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.
Ridley's last statement was one he made several times over the previous 60 years. But finding evidence for all this now
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.
WILLIAM CROSS IS AVAILABLE TO GIVE A TALK TO YOUR GROUP, SOCIETY, ORGANISATION ON THE LIFE AND WORK ON ROBERT CROSS.
CONTACT HIM e-mail
Personalties of Participants
Clements Markham, who had successfully overseen the chinchona
project was the unexpected choice to lead the rubber missions.