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Home > Timeline > 1876 - 1913 > Rubber Goes East

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 or Amazonia.

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.