Boom, bust and bio-piracy: the man who stole the Amazon’s rubber trade

With no roads or highways connecting it to the outside world, the Amazonian city of Iquitos in Peru is only accessible by boat or plane. With its bustling markets and busy streets, it is a noisy concrete island in a sea of jungle.

Boat museum
The Historic Boat Museum, Iquitos

We flew to Iquitos mainly intending to use it as a base for exploring the jungle for a few days, but we also found the city itself to be fascinating and full of boisterous charm.

The streets, swarmed with beeping tuk-tuks, are lined with rows upon rows of colourful houses with long, slanted roofs. Many people seem to run their livelihoods out of their living rooms, with all sorts of shops, cafés and bars spilling out of residential houses. One evening we enjoyed giant bottles of beer in a family’s front yard while an old guy watched telly and kids ran around playing games.

For 10 Peruvian Soles each (about £2.50), we stopped by at the Historic Boat Museum one day. Not a museum about boats, but quite literally a century-old steamship stockpiled with books and artifacts telling the city’s history. In exploring the old ship, I came across one story in particular that struck me as remarkable and really quite tragic. I will do my best to relay it here.

It hadn’t occurred to us quite how cut off this city would be, and less so how difficult things must have been before modern transport and the internet. It was the advent of steam navigation that had enabled Iquitos to flourish. Before that, it was possible to travel downstream by rowing boat to other economic centres in Peru, but of course much more difficult to get back against the current. The arrival of steamships in 1864 changed everything; Iquitos would become a wealthy city and the most important port in the region.

Just as steam navigation was opening the region up to the world, another industry began to take off. For thousands of years, indigenous tribes in the Amazon had used a sticky substance called caucho, derived from the seeds of trees abundant in the Amazon. We know this stuff as rubber

When Charles Goodyear invented the process of vulcanisation – hardening rubber to prevent it from melting in heat and cracking in cold – global demand skyrocketed, and the newfound accessibility of the jungle by river meant that hidden fortunes awaited for those who dared seek them.

The demand grew as western countries continued to industrialise and new forms of transport appeared, requiring more and more rubber. By the turn of the 20th century, the Amazon was producing 95% of the world’s rubber, and Iquitos was one of the places to benefit greatly from the boom. Little was it known that the actions of a British explorer a quarter-century earlier were about to bring the region’s rubber trade crashing to the jungle floor.

Rubber seeds
Rubber seeds in the Historic Boat Museum, Iquitos

In 1876, after several years of failed business ventures in Latin America, Henry Alexander Wickham needed to make something happen. Perhaps in an act of desperation, he headed into the Amazon jungle, where he took some 70,000 rubber seeds, hid them in the hold of his steamship, smuggled them out of the jungle, and set sail for England. With this act, he permanently doomed the Amazonian rubber trade.

When Wickham docked in England, the stolen seeds were planted in Kew Gardens in London; seedlings were later taken to India, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where new plantations were established. With conditions in Asia more conducive to rubber production on a commercial scale, the British took control of the industry.

Just three decades after the boom had begun, the price of rubber plummeted. As the rubber trade collapsed in the Amazon, most steamships were no longer viable and were withdrawn from service. This caused many settlements to collapse and disappear, as there was no other way to transport supplies. Boats were sunk or left idle; the Ayapua on which the boat museum is hosted is one of very few to survive from the period.

After dominating the trade throughout the boom, by 1928 just 2% of the world’s rubber was produced on the Amazon. The bust caused economic devastation to the region from which it has never quite recovered. All because of one man and his stolen seeds; Henry Alexander Wickham and his journey from failed entrepreneur to history’s most notorious bio-pirate.

History is always told differently depending on whose perspective it’s coming from. Across the Amazon basin from Peru to Brazil, Wickham is considered one of history’s greatest criminals. Having read a little further, it’s possible that the story of his bio-piracy is a little embellished, not least by Wickham himself, who appeared to enjoy the notoriety. It turns out he didn’t actually break any laws when he smuggled the seeds, but nevertheless the act did destroy countless communities and lives.

Wherever I travel I seem to be confronted with more stories about how us Brits have wreaked havoc and misery with our global pillaging. I was, therefore, quite pleased and relieved to discover that we also did some good in the region. The Spanish baron [name here] committed unspeakable atrocities with his treatment of indigenous people in rubber production; it was the British that brought him to justice. It doesn’t quite make up for the destruction of an entire industry, but at least it’s something.

Iron house
La Casa de Fierro, Iquitos

Several remnants of the rubber boom are sprinkled around Iquitos. One example is la Casa de Fierro, or the ‘iron house of Iquitos’, a formidable building dating back to the late 19th century and purportedly designed by no less than Gustave Eiffel. Today the building is a restaurant.

Many more great stories poured from the walls of the Ayapua. Even the tale of how the Amazon got its name. The river was discovered (if such a word can be used when it was already inhabited by so many indigenous people) by the explorer Don Francisco de Orellana, who of course named it after himself. However, Orellana’s crew was attacked by a tribe of women warriors, prompting European geographers to rename the river after the Amazons, a Greek mythical tribe of warrior women.

Then there is the story of Isabela Godin de Odonais, a woman who got lost in the Peruvian Amazon for a month in the 18th century on a journey to find her husband from whom she had been separated. She had set out with a party of 41 others, all of whom died. Incredibly she survived and was reunited with her husband after 20 years apart.

The truth is that we are still uncovering stories about the Amazon jungle all the time. Even today, ancient ruins and existing communities are still being found. Flying away from Iquitos I looked out on the tangled mass of wilderness, so much of it untouched by human hands, and pondered. Today’s world is so hyper-connected it seemed absurd I could be just a few miles away from an undiscovered and isolated community.

A couple of hours later I was back in the modern reality of Lima, still dreaming of being lost in the jungle.

If you’re visiting the Peruvian Amazon, check out our article on visiting Iquitos.


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