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Home > Timeline > 1876 - 1913 > Sir Henry Alexander Wickham


Born: 29 May 1846 in Hampstead, London.

Died: 27 September 1928 in London.

Sir Henry Wickham is the man history credits with bringing rubber seeds from Amazonia to the Botanical Gardens at Kew in 1876. Here some 3.75% of his total delivery germinated and many were subsequently shipped to the Far East (Sri Lanka, Singapore and India) to form the nucleus of today’s natural rubber plantations throughout that area. We will return to that event in some detail later but first to his life as a whole.

Henry was the eldest son of a solicitor who died four years after his birth in the London Cholera epidemic. He was, inevitably, somewhat spoilt and had an unexceptional schooling and early life. He showed some talent for sketching and painting and this was to provide a pictorial insight into his later travels.

Henry Wickham as a young man

In 1866, aged 20, he set off for Central America and arrived in Nicaragua on October 22nd. From there he travelled up country to spend nine months catching exotic birds, the feathers of which he sent to London for the ladies’ hat trade. By the end of the summer of 1867 he was back in England. A year later saw him in the Orinoco delta and, again, he travelled up country tapping wild rubber trees and eventually crossing to the river Negro which led him to Manaos at the river’s confluence with the Amazon. He followed the Amazon to Pará and then shipped to England, noting that he would return to Santarem, at the confluence of the Tapajos and Amazon rivers, for his next adventure.

In England he married Violet, daughter of W.H.J Carter who was a publisher with a bookshop/library at 12, Regent Street, London and who, it is generally believed, financed much of Wickham’s later travels and (mis)adventures. Indeed he published Wickham’s first book in 1872 (which had the snappy title: Rough Notes of a Journey Through The Wilderness from Trinidad to Pará, Brazil, by way of the Great Cateracts of the Orinoco, Atabapo, and Rio Negro) and it is probable that Henry met Violet through this connection. There were to be no progeny. Soon after the wedding, in the summer of 1871 they set sail for Santarem, accompanied by Wickham’s mother, sister Harriette (sic) and his younger brother John. Harriette and John married, respectively, Frank Pilditich and Christine Frances Pedley in Pará in July 1873 but by 1876 Mrs Wickham senior, Harriette and John’s mother-in-law was all killed by the Amazonian climate. They are buried together just outside Santarem together with George Morely (possibly one of the labourers the Wickhams took with them) and fourteen-year old Mercia Jane Ferrett, Henry’s servant.

Henry & Violet's first view of Brazil

Wickham had also taken some labourers from England with him with the idea of growing sugar, manioc and tobacco (rubber was not yet in the picture) but they soon deserted him and he was forced to move several times in an attempt to find reasonable workers. Eventually the family returned to Santarem where there was a group of ex-confederate soldiers who worked as a commune, thus avoiding the problems with local labour. All this time Wickham’s lifestyle was progressing smoothly downhill although his second home was a marginal improvement on his first! The illustrated sketches are all signed by Henry and it is believed that the lady in the sketch below is Violet.


The Wickhams’ first house near Santarem in 1871

The Wickham home in 1876

During the first six months of 1876, Wickham’s ‘extraction’ of some 70,000 rubber seeds from Amazonia and their transportation to Kew, via Liverpool, took place but the complexities of this story merit its being given separate consideration at the end of this short biography. At this point all we should note is that Wickham and his wife were back in England by June 1876 and in July and August Wickham was trying to persuade the Director of the Botanical Gardens at Kew (Dr Joseph Hooker) to employ him to accompany some of the young rubber seedlings to areas of the tropics then under Britain’s control. Hooker rejected the idea, having no proof of, or faith in, Wickham’s arboricultural expertise so Wickham too the £700 paid to him for delivering the seeds and set out, with his wife for another new life in Queensland where he intended to grow tobacco and coffee.

Life was never easy for him! A change in the wind direction caused the fire he had started to clear scrubland to set fire to the thatched cottage which he had built and the building, with all their possessions, was destroyed. A second dwelling was built – this time with a corrugated iron roof which was ripped off in a storm. Finally he was left with massive debts when his partner, for whom he had stood guarantor, walked away from the business. He sold up, cleared the debt and returned to England.

Shortly after his return in November 1886 he was on his way to British Honduras where he obtained a government post. His wife joined him and for once her diaries showed a degree of contentment with their social existence. Wickham however longed for life in the wild and started another plantation 60 miles from ‘civilization’. On this occasion there were problems with his lease and it is worthy of note that during his long legal argument over the land rights he petitioned Queen Victoria directly. She wrote on his solicitor’s statement: ”Let justice be done. Victoria R and I”. The ‘justice’ finished with his again having to sell up and return to England in poverty in 1893.

Next he turned to the sea and took a concession to develop a small group of coral islands to the south-east of Papua New Guinea, the Conflict Group, which turned out to be aptly named because after two years without seeing another white woman, his wife had finally had enough and returned to England, never to see her husband again. She died only a month after him. As always he was hampered by a lack of investment capital and negligible business acumen and although he had one more try at developing a rubber plantation on New Guinea he eventually gave up these enterprises and returned to England, his final return being in 1911.

Even in England he continued to speak his mind on how rubber trees should be planted, cultivated and tapped and he invented various devices such as tapping knives and rubber-smoking machines. As the reader might expect by now, his ideas on rubber cultivation were contrary to the pragmatic ‘best practice’ developed in the Far East whilst his inventions were commercial failures.

In 1911 he at last gained some financial reward from the rubber industry with the gift of a silver salver, a £1000 cheque and an annuity purchased with a further £1,000. In 1920 he was knighted for “Services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East” and in 1926 the American Oil magnate Edgar B Davis presented him with a cheque for £6,000 as an 80th birthday present. Soon afterwards the British Government of Malaysia gave him £8,000. Two years later he was dead.

Wickham and the rubber seed ‘migration’ to England

Sir Clements Markham had received a knighthood for "re-locating" the cinchona (or quinine) tree to India, and he was looking for new ideas. The thought of repeating the process with the Hevea tree seemed appealing so he arranged for the consul in Pará, the port-of-entry to the Amazon, to obtain some Hevea seeds. A few came to England in 1873 but only 12 germinated and these quickly died. Dr Joseph Hooker, at the Royal Botanical gardens at Kew, then suggested that someone he knew of in Santarem, a town some 500 miles upstream from Pará, be commissioned to collect some more and thus Henry Wickham entered history. After various negotiations he was offered £10 per 1,000 viable seeds delivered to Kew although, luckily. the word ‘viable’ was subsequently ignored when it came to his payment. The story of how he brought Hevea seeds out of South America to Kew Gardens was told many times by Wickham - with more and more added refinements until his death in 1928 although the version accepted as being the basis for elaborations was written in 1908. His story was:

"The Amazonas, under Captain Murray, the first of a new line of Inman Line-owned steamships, had arrived at Santarem and he had received an invitation to dine on board. The ship then continued its voyage upstream to Manaos. He next heard that the ship had been stripped of its cargo and abandoned by two of its crew. Murray was unable to purchase any cargo for the return voyage to the UK so he (Wickham) chartered it and arranged to meet it at Santarem where he would load the seeds he had managed to collect. He then immediately set of by canoe up the River Tapajos and, working with as many natives as he could recruit, ranged the forests collecting seeds. The girls in the village made baskets or crates of split cane to receive the seeds which were lightly dried and packed between layers of banana leaves to preserve their vitality. He also noted that he was working against time as, although the seeds would fall for a further month or so, he had his appointment to keep with captain Murray and the Amazonas. He returned down the Tapajos, loaded the ship and returned, with his wife, to Europe, dropping off at Le Havre to arrange for a train to meet the steamer when it docked in Liverpool and transport the seeds without delay to Kew."

Unfortunately Wickham’s story only states that he arranged to meet the Amazonas at Santarem ‘on a certain date’. We know the seeds arrived at Kew on June 14th 1876 and that the Amazonas docked in Liverpool on June 10th. We also know that he wrote to Hooker on March 6th claiming: “I am now collecting Indian rubber seeds in the ciringals (areas of tapped trees) of the river Tapajos being careful to select only those of the best quality”.

Unfortunately the story just does not gel.

First there is the question of the origin of the 70,000 seeds themselves. Given that the Hevea trees were widely scattered throughout the tropical rainforest and not in tidy plantations and that the seeds do not just drop but are ‘catapulted’ up to 40 yards from their parent tree, could Wickham and a few helpers really collect 70,000 seeds in a matter of days or had he been hoarding them since the dropping season began in January when he knew he would get the job? . His wife also noted in her dairy that he put out a call for seeds and was buying all he could get hold of (sources obviously unknown). He knew they had a very short ‘shelf life’ but, after all, he was going to make sure he was paid on the basis of ‘number delivered’, not ‘number germinated’. That last number was to be only 2397

Then to the ship. The Amazonas was captained by George Murray who was a man in his mid 30’s and during the time of interest to us she had made two voyages to Brazil. She had sailed from Liverpool on December 24th 1875, arrived in Pará on January19th 1876, continued to Manaos and then returned to Pará on February 15th and was home in Liverpool on March 14th. She set sail again on March 25th 1876 and, although there are no records of her times in Brazil we can assume she arrived in Pará in mid April, and was back there by mid May as she was certainly home on June 10th. These dates do not fit with Wickham’s letter of March 6th nor does the conclusion that the Amazonas must have been at Santarem in early May fit with Wickham’s comment that there was still one month or so of seed-drop time left to him since this period finishes in late April, not June.

The detailed crew records show that The Amazonas docked on June 10th with all the crew accounted for and signed off with full pay. None was missing.

The Liverpool Customs Office Bill of Entry.
Click Here to enlarge!

The Liverpool Customs Office Bill of Entry (illustrated) shows the ship fully laden with most of her cargo (including 171 cases of rubber) being loaded at Manaos, well upstream from Santarem, although she did call at Obedos, some 75 miles upstream from Santarem, to take on board more cargo including 819 bags of Para Nuts. There is no record of the ship stopping at Santarem and no mention in the cargo manifest of rubber seeds. It is tempting to think that the ‘Para Nuts’ could be rubber tree seeds but we know these where what we call today ‘Brazil Nuts’. Also, there is no reason for Wickham to travel 75 miles upstream when the ship would be passing his door a few hours later!

It is worth calculating what we are looking for and although all the figures are very much approximations, they do give some idea of the ‘package’. 70,000 Rubber tree seeds weigh about 700,000 grams or three quarters of a ton; given the banana leaf layers and the cases the gross weight must be nearer 1,500 Kg or one and a half tons. For the woven baskets to be portable by the natives they would be unlikely to weigh more than 30 Kg so we are looking for a few tens (50?) of them. Converting 30 Kg of seeds and leaves to volume gives a value of around 65 litres which is close to 40 cm cube or 50 cm diameter hemispherical basket– a very convenient size to manhandle.

What can we make of Wickham’s story, even without its later embellishments?

We do not know the detailed source of all of the seeds if Wickham actually bought some.

The seeds must have been stored until the Amazonas was in the region of Santarem in early May.

Why did Wickham concoct such an obviously disprovable story about the Amazonas?

Where were they loaded and why is there no record of them in the cargo manifest?

It is difficult now to address these points and there is yet another which cannot be laid at Wickham’s door. Were the 22 seedlings that went to Singapore and which formed the basis of most of the Far eastern plantations actually from Wickham’s seeds or were they derived from seedlings brought to Kew by Robert Cross whom Hooker had sent to Brazil as a ‘back-up’ in case of Wickham’s failure to deliver?

Follow the link to ‘Rubber goes East’ to find out more.

What then can one make of Sir Henry Wickham?

One view was expressed by Henry Ridley, Director of the Botanic gardens in Singapore and the person who, more than any other, persuaded the country know known as Malaysia to develop rubber plantations: “ I looked on him as a failed planter who was lucky in that for merely travelling home with a lot of seeds had received a knighthood and enough money to live comfortably in his old age…..He ordered natives to bring him in the seeds and to pack them in crates and put them on board ship. One cannot help feeling he was jolly well paid for a little job. He was no agriculturalist, he knew nothing about rubber and cared not for it….As for his abilities in planting I should say he had none”.

Edward Lane, one of the very few people to have studied Wickham’s life in detail, wrote of him in 1953 as an ardent imperialist with little business acumen with an autocratic manner which made him difficult to get on with yet he was a staunch and loyal friend to those he really liked. Fordyce Jones, a close friend in Wickham’s later years called him: “a great man…whom to know was to love and whom all those in the rubber industry who have its interests at heart have affectionately called its ‘father’”.

Although these remarks consider different aspects of the one man and his life there seems little conflict between them. He was domineering, egocentric but a true friend. His business acumen was undoubtedly hopeless but, at one point in his life, he was ‘in the right place at the right time’. In order to boost his ego and standing, he had to make an adventure out of a simple voyage and in so doing his exaggerations and deceptions hid beyond recovery the truth of his one successful activity which certainly did change the world for ever (if the 22 seedlings really were from his seeds and not from those of Robert Cross!).

Natural Rubbers - what's in a name?
The Mesoamericans
The Ball Game
Popol Vuh – The Mayan ‘Book of Life’
Rubber goes East
The Putumayo Affair
Growth of the Synthethics

Pictorial Story of Rubber Production
Latex Processing
Dry Rubber Processing
Protective Agents

Charles Marie de la Condamine
François Fresneau
Charles Goodyear
Nathaniel Hayward
Thomas Hancock
Leopold II of Belgium, E D Morel & the Congo
Stephen Moulton
Henry Morton Stanley
Sir Henry Wickham

Wallace Carothers
Waldo Semon