We know that somehow or other Henry
Wickham delivered around 70,000 seeds of Hevea braziliensis
to the Botanical gardens at Kew in June 1876 so we can now consider
what happened to them.
They were planted in seedbeds the day after their arrival and
within a few weeks 2,397 of them had germinated (rather less than
the 10% subsequently claimed by Wickham). We know that 1919 of
these seedlings were then sent to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) under the
charge of one of the Kew gardeners, William Chapman) where there
were three days of panic as no-one had arranged for the harbour
dues to be paid. However, the seedlings were eventually released
and 1700 survived to be planted at the Heneratgoda gardens. By
1880 it was reported that only some 300 were still alive.
At the same time that the seedlings were dispatched to Sri Lanka,
a further two cases, containing fifty seedlings, were sent to
Singapore. These were off-loaded and left in a shed for a month
before being collected – dead.
In September 1876 a further 100 seedlings were sent to Sri Lanka,
presumably from ‘Wickham seedling’ cuttings as no
new source was known to have come into the UK until the botanist
and explorer Robert Cross, whom Markham had sent to the Amazon
to provide back-up in case of Wickham’s failure, returned
in November of that year with just over 1000 Heveas as well as
some Cearas and Castilloas. Kew gave away just over half of these
but retained 400, from which about two dozen survived.
We also know that 100 plants went to Sri Lanka in the summer
of 1877 and a further 50 to India. In all, by the end of 1877,
Kew had distributed over 3000 seedlings; vastly more than their
primary stock, so there must have been considerable propagation
from cuttings. Sri Lanka then forwarded 22 seedlings from that
delivery of 100 to Singapore. All of these survived and Henry
Ridley, Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, was later to
remark that it was from these 22 seedlings in the Gardens that
more than 75% of the cultivated plants in Malaysia were derived.
Unfortunately, in spite of all the detailed records kept by Kew,
one piece of information is missing and that is the source of
those 100 seedlings. We do not know whether they were propagated
from ‘Wickham’ or ‘Cross’ plants. Whilst
many writers claim, without giving verifiable references, that
they were from ‘Wickham’ plants we have the firm opinion
of Henry Ridley that they appeared different form the original
(Wickham) seedlings and that they were from ‘Cross plants.
Whether the truth can ever be established now is doubtful but
perhaps we should consider Cross, not Wickham to be the "father
of the rubber plantation industry".
The arrival of 22 Seedlings in Singapore did not create the Malaysian
plantations overnight. Hevea seedlings were planted in the Residency
gardens at Kuala Kangsar where they were nurtured by the Resident,
Hugh Low whilst investigations of both Hevea and indigenous rubber-producing
plants were carried out by H J Murton, the Superintendent of the
Singapore Botanic Gardens, and by his successor, N Cantly. In
1885 Cantly claimed that the latter offered better commercial
potential. Meanwhile, in 1884, Frank Swettenham, later to be the
High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, planted 400 Hevea
seeds from the Kuala Kangsar trees in Perak. More were planted
in Selangor between 1883 and 1885 by T H Hill although these were
possibly ornamental rather than commercial plantings.
In 1888 Henry Ridley was appointed Director of the Singapore
Botanic Gardens and suggested that the Government should consider
large-scale plantings, as there was little private interest in
planting crops which would take 5 years or more to start paying
their way. He was able to use his additional position as Supervisor
of the Straits Forest Department to carry out plantings in both
Singapore and around Malacca and to investigate ways of cultivating
and tapping the trees for optimum yield. He published his recommendations
in 1897 and, following his ideas, Curtis in Penang and Derry in
Kuala Kangsar obtained yields of latex from which they were able
to calculate that rubber production could be profitable. It was
also noted from samples sent to England that there would be a
ready market for plantation rubber as it was much cleaner and
more consistent in quality than the wild rubbers of either Africa
It is perhaps ironic that another Brazilian commodity pushed
Malaysia into rubber. Various government inducements had encouraged
planters to create and expand plantations and many of these chose
coffee as their main crop. The price of coffee had been high due
to production problems in Brazil but, by the mid 90’s, these
problems had been overcome whilst fungal disease was attacking
the Malaysian plants. In 1895, Tan Chay Yan planted 43 acres of
Hevea on his estate at Bukit Lintang in Malacca and the Kindersleys
planted a further 5 acres in Selangor. These were the first commercial
rubber estates in Malaysia and, as the coffee market collapsed,
more and more planters turned to rubber. Initially the plantings
were interspersed with cash crops such as coffee but by 1898 Stephens,
in Perak, was planting dedicated rubber plantations. At about
this time Ridley noted that he had received requests for one million
seeds in a single day!
Although there was no mechanism for collecting reliable statistics
on land usage prior to 1905, some idea of the speed at which the
industry developed can be obtained from the following estimated
figures for total rubber acreage in all of what is now Malaysia:
1898, 2000 acres, 1900, 6000 acres, 1905, 46,000 acres, 1910,
540,000 and 1920, 2,180,000 acres.
It will be remembered that the original destination of the Hevea
seedlings dispatched from Kew in 1876/7 was Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
and here, in the Ceylon Botanic Gardens, Dr H Trimen was also
active in developing tapping procedures. He too decided that rubber
had a viable future in Ceylon. In 1896 we was succeeded by J C
Willis, who was able to promote rubber due to the falling prices
for tea and, unlike Ridley in Malaysia, he was able to obtain
considerable government assistance towards a replanting programme.
From this a thriving plantation industry developed although, after
an initial very rapid growth, land restrictions precluded the
continuing expansion which took place in Malaysia. Comparable
figures for acreage under rubber in Ceylon were: 1900, 1,000 acres,
1905, 66,000 acres, 1910, 258,000 acres and 1920, 433,000 acres.
By 1920 wild rubber had been essentially consigned to history
and plantation rubber had arrived with a vengeance.