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Robert McKenzie Cross: Botanical Explorer, Kew Gardens

Rubber Trees : Mission to South America 1876

Home | Forgotten Legend : Tribute to Robert Cross- Sample | Further Reading : Some Books, Journals and Web Sites | Early Life in Kilmaronock Loch Lomondside 1830s and 1840s | While Robert entered Kew Gardens, London 1850s his siblings flew the nest too! | Chronology : The Years Robert Cross spent at Home and Abroad | Chinchona Missions : First Trip to South America 1859 | Robert Cross's Report on his travel to South America in 1860 | Spruce's Journal First Chinchona Mission | Chinchona : Later Trips to South America | Rubber Trees : Mission to South America 1876 | Para Rubber Images | Clements Markham, Richard Spruce and Henry Wickham | Achievements of Robert Cross | Publications of Robert M Cross | Last Years at West Cottage Torrance of Campsie | Last Will and Testament of Robert McKenzie Cross

Rubber : The Next Mission

The background factors

The story of how Rubber seeds and plants were transferred from South America to the Far East is, like the chinchona story, another story of intrique, deception, and huge courage by all the particpators. At the heart of it too - economic and political factors - around controlling the world supply of an important commodity - which in this century - with artificial production of rubber - may now to less significant - but to the Victorians and to empire builders - it was a key element of trade and in scientific and industrial development of some many other goods and inventions.








The best performing rubber trees are from the genus known as Hevea brasiliensis.

Robert Cross made a substantial collection of another rubber tree, the Castilloa. These were collected in the Isthmus of Panama in 1875.

The records show that this collection faired well at Kew Gardens and that 134 of Cross' Castilloa plants were in a flourishing conbdition which meant that in the course of 1876 a good supply of these plants was forwarded to India to form the necleus of a series of plantations there and elsewhere.

The KEW BULLETIN of 1906 in a consolidating paper on the rubber industry there is mention of the destination of Cross' Castilloa plants.

Plants of Castilloa have been widely distributed from Kew to various tropical colonies and seed bearing trees are now found in Ceylon, Singapore, Mauritious, Jamaica, Trinidad and the west and east coasts of Africa. The original stock of Kew plants was obtained by Mr R Cross in 1875 for the India Office from the Isthmus of Panama.


Did Robert Cross's Rubber trees, plants, or seeds survive to form a part of the profoundly important early natural rubber industry in the Far East?

History records that Henry Wickham was the man who sired the industry with his outrageous exploits in South America of 1876, when he hired a ship, the SS Amazonas on behalf of the Indian government and succeeding in taking 70,000 seeds back to Kew Gardnes. Wickham had acted like a thief in the night, leaving the less glamourous, but more professional Cross to limp way, way behind.

In some circles there remain those who want to see Robert Cross' contribution to the genesis of the early Rubber Industry back where it really belongs, alongside Wickham, who was knighted for his remarkable daring, cheek, brave initiative but always self adoration. One web site maintained by John Loadman, on the rubber industry with the engaging title of bouncing balls makes some interesting observations.

Loadman casts convincing doubt on the fate of Wickham's collection. Was it really from one of Robert Cross' plants that the whole Industry stemmed?

The WICKHAM v CROSS debate centres around the outcome or out-turn of what happened to the various seeds and young plants. The man who ought to have known was Sir Henry Ridley who superintended one of the Botanical Gardens in Singapore for Kew Gardens. Some papers in the Original Correspondence Section in the Kew Archives, Volumne 163 Ceylon letters 1865-1900 and Caoutchouc Volume 1 1875-1905 and Malaya Rubber 1852 -1908 are all cited by a modern day authority J H DRabble in Rubber in Malaya 1876-1922. Drabble also sits on the fence. H N Ridley's own papers are also at Kew Gardens.

In 1950 Ridley confirmed that only 2397 of Wickham's 70,000 or so seeds ever germinated. These ( according to Ridley ) were as follows:

To Ceylon 2119
To Burma 50
To Singapore 50 ( All died in Harbour )
To Jamaica 16

Loadman continues the story :

Ridley then made a mistake in his maths, summing these to 2135 and therefore claiming that 262 plants etc remained for further distribution to West Africa, Dominica, Java, Trinidad, Queensland, Zanzibar and Mauritius.

These are all the great rubber growing places of the world.

Ridley did not know the numbers involved in this further distribution but the total could not have exceeded 162 as a true summation of 2235.

Ridley also noted that a further 22 plants were sent, after the others to Singapore had died - ie to replace the dead ones that perished in the harbour.

Ridley concludes by saying that the 22 plants which were sent to Singapore, from which almost all the cultivated plants are derived were from CROSS' NOT WICKHAM' collections.

Loadman concludes

Ridley's last statement was one he made several times over the previous 60 years. But finding evidence for all this now is diminshed.

Many writers have told the tale of the rubber migration to the East and of course groups of these people have all used the same ( inexact ) sources. There are many leading academic and authoritative voices amongst the story tellers and there are some who have just perpetuated the same story that was passed down.

An American writer, Joe Jackson, is currently ( 2006 ) writing the biography of SIR HENRY WICKHAM. This is to be published in the Fall of 2007. The wonderful title is in itself a good clue of the story to follow.

The Thief at the End of the World.

Perhaps Joe will make clear the jury is still out on the CROSS v WICKHAN debate.

The centenary of Robert Cross' death in 2011 is a good gaol to help to restore the balance and at least see that his contribution is acknowledged in wider circles than now.



Personalties of Participants

Clements Markham, who had successfully overseen the chinchona
project was the unexpected choice to lead the rubber missions.

Robert McKenzie Cross of Kew Gardens