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The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire

"Jackson, an American, gets at something fascinating about Victorian England: how deep scholarship and daring were yoked to ruthless expansionism, a quest to control pretty much everything. . . . Wickham never really gave up on his manias. The jungle robbed him of his judgment, and that’s why this story moves and haunts. Perhaps man can’t, in the end, control nature; he can’t even control himself."
– Richard Rayner, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Wickham, like all the more celebrated explorer/adventurers of his day, is a creature of the past. Big corporations now do the dirty work of extracting the Third World’s resources and delivering them for the convenience of those of us in more privileged circumstances. But his remains a cautionary tale, as Jackson well understands. Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how it is done and by whom."
– Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

At the height of the Victorian era, Henry Wickham—a man with no formal education, little funding and limited experience—went adventuring in the darkest jungles of Venezuela and Brazil. He had learned of a particular kind of rubber tree that produced the strong and durable rubber that scientists and entrepreneurs in England craved. After a few near-death experiences, encounters with gigantic insects and the deadly inhabitants of the Amazon River, he emerged exhausted, ragged, and sunburned, with 70,000 illegally obtained rubber tree seeds. It was the first case of massive bio-piracy in the modern era, and it would change the world.
The Thief at the End of the World is the story of the use and misuse of nature in the quest for global dominance, and it is the story of one ordinary man’s obsessions drove him to extraordinary lengths. Wickham’s seeds were transported successfully to London’s famous Kew Gardens, and biologists there quickly shipped them off to colonial outposts in India and New Zealand. Within a few years, those seeds produced the trees that yielded the rubber used in everything from trains and airplanes to condoms and baby bottles. It is no exaggeration to say that rubber was the oil of its day—an incredibly valuable resource found in only a few remote places, that powerful governments would go to great lengths to get their hands on.
Meanwhile, Henry Wickham and his wife Violet were gradually shut out of the wealth and glory of the “Rubber Boom” by the very government they had hoped to serve, and they wandered further and further from the new world they had helped to create. Author Joe Jackson pulls from their letters and journals and the innumerable records left behind to draw a vivid, fascinating portrait of the man known in Great Britain as “the father of the rubber trade” and in Brazil as “Executioner of Amazonas.”
Ultimately, Wickham’s adventures tell the story of Victorian England’s adventures in the Amazon, with all the characteristics of the era: idealistic patriotism, ambitious colonialism, and a colossal greed rivaled only by fanatic industry.