Rubber’s Busting Bubble

Iquitos

Although not as common as it once was, one tropical tree crop seems to have found itself a new habitat in office foyers and sitting rooms across the land. However, the pot-plant with the large glossy dark green leaves that is widely known as the rubber plant is a fraud, a charlatan, it is not a rubber tree at all, it’s a sort of fig.  This confusion probably arose because when damaged the rubber plant of the large plastic pot drips milky white sap, just like a real rubber tree. But then there are many unrelated plants that contain latex and indeed at various times attempts have be made to harvest rubber from some of these, including the humble dandelion.

The title ‘rubber tree’ truly belongs to an evergreen tree, which grows wild in the Amazonian rain forests of Brazil and Peru, a fact that is reflected in its Latin name Hevea braziliensis. It is a member of the Spurge family, which includes another latex producing pot-plant, the Poinsettia.  The rubber tree probably started its long association with mankind as a food plant. Its cooked seeds are still regularly eaten by some native South American Indians, although it is usually only consumed at times of famine. Well before the first Europeans reached South America the indigenous people were collecting latex from the rubber trees and producing an elastic substance, which they used to seal various bindings. No one is really sure when rubber first reached Europe, and initially rubber products were only considered as curious novelties, as indeed many still are. This is because items made of crude natural rubber, crumble after a short while.

In 1791 an English inventor, Samuel Peal patented a method of producing waterproof clothing by treating it with rubber and turpentine. This represented the first commercial application of rubber, the birth of the rubber suit and with it a new fetish. However, it was the discovery in 1839 by the American Charles Goodyear that cooking rubber with sulphur increases both its strength and elasticity that really lead to the rubber boom. It was quickly realised that this ‘vulcanised’ rubber being impermeable to gases, electricity, and being resistant to abrasion, water, and more corrosive chemicals could have hundreds of applications, not least the pneumatic tyre. The price of rubber soared!

At the time, all the world’s rubber was produced from trees growing wild deep in the Amazonian forests. The result was that, as the nineteenth century drew to a close the region witnessed a rubber-rush. Boom times brought incredible riches to a few rubber barons as new towns were founded along the Amazon and its tributaries. Although the streets of Iquitos in Peru are full of cars, even too this day it can only be reached by air or river, as the roads end a short way out of town in the jungle. In spite of these transportation difficulties no expense was spared in the construction of these towns. Local rubber baron Jules Toth imported an entire two story metal house that had been designed by the French engineer, Gustave Eiffel (of the tower fame) for the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Down stream in Brazil, at the confluence of the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers the city of Manaus was for a brief moment the richest place on earth. Its newly rich citizens were famous for their extravagant gestures. The gulping of vast quantities of champagne and the lighting of cigars with hundred dollar bills gave the town a reputation for decadence. Its merchants imported marble from Italy, iron pillars from England and polished wood from France to build the magnificent Teatro Amazonas opera house, which played host to many of the great stars of the day when it opened in 1896. However, great riches are never amassed without someone else becoming envious. And thus it was in 1876 that despite strict embargoes imposed by Brazil to protect its interest, the British explorer and Botanist Sir Henry Wickham managed to smuggle 70,000 rubber seeds out of Brazil to the botanic gardens at Kew. Legend has it that when challenged Sir Henry replied that the seeds were destined for Queen Victoria’s orchid collection.  The Brazilians were not surprisingly rather displeased about this, and to this day remain reluctant to allow other nations to collect plants in their forests.

From these seeds the gardeners at Kew managed to raise about 3,000 plants, with the majority being quickly exported to Sri-Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia. It is thought that even now virtually all rubber growing in the Eastern Hemisphere is descended from those smuggled out of Brazil by Sir Henry. As rubber is a fast growing tree, reaching maturity in about five years, it did not take long for Wickham’s rubber plants to become serious competition, breaking the South America monopoly of supply. By the early part of the twentieth century the short-lived Amazon rubber boom was over.

The cultivation of rubber reached its peak shortly after World War II. The disruption of supply that occurred during the war stimulated research into synthetic rubbers, the production of which is now considerably more important than the cultivation of natural rubber. However, natural rubber remains the preferred option for many products, and thus it was that the panic about AIDS during the 1980s saw a sharp rise in the price of natural rubber.

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