The Thief at the End of the World

 Nick Rennison looks at an early case of biopiracy

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Reviewed by: Nick Rennison
Author: Joe Jackson
Publisher: Duckworth
Price (RRP): £9.99

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Biopiracy, defined as the theft by one nation (usually rich) of the natural resources of another (usually poor), is a crime that has only recently received a name. However, it has existed for a long time. Joe Jackson’s intriguing book tells the story of one of the most effective acts of biopiracy in history and the strange, imperial misfit who undertook it. 

In 1876, Henry Wickham was 30 years old and, in flight from the tedium of lower middle-class respectability in Victorian London, was struggling to make a living as a planter in the Brazilian jungle. He was having little success when he hit upon another idea for making money. He gathered 70,000 seeds for rubber trees from the rainforest, smuggled them out of the country on a rundown steamship and delivered them to the botanists at Kew Gardens. 

He was given £700 for his troubles. It took nearly 40 years for Wickham’s theft to pay dividends but his seeds, planted in colonies in the Far East, eventually allowed Britain a near-monopoly in rubber production in the first half of the 20th century. 

Poor old Henry Wickham, however, benefited little from his enterprise and spent those four decades wandering through the furthest flung corners of the empire, from British Honduras to Papua New Guinea, in an increasingly desperate bid to make his fortune. Only in old age, after his final return to Britain, was his role as godfather of the rubber industry acknowledged and a knighthood very belatedly bestowed upon him. Henry Wickham’s theft isn’t really, as Jackson extravagantly claims, “a symbol for every act of exploitation visited on the Third World”, but the story of this colourful adventurer does throw unexpected light on the hidden workings of empire.

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Nick Rennison contributes to the Q&A section of BBC History Magazine