, had the most appalling bad luck and was turned over by almost everyone he met. In every case he just shrugged his shoulders, dreamt up some new scheme and started again. The core of this book is how one man was able to take so much disappointment and failure and see it all as just the cut and thrust of everyday life. Even when the only morsel of love in his life, his long-suffering wife Violet, left him for good it seems to have been like so much water off a duck’s back.That this is a story not told before and of material import to the growth of the Britsh Empire and, truth be told, to the development of modern technology in the first half of the 20th centiry - would rubber have been kept in such strong suply with a reliance on wild plant harvesting in Brazil?- is a major contribution to our understanding of the rise of the industrial west. The most important contribution, however, is the picture of a certain type of man who saw adversity and failure as unfathomable steps along the way to riches and fame in the outer reaches of the known, and unknown, world.