The Thief at the End of the World by Joe Jackson

Joe Jackson’s The Thief at the End of the World is a tale of an Englishman who desperately wanted to succeed in life and how he changed the world with the theft of a seed.  Henry Wickham is little known to us today, but in the early 1900s he was known to be the catalyst for the explosive growth of the British Empire’s rubber production.  Jackson highlights this unique man and one of the first acts of biopiracy.  The book is a good read at a little more than 300 pages.


Here is a brief summary of the book from the publisher’s website:

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 boom of the early twentieth century – an explosion of entrepreneurial and scientific industry that would change the world.  The story of how Wickham got his hands on those seeds – a sought-after prize for which many suffered and died – is the stuff of legend.  In this utterly engaging account of obsession, greed, bravery, and betrayal, author and journalist Joe Jackson brings to life a classic Victorian fortune hunter and the empire that fueled, then abandoned, him.


In his single-minded pursuit of glory, Wickham faced deadly insects, poisonous snakes, horrific illnesses, and, ultimately, the neglect and contempt of the very government he wished to serve.  His idealism and determination, as well as his outright thievery, perfectly encapsulate the essential nature of Great Britain’s colonial adventure in South America.  The Thief at the End of the World is a thrilling true story of reckless courage and ambition.


Jackson writes about a topic that I did not know much about before his book.  I knew that the British Empire controlled the rubber trade from their Asian colonies since the early 1900s through World War II, but I did not know how they came to dominate the trade.  Jackson fills in a lot of details about Wickham and the various attempts by the British to steal a variety of rubber seeds. 


While doing an excellent job of reciting the history of the hunt for the rubber seeds, Jackson creates a wonderful portrait of Wickham as a man who fails in almost every venture he is in except one – the collection of the seeds.  Although he fails time after time, Wickham gets back up and tries again at another venture.  His adventures take him from Niceragua to Brazil to Australia to New Guinea.  Jackson portrays a man who is likeable and detestable at the same time – likeable in his perseverance, but detestable in his arrogance.


Although Jackson’s book is mainly centered on Wickham, Jackson does add details about events surrounding the Rubber Boom.  For example, he describes the first case of biopiracy in the region – the theft of cinchona (plant from which quinine is derived) by the British in South America – and how it influenced the theft of the rubber seeds.  Jackson also highlights the failure of Henry Ford’s Fordlandia in the Amazon – it was an attempt to build an American manufacturing city in the heart of the Amazon to produce and process rubber trees in the 1930s (an attempt by the American industrialist to create his own cheap supply of rubber for his automobile manufacturing).


I have only one problem with this book – the lack of maps.  I think that Jackson could have strengthened his story with a few maps of the region that he is writing about.  I say this because most readers, myself included, do not have a strong knowledge of the places that Jackson discusses.  Even just one map with the cities and places that Jackson discusses along the Amazon would have gone a long way in helping the reader visualize the area.


This book is a fascinating look at a time when the British Empire ruled the world and would do anything to keep that rule.

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