Bio-Pirate! Henry Wickham’s Audacious Brazilian Rubber Removal

An audacious truth or an embellished fiction? Sir Henry WickhamHistory credits Sir Henry Alexander Wickham (b.1846, d.1928),  a British explorer, with bringing 70,000 rubber seeds from the plant, Hevea brasiliensis, in the Santarem area of Brazil to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, London in 1876. These seeds would go on to be shipped to the Far East to establish rubber plantations expanding the rubber industry and breaking Brazil’s monopoly. The export laws in Brazil at this time did not prevent Wickham’s seed gathering and removal, but there is evidence that he may have misrepresented his cargo as ‘exceedingly delicate botanical specimens specially designated for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty’s own Royal Gardens at Kew’ in order to convince the Brazilian customs officials to grant him an export license. He had hoped to be sent to the Far East to help establish the new rubber plantations; however, Dr. Joseph Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew refused to let him go.  Evidently Wickham had been promised £10 per 1,000 viable seeds delivered to Kew, but unfortunately he was only rewarded with £700 for his efforts. Hevea brasilienisAccording to the website, Bouncing Balls, there are doubts to the veracity of his story and thoughts that he may have embellished his role. While it is known that he was in the Amazon at that time, there are questions to the collection and the shipping of the seeds. Regardless of what may have actually happened he is known throughout history as committing the world’s first act of bio-piracy by removing Brazilian rubber plan seeds, shipping them off to England and starting the rubber industry in South-East Asia.

4 thoughts on “Bio-Pirate! Henry Wickham’s Audacious Brazilian Rubber Removal

  1. Not remotely the first act of bio-piracy. Arguably anyone taking cultivated seeds abroad, i.e. the first humans crossing the land-bridge into Europe, was doing that! But certainly the Byzantine monks smuggling silkworms and mulberry seeds back from China inside hollowed-out pilgrims’ staves, some 1500 years ago, long predates Wickham.

  2. Pingback: The Quinine Chronicles: Devil Powders, Bio-Pirates, and the Golden Age of Ecological Imperialism – Letters From Mozambique

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