The Thief at the End of the World; Book Review

Henry Wickham

Boim, Brazil in Amazonia

thief at end of the world

The Thief At the End of the World: Book Review, Oct. 21, 2022

I am currently reading “The Thief at the End of the World” by Joe Jackson. The book is about Henry Wickham the 19th century British Victorian explorer who went to the Amazon to get rich on rubber.

The Industrial Era had begun. Machines need steel, fuel, and rubber. Rubber for gaskets, hoses, bushings, and tires.

But the only good source of rubber came from the Amazon. It was called Para Fine. No one knew where it came from. The natives weren’t saying. But it was deep in the forest.

The Amazon tribes have a legend that they must protect the rubber tree from invaders. They must keep her location secret.

Henry Wickham went to the Amazon a few times. He would always fail to establish a rubber plantation. He almost died several times of malaria and almost cutting his foot off with a hatchet.

Wickham convinced his wife and in-laws to come to the Amazon from Britain. Most of them died from disease. Wickham figured out that he had to leave the Amazon or he’d die.

But how? He was broke. But he had a connection with Kew Gardens in London. Kew Gardens was run by ambitious botanists who knew that if they could procure exotic plants in demand for the Empire, money, and honor from the Queen would come their way. They had already succeeded with quinine and tea. Bio-theft of exotic plants from the

Amazon and China that were then raised in India to the British Empire’s benefit. Now it was rubber’s turn.

So Henry Wickham had a contract from Kew Gardens to collect the seeds of the rubber trees that provided Para Fine rubber.

Do to Wickham’s previous experience he knew where to look and how to preserve the seeds which would go rancid if not shipped to England properly.

Perhaps by luck or knowledge, Wickham found the mother lode of Para Fine rubber trees.

They were on a high plateau west of Boim, Brazil. Boim was a trading post founded by four families of Sephardic Jews from Tangiers, Morocco. The Jews became rich on the trade of jungle goods for manufactured goods acting as the middlemen.

Going west of Boim there is first a low plateau of a 100’, but further west was the high plateau of 300’. This plateau had the thick black soil that was very fertile.

Here the black rubber tree grew. There were three types, black, red, and white all named after the color of their inner bark.

Black produced the best rubber; Para Fine.

Wickham found the Mother Tree. It was huge and so were its progeny around it. Years later a Cohen, one of the Sephardic Jews from Boim, found the stump of the Mother Tree. It took seven men holding outstretched arms to cover its circumference.

The natives had learned that by applying kerosene to the cuts in a tree’s bark the latex would flow more easily into their harvest cups. But of course, over time, the kerosene killed the tree.

And so it goes does it not? Man finds a wonder of nature and then kills it through greed. It has happened so many times.

A Libertarian would argue that if the Mother Tree and the grove were privately owned, the tree would not have been killed by greed, for more money was to be made by keeping it alive.

The tragedy of the commons as they say.

I’m not done with the book, but I know that Kew Gardens gets the seeds and sends them to Malaya, Ceylon, and India. The British Empire corners the rubber market. The Amazon tribes go broke.

So it goes.. TJM

Rubber Trees

Tapping a Rubber Tree

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