Sir Henry Alexander Wickham (May 29, 1846 – September 27, 1928) was a British explorer. He later claimed in publicity that he was responsible for stealing about 70,000 seeds from the rubber-bearing tree, Hevea brasiliensis, in the Santarém area of Brazil in 1876. However there was, in fact, no law at the time forbidding their export and it would appear that Wickham was trying to make his actions more exciting than they really were. These seeds he accompanied to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London, from where seedlings were dispatched to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Malaysia, Africa, Batavia, and other tropical destinations, thus dooming the Amazonian rubber boom.
Henry Wickham was born in Hampstead, north London. Wickham's father, a solicitor, died when young Wickham was only four years old. At age 20 he traveled to Nicaragua, the first of several trips to Latin America and South America. Returning to England, he married Violet Carter, whose father would publish Wickham's writings. His first book Rough Notes of a Journey Through The Wilderness from Trinidad to Pará, Brazil, by way of the Great Cateracts of the Orinoco, Atabapo, and Rio Negro, was published by W.H.J. Carter in 1872. He would take the entire family to Santarém, Brazil, where his mother, sister Harriette, and the mother-in-law to his brother, John, would all die by 1876.
Rubber plantations in Asia were much more efficient and outproduced Brazil. This was because the Asian rubber plantations were organized and well suited for production on a commercial scale whereas in Brazil the process of latex gathering from forest trees remained a difficult extractive process: rubber tappers worked natural rubber groves in the southern Amazon forest, and rubber tree densities were almost always low, as a consequence of high natural forest diversity. Moreover, experiments in cultivating rubber trees in plantations in the Amazon showed them to be vulnerable to South American rubber tree leaf blight fungus and other diseases and pests.
In spite of decades of research in selecting highly productive and disease resistant rubber trees, many commercial rubber trees throughout the world are descended from the seeds Wickham took to Joseph Dalton Hooker in London.
In Brazil, Wickham is labeled as a "bio-pirate" for his role in stealing the rubber seeds that broke the Brazilian monopoly. In 1876, no Brazilian law would have prevented Wickham's collection of the seeds, but he may have misrepresented his cargo as dead botanical material destined for the herbarium in order to obtain an export license in Belém.
- Ponting, Clive (2007). A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. New York: Penguin Books. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-14-303898-6.
- Musgrave, Toby & Will (2007). An Empire of Plants: People and Pants that Changed the World. London: Cassell & Co. p. 173. ISBN 0-304-35443-0.
- Sir Henry Alexander Wickham - at bouncing-balls.com
- Dean, Warren (1987). Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber: A Study in Environmental History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.14. ISBN 0-521-33477-2
- Henry Wickham biography - at International Rubber Research & Development Board