The first recorded evidence of the existence of a rubber producing tree was when Christopher Columbus made his voyage to the Americas in 1493-1496 and observed the inhabitants of Haiti playing with balls of gum-like substance. Many years later in 1872, it was discovered that this gum from the West Indies could be utilized for rubbing out pencil marks on paper and hence the name India Rubber came into common usage. The process of vulcanization which converted rubber from a substance of little importance to one of the world’s most important products was discovered in 1842 by Charles Goodyear, but the annual consumption remained negligible until the year 1900 when the advent of motor cars created a demand for rubber.
The story of the collection of the Hevea Braziliensis seeds in the Amazon Valley and their transport down that great river by Sir Henry Wickham was a feat in itself. Sir Henry’s services to tropical agriculture were recognized in 1911 when the Planters’ Association of Ceylon took the initiative and having approached the Malayan Planters’ Association and the Rubber Growers’ Association, arranged for a presentation to Sir Henry at a banquet organized by the International Rubber and Allied Traders’ Exhibition on the 7th July 1911. The presentation took the form of a purse of 1,000 guineas, an Annuity and a Testimonial setting forth the natures of Sir Henry’s services.
Sir Henry Wickham
During the period of transition of coffee to tea, experiments in the cultivation of another product, Rubber were proceeding. Early experiments had proved that various types of rubber yielding trees flourished in Ceylon, but the industry can be said to have had its birth in 1876 when 1,919 plants of Hevea Braziliensis - the native Rubber tree of the Amazon Valley – were received in good condition at the Heneratgoda Botanical Gardens from Kew in England. It was from these mother trees that the gigantic Rubber Plantation Industry in the Eastern Hemisphere sprang and the development of the Industry in Ceylon. The reference to the fact that the first plants of Hevea Braziliensis came to Ceylon from Kew recalls that there was a Botanical Garden of that name in Ceylon. The first garden was established at Peliyagoda in 1799 but this was transferred to Slave Island in Colombo, in 1810 and named “Kew”.
Its existence is recalled today by the names of various thoroughfares un that area that used to be or are still called Kew Road, Kew Lane, Kew Passage and Kew Patch. The Botanical Gardens were moved to Kalutara in 1813 and eventually transferred to their present site at Peradeniya in 1821.
The trees planted in the Heneratgoda Botanical Gardens in 1876 first flowered in 1881, in which year the first experiments in tapping were commenced. The plantation was thinned out in 1882 and from the 260 seedlings raised the following year and distributed in Ceylon, the first spread of commercial rubber planting began.
To 1890, the acerage under Rubber was confined to a mere 678 acres and the main interest was the planting of tea – the new staple. The trees from Heneratgoda were thinned out periodically and by 1887 there were 457 good trees standing which provided the seed for further planting. In 1890, the Forest Department opened a plantation at Edangoda and by 1893 some 90,000 seeds were distributed for planting and similar numbers were sold in succeeding years at a price of approximately 10 Rupees per thousand.
Interior of Rubber Factory
Following the first commercial planting in 1883, further areas were planted at a more moderate pace until, by 1904, 25,000 acres were under cultivation. Thirty four tons of Rubber were exported that year. Rubber planting thereafter increased very rapidly. By 1906, 100,000 acres had been planted and this figure was increased to 180,000 acres in 1908 and 203,910 acres by 1910. The 300,000 acre mark was topped in 1920; the acreage exceeded 400,000 in 1925 and three years later in 1928 had been increased to 534,000 acres.
The beginning of the century, 1900 found the Empire in the throes of a war with the South African Boer Republics. Ever ready to go the aid of the Mother Country in times of peril, members of the planting community formed the Ceylon Contingent of Mounted Infantry, which left the shores of Ceylon for South Africa in 1900, where they were known popularly as “The Dandy Horsemen of Ceylon”. As a direct result of the patriotic sentiments stirred up by the operations in South Africa, The Ceylon Planters’ Rifle Corp” was embodied. They too provided a contingent for South Africa and their record of service in that, and in the two world wars, is second to none.
In Ceylon, the end of the twentieth century saw a flurry of activity. 21 March 1898 saw the unveiling of a portrait of the Late A.M.Ferguson, painted by Mr Trevor Haddon and presented by members of the Ferguson family to be hung in the “Ferguson Memorial Hall”. The foundation stone of the North-West Breakwater was laid without ceremony on 4 April 1898 as was the foundation stone of the new Galle Face Church by the Bishop of Colombo on 14 June.
Working Rubber Crepe
At year end, the Governor promised appointment of a Commission of Inquiry into the incidence of Taxation and the Ocean Penny Postage was inaugurated on 25 December. The rate of postage between Ceylon and the United Kingdom being fixed at 6 cents per half ounce.
In January 1899, the De Soysa Bacteriological institute was erected. The formal opening of the new electric tramways by the Mayor and Municipal Councillors making a tour of the streets in the cars took place on 12 January.
The Boer War and the advent of the motor vehicle with pneumatic tyres made of rubber came at an opportune time for an entrepreneur.