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

3.80  ·  Rating details ·  293 ratings  ·  54 reviews
The story of one man’s journey down the Amazon— and how it changed history

In 1876, a man named Henry Wickham smuggled seventy thousand rubber tree seeds out of the rainforests of Brazil and delivered them to Victorian England’s most prestigious scientists at Kew Gardens. Those seeds, planted around the world in England’s colonial outposts, gave rise to the great rubber b
Hardcover, 414 pages
Published February 28th 2008 by Viking Adult (first published 2008)
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Average rating 3.80  · 
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 ·  293 ratings  ·  54 reviews

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Aug 16, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
I found the history of rubber and its impact to the British empire fascinating. I didn't know that people from the confederacy (U.S. Civil war) had moved to South America to found a new slave state. A lot of small, side bits, where the author had ventured into first sources to pull out the thoughts and motivations of the players around the rubber trade.

But it is central character that I didn't have much interest in. He is a mainly bombastic loser, never achieving much of anything. I kept feelin
Dec 07, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, history
I enjoyed this book and the education of the many good Amazonian tribes. This book was everything I expected in terms of the historical story of rubber, the Amazon, and the encroachment of humans upon a necessary resource. Parts of the book will cover the environment by default but this isn't the topic of the book. The topic is the history of rubber. My interest in this book is the attachment it has to the Second World War and the Imperial Forces of Japan in their capture of the Malayan peninsul ...more
Mar 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
"Deus è grande, mas o mato è maior."
God is great, but the forest is greater.

The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire is a meticulously researched book on the history of rubber, Great Britain's insatiable drive for monopoly over territory and resources, and a reckless, ambitious man beguiled by the Amazon.

Henry Wickham was a dreamer and idealist, captivated by the exotic tales of Columbus, Darwin, Spruce, and others at an early impressionable age, he set o
Feb 20, 2021 rated it it was amazing
This is my type of book: expansive subject matter - rubber's economic boom (-ish 1880-1915); crazy adventurer to structure the information around; interesting tangents galore; and an ethical conundrum to ponder.

Henry Wickham, a lower-class Englishman, in an effort to earn himself a reputation and a fortune, set his sights on rubber - he was integral in making it a ubiquitous substance today. He successfully stole 70,000 seeds and delivered them viable to Kew Gardens who eventually spread the pla
Don Inman
This book chronicles,in excruciating detail,the first act of biopiracy in the world. Rubber trees grew naturally in the Amazon Rainforest of Brazil. The natives went out and harvested the rubber sap in a haphazard manner and sold it to local brokers who then shipped it to Europe. Then,with the invention of the automobile, the demand increased and the British decided what these natives needed was a little European initiative to move things along more smoothly. Along comes Henry Markham with his i ...more
Jan 26, 2010 rated it it was ok
This book details the story of how Henry Wickham smuggled 70,000 rubber tree seeds out of the Amazon jungles to take back to England so the British Empire could establish a rubber plantation in Southeast Asia. Though I found parts of the story entertaining (specifically the horrific stories of the hardships of living in the jungle) and educational I just wasn't really into the book. Wickman isn't that heroic of a figure. He treats his wife horribly, is responsible for the deaths of his mother an ...more
Aug 17, 2009 rated it liked it
I gave you reading this book halfway through because I just didn't like it, but other people definitely might. It's well written. It's an adventure story basically, about this British explorer who was gallivanting around the jungles of Latin America in the 1800s. He ultimately hit upon a grove of prized rubber trees and smuggled the seeds back to England, and from there they were planted elsewhere in the empire - India I think - and helped cement Britain's status as the global leader in that and ...more
Jul 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a wonderful read. It focuses on Henry Wickham, the Victorian adventurer who smuggled rubber tree seeds from Brazil to Kew gradens and laid the foundation for the Malayan rubber plantations. But this is only part of the story. We also encounter British adventurers who stole the quinine producing Cinchona trees from Brazil. The book details people like Henry Ford who lost millions trying to make a Brazilian rubber plantation (Fordlandia)and Cargill's efforts to corner Brazil soy bean marke ...more
Dec 21, 2008 marked it as to-read
Recommended to booklady by: Bear
Thanks for the tip Bear! From the article, it looks like a fascinating read! ...more
Feb 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
A part of imperial history that I had never considered -- when RUBBER was king, much like oil is now. Good book, considering I bought it at the dollar store.
Todd Stockslager
Aug 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Review title: He lost all the other bets he made

This a sad, sad story about a man who failed at everything he tried except for the theft of the title. Henry Wickham was a British adventurer who went from the heighth of empire to the heart if the Amazon in search of his fortune and fame. Along the way, he learned hard lessons about living in the jungle and making a living from the jungle. Among those lessons were where to find and how to harvest latex from wild rubber trees, at the turning point
Camilla Zahn
Apr 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Henry Wickham's journey is dazzlingly told in this book. I was born in Brazil and never knew this story up until my father told me about this book. I dound it magic how Joe Jackson told rhe story of the seeds, of rubber, England and the man behind it all. It makes you wonder how come the act of this man changed the world so much, and, as you see through the book, it ended up not being so great to Wickham. I really really loved the parallels between Henry's destiny and the growth of English Empir ...more
Fraser Sherman
Sep 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, biography
In the 19th century, rubber was a miracle. It could be used for waterproofing, insulation, molded like plastics would later be and became essential for cushioning moving parts in vehicles and engines. Joe Jackson chronicles how Henry Wickham, a man who failed at almost everything he tried, successfully smuggled thousands of rubber-plant seeds out of Amazonian Brazil and back to England. Once Britain transplanted the seeds to the Far East, rubber shifted from a rare, limited resource commanding a ...more
Jan 27, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: adventure seekers & those interested in the botanical/cultural history of the Amazon.
I'm not so sure that this is really just "the story of one man's journey down the Amazon and how it changed history," as teased on the cover of this book.

Joe Jackson's detailed illustrations of the history, botany, and cultures surrounding the Amazon is captivating. I've learned from this book that even at its farthest corners, the world converges. The way Jackson chronicles the antihero's (mis)adventures is also captivating and it's evident that a lot of research went into this, including from
At the end of the nineteenth century, Henry Wickham managed to smuggle a large number of rubber seeds from the Amazon to Kew Gardens, thus setting the stage for British domination of the rubber supply through their Asian colonies. As trains, cars and other modern inventions caused demand for rubber to skyrocket, fortunes were made by British planters and traders.
Wickham, however, was a ne'er do well, despite his incredible energy and determination. He drifted about the British colonies for most
Simon Franks
Nov 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book full of historical details of how one man was responsible for the biopiracy of Para Rubber tree seeds for the British Empire and their eventual monopoly of the rubber trade...

The book also highlights the horrendous conditions that westerners faced in the extreme and inhospitable climate of the Amazonian jungle as well as the dubious ethical behaviour of the British Empire in terms of their willingness to stop at nothing to create wealth for the crown.

A great read for people inte
Jane Wynne
Apr 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating history of the rubber industry based around Sir Henry Wickham, a true adventurer and pioneer whose place in history was nearly dismissed by those in charge of Kew. I learned a lot about life in those difficult places and how brave these men and women were.
Mar 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is more than a book about stealing rubber seeds . It is about a lost time where adventurers were changing the world .
Rodrigo Pimentel
Mar 19, 2021 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Instead of focusing on Amazon history spent most part in the life of the guy who took the seeds.
Sarah Beth
Sep 10, 2015 rated it liked it
This work of non-fiction details the events that unfolded in 1876, when Henry Wickham, a British subject abroad in the Amazon, managed to bring home 70,000 rubber tree seeds to scientists at Kew Gardens in England. In this Victorian age of empire, England would ultimately use these seeds to farm rubber in various colonies, fueling the rubber boom of the early twentieth century. Thanks to Wickham, this easy access to rubber allowed for an explosion in the railroad and automobile industry and led ...more
Brendan Hanratty
Oct 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
Great read if you are interested in history and the British empire, very detailed
Today's world seems obsessed by and held in thrall by oil, but a similar scenario played out from the 1850's up through WWI with a different commodity: rubber. The man responsible for smuggling the seeds that paved the way for Britain's vast rubber plantations in Ceylon, Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere -- and the subsequent end of Brazil's stranglehold on the rubber trade -- is at the center of the book.

Henry Wickham was a man who dreamed big but failed time and again. Even his successful smu
Feb 17, 2011 rated it it was ok
I gave this book two stars because it had some interesting information in it, but overall, it wasn't very good. The time period it dealt with was about 1880 up to about 1920. It is a time that I am really interested in with the industrial revolution happening, the start of the first world war, and all that stuff. It focuses on a character named Henry Whickam who was responsible for smuggling 70,000 or so hevea (high quality rubber tree) seeds from the Amazon, and putting them into Britain's con ...more
Jan 25, 2015 rated it liked it
I ended up a little less interested in the central story here and more in what was happening on the periphery. Not that the central story, about Wickham smuggling rubber tree seeds out of Brazil to jumpstart Britain's colonial rubber empire, was bad or anything. But after a while the Wickham story just gets repetitive and depressing. After failing to be recognized for his feat, he tries Belize and fails, Australia and fails, the South Pacific and fails, I think maybe Brazil again and fails? I ge ...more
Sep 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book about rubber, and it is fascinating.

At the end of the 19th century rubber became hugely important to a whole load of new technologies and industries, but the best rubber only grew in the Amazonian rain forest, grew wild, and was fiercely protected by the natives and the Brazilian government.

So the race was on, supervised by Kew Botanical Gardens, (which sits at the centre of this drama like a cunning Bond villain), to identify the trees that produced the best rubber, find them, c
Apr 15, 2016 rated it liked it
An really interesting read, but not exactly a page-turner. There are long stretches of this book that detour along what happened to people other than the book's main subject, however if you stick with it, all of it paints a really vivid picture of the birth of the rubber industry and just how much greed, violence, and sacrifice was involved in the quest for the world to have rubber and latex. (This story goes right along with Nutmeg and other things in this world I totally have taken for granted ...more
2020 Reading Challenge Category: A book with more than 20 letters in its title

Very interesting history; it's not quite the origins of biopiracy, as Jackson makes it out to be. That would actually be an earlier incident involving the cinchona tree. Jackson also touches on that, but kind of makes it seem like it wasn't REAL biopiracy, where Wickham's was, but I'm not sure I degree. Still, the story of how rubber seeds were removed from the Amazon in order to build a British rubber empire in Asia w
Apr 19, 2010 rated it it was ok
The fascinating story of Henry Wickham, adventurer and artist, whose 1876 export of 70,000 seeds from the Amazon jungle was the genesis of the British rubber plantations in Southeast Asia and destruction of the business of collecting wild rubber in Brazil. With the history and chemistry of rubber, the book takes you back to the last half of the nineteenth century when countries that were being exploited for valuable commodities were beginning to recognize their value. In his own time, Wickham’s ...more
May 31, 2012 rated it liked it
This was a long explanation of how Britain cornered the market in rubber by illegally exporting 7000 rubber tree seeds from South America, which were cultivated at Kew Gardens then sent to be grown commercially in Malaysia.
The title refers to the man who acquired the seeds, Henry Wickham, and is mainly his biography. His life consisted of a number of exploits around the world, all of which ended in failure. What was never explained was how he managed to raise enough money each time to start his
Jan 09, 2017 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
Not a bad book, per se, but I got about halfway through and just sort of drifted away from it for other books.

Positives: The information on the Amazon itself, and the historical details of the Victorians' quest for empire via plants and science was excellent. But...

Negative: The person who actually stole the rubber seeds is not a great figure, and I found him tedious at most times. In addition, the author had odd turns of phrase from time to time; things that could have been said simply. Instead
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Joe Jackson is the author of seven works of nonfiction and a novel. His nonfiction includes: Leavenworth Train, a finalist for the 2002 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime; Dead Run: The Shocking Story of Dennis Stockton and Life on Death Row in America, with co-author William F. Burke and an introduction by William Styron; A Furnace Afloat: The Wreck of the Hornet and the Harrowing 4,300-mile of its ...more

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