Congratulations, Singapore Botanic Gardens!

Burkill Hall, Botanic Gardens - a unique example of colonial architecture. (source)
Burkill Hall, Botanic Gardens – a unique example of colonial architecture. (source)

How wonderful – having had a woeful and overpriced brunch today around Bukit Timah (I’ll get to that), I decided to at least walk it off in the Botanic Gardens, one of my favourite places in Singapore. And now comes the good news: after some years of preparation and consideration, the Botanic Gardens has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The coverage in Singapore has focused a lot on the Gardens’ role in supporting Singapore’s urban greening, its own aesthetic qualities, as well as the notable architecture on the park itself, notably Burkill Hall. I personally think, though, that even this is quite an understatement of the effect that the Singapore Botanic Gardens has had on Singapore’s history. The innovations that were created on the grounds of the Gardens had effects that didn’t stop at making this little island a garden city; instead they changed the economic destinies and lives of millions across different countries and even continents. We can look at just one such innovation, that underlaid the industrial age – rubber.

The Sap that Drove Empires Mad

Rubber is an easy sort of thing to underestimate or even forget nowadays, but during the 19th century it was one of the key components of globalisation and European colonisation. The Europeans knew about rubber since the 1730s, but for a century it was not particularly useful because of its natural limitations. High temperatures made it sticky and gooey; low temperatures made it brittle.

So rubber languished, being used mainly for stationery, until 1844 when vulcanisation was invented. This chemical process removed rubber’s natural deficiencies, and all of a sudden vulcanised rubber became useful. More than useful; it became essential. Machines needed it in seals, joints, belts; homes had it in hoses, gloves, shoes. And as it became essential for the industrial world, the industrial world became desperate to find more and more of it.

Sometimes they went to terrible lengths for the latex. Rubber has many sources; in the Congo rainforest, there is actually a vine that pours rubber latex when cut, and the Belgians who ruled Congo would do anything to get it. Africans were forced to drench themselves in rubber latex, which was then scraped off their skin with knives; people who refused to do this would often have their hands chopped off as punishment. This is the setting for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Thankfully there was a less horrible way of getting latex. The Hevea brasiliensis, or rubber tree, leaks rubber gently when cut, so you can hold it in a cup; unlike the rubber vine, it also can be cultivated, so you can have plantations instead of heading into the rainforest to look for it. But for the British, who ruled Singapore and Malaya by that time, there was just one little problem. As the scientific name of the rubber tree implies, it comes from Brazil. And it only grows there.

Making White Gold

And Brazil was making an absolute killing out of this natural resource. In the late 19th century, the first rubber tyres were created, which made it even more essential; and the Brazilians just about monopolised the supply, leading to a rubber boom. Settlers moved along the Amazon in their thousands, looking for the wild rubber trees; inland cities like Manaus suddenly became boom towns; rubber made up 40% of Brazil’s total exports during the period.

Britain, as the leading industrial country, was the biggest customer; in fact they paid so much for Brazilian rubber that the British pound was the currency used in Manaus. This worried them. A foreign power controlling the supply of something which you need to keep your country running – that’s a major problem. So something had to be done.

In 1876, rubber seeds were smuggled out of Brazil to Kew Gardens, the United Kingdom’s botanic gardens. Most of them died, but some managed to germinate; some of these were sent to Singapore, where they grew. But growing was not the only hurdle – after all, millions of trees grow in Brazil, so a few in Singapore and Malaya wasn’t going to do anything. It would take someone’s work to make the transformation happen.

Mad Ridley

The technique for tapping rubber that changed everything.
The technique for tapping rubber that changed everything.

Henry Ridley was appointed the first Scientific Director of the Botanic Gardens in 1888, when he was just 33 years old; and the first thing that caught his eye was the immense, unfulfilled potential of the rubber trees that grew in the gardens. He was so passionate about the trees, about promoting them and spreading the word, that people called him ‘Mad Ridley’.

Except, of course, he wasn’t mad; and over years and years of work, he managed to not only turn rubber into a viable crop – he ensured that the British colonies in Malaya and Sri Lanka were better at extracting rubber than their Brazilian competitors. In Brazil, the rubber grew wild and could not be cultivated; so Ridley figured out a way to cultivate them, and maximised density without lowering production. In Brazil, the technique for tapping rubber was to cut deeply into the tree, which quickly kills it. So Ridley, in 1895, developed the herring-bone method of tapping rubber. Because it only hurts the bark a little, the tree recovers easily, and can be tapped again. And again, and again. While Brazilian trees were quickly killed by tapping, Ridley’s technique meant that trees can continue to produce rubber for 25 years.

At the same time, Ridley’s promotion finally got somewhere in 1895 also, setting up the first rubber plantations; within 20 years, Malaya and Sri Lanka had absolutely crushed Brazil as rubber producers. What the Malayan plantations produced was better in every way – it was easier on the workers, the trees lasted longer, and so the price could be lower, allowing them to corner the market. Singapore quickly became the headquarters of this boom; the Botanic Gardens became a major exporter of high-quality rubber seeds, often shipping them out by the millions. A whole new industry took off, and it has been flying ever since.

Winners and Losers

It would be difficult to trace all the different economic and political impacts that this shift in rubber production brought to the world. For the winners in Malaya and Singapore, rubber wealth hastened the development of both territories and created a class of plantation tycoons, many of whom became prominent members of society. The philanthropy and social activism of people like Tan Kah Kee, Tan Lark Sye, Lee Kong Chian and Lee Choon Seng were largely founded on their rubber empires.

This activism was not limited to Singapore either; one of the reasons why Sun Yat-sen often visited Singapore was because he had financial support from the rubber tycoons who helped fund his revolution. Even the Wanqingyuan house (now the Sun Yat-sen Nanyang Memorial Hall) was given to Sun by a rubber baron, Teo Eng Hock, so he could use it as a base and residence. Even today rubber remains an important cash crop in Malaysia, even though the large plantations have been replaced with smallholdings. Still, with exports being worth 15 billion RM, it’s no small contributor for them.

In Brazil, meanwhile, the effects of losing this competition were devastating for the inland cities. Since rubber was the only reason they bothered to move into the rainforests, the wealthy began moving out once rubber became unprofitable. Manaus, which had electric lighting even before the larger coastal cities, lost its lights when there was no more money to run the generators. The centre of Brazil’s economy shifted back to the great coastal cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and they’re still there today as well.

All this because of a series of experiments in our very own Botanic Gardens! And this is only one of the crops they worked on, albeit the most successful and impactful. This, I think, is why the Botanic Gardens truly deserves to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Yes, it really is a lovely park; it also has some very nice looking houses, some of which are unique. But that’s special in a small way.

To be a lovely park with nice houses that’s changed the world – well, that’s another level of special entirely.

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