In his nonfiction thriller, "The Thief at the End of the World," Virginia author Joe Jackson profiles an adventurer of reckless courage, touching ineptitude and self-destructive ambition. Wickham's theft of the rubber-tree seeds seems to have been one of the few things he got right.
“The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power and the Seeds of Empire”
by Joe Jackson
Viking, 391 pp., $27.95
In 1876, British traveler Henry Wickham stole a botanical treasure that changed the course of history. He made off with 70,000 seeds of Hevea brasiliensis, also known as the Para rubber tree. Wickham smuggled them from the jungles of Brazil to Queen Victoria’s London scientists, and brought about “the first worldwide monopoly of a strategic resource in human history.”
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In his nonfiction thriller, “The Thief at the End of the World,” Virginia author Joe Jackson profiles an adventurer of reckless courage, touching ineptitude and self-destructive ambition. Wickham’s theft of the rubber-tree seeds seems to have been one of the few things he got right. Except that he married Violet Case Carter, who followed him to the dark ends of the Earth in sickness, dirt, disease, poverty, pestilence and constant danger. She finally gave up on Henry when, at age 50, she was left alone for 19 days on a remote, filthy island in New Guinea where cannibalism was known to be customary.
Wickham’s inspiration and undoing was his vision of himself as a planter in some remote corner of the planet where he might get rich growing rubber trees, or coffee, or bananas or copra or papayas. He tried them all, and failed, in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Brazil, Belize, Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Rubber was becoming the most prized natural resource in the world when Wickham began his adventures. Then electrical insulation, bicycles, auto tires and war machines came along. Rubber became the center of frenzied, violent international competition that continued until synthetic rubber took over, shortly before World War II.
Before the stolen Brazilian seeds and their progeny took root, there was no such thing as a rubber plantation. One of the world’s most coveted resources was drained from wild trees, drip by drip, in the world’s most difficult and dangerous corners, in conditions that strain the imagination. Jackson, an investigative reporter and skilled storyteller, describes vividly the atrocious slavery surrounding the harvest of wild rubber in central Africa and in Brazil’s Amazon Basin.
During the late 1800s, enslaved rubber workers died at nearly the rate of one death for each auto tire produced. In the early 20th century, competition from Britain’s Asian plantations — trees descended from the seeds Wickham smuggled from Brazil in 1876 — forced the slavers out of business, destroyed the economy of the Amazon Basin and further enriched the Empire.
Henry Wickham was an old man by the time the British establishment grudgingly recognized his contribution. Those in control of England’s botanical experiments dismissed his knowledge of rubber-tree cultivation. His lack of credentials and his air of self-importance were cause for “distaste” among academics. But England’s vast plantings in Asia, those descendants of the “celebrated seed snatch,” filled 95 percent of the world’s rubber demand in the early 1900s and enabled Britain to survive World War I.
When at last he was knighted by Queen Victoria, Wickham was 74, desperately poor and without Violet, the love of his life. “They’d loved each other deeply,” Jackson says. “But rubber and the madness and greed it spawned had come between them. Both died alone.”
“The Thief at the End of the World” is clearly the product of remarkable research and a journalist’s feel for what to keep and what to leave out. Wickham’s heroic failures and his neglected love are narrated with poignancy and humor. There are touches of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in passages concerning the jungle and the way it “robbed a man of his judgment and fueled the most grandiose dreams.” But more than Conrad, Jackson obviously has a good time telling a terrific story.
Bob Simmons spent more than four decades as a full-time broadcast and print journalist. He is a former commentator for KING-TV and former writer for the Seattle Weekly.