The Caoutchouc of Commerce

Hugh Latimer unearths the role of the rubber plant in the story of empire and Malayan nation-building.

Though historians agree that Columbus, when he visited Haiti, found the Indians playing with a ball of vegetable matter derived from a tree, the history of rubber as a commercial product dates back only some hundred and fifty years. True, in 1755, Dom Jose, King of Portugal, sent several pairs of boots to Para in Brazil that they might be covered with “gum elastic.”. But to a Frenchman, M. le Condamine, belongs the honour of first importing latex into Europe. A few years later, Dr. Joseph Priesdey introduced the finished product into England, where it was employed as an eraser. “Indiarubber” it therefore became in English, but remained “caoutchouc” (a transcription of the word used to describe it by the South American Indians) in most other European languages.

Among other popular legends about the use of rubber is the belief that it was commercially exploited only after the process of vulcanization had been invented. In fact the “mackintosh” had been patented and marketed before vulcanization, and rubber was at that time already in use for a large number of domestic articles. The Guards were paraded in rubber garments before George IV, but this addition to their dress was sticky to the touch in hot weather and as stiff as boards in cold. The story of the invention of vulcanization with its familiar circumstances of inventor’s dreams, hazard, trade rivalry and trade secrets, and the penurious death of the pioneer, has often been told. It is a much more recent history with which this article is concerned, the history of rubber plantations.

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