Herbert Wright has called attention to the fact that it was Hancock who in 1834 first suggested the possibility of cultivating the best kinds of rubber trees in the East and West Indies. The suggestion arose on account of the difficulties which Hancock and his colleagues experienced even at that date in procuring a sufficient supply of raw material. The actual birth of the rubber planting industry, however, dates only from the seventies, and is specially associated with the names of Sir Joseph Hooker, at that time Director of the Royal Gardens, Kew, of Sir Clements Markham who occupied an important position at the India Office, and with those of the collectors Collins, Cross and Wickham. The success of the introduction of cinchona to the East ten years earlier led Markham about 1870 to take up the question of the introduction of rubber to India. The first step was marked by the preparation in 1872 of a report by James Collins, who had already published an excellent account of the wild species of rubber in 1868.
The story of the winning of the rubber seeds from America is one full of romantic interest, and speaks volumes for the enterprise and determination of the collectors. The first seeds of Hevea to arrive at Kew were probably those brought by Collins from the Amazon in 1873. In l875 Cross was shipwrecked whilst on the way home with a consignment of Castilloa plants and seeds. Nevertheless he managed to preserve his precious collection and bring it safe to land. He was sent out again to collect Hevea seed in 1877 and was again successful. Although only a few of Cross's Hevea seedlings were preserved, there must by this time be a considerable number of trees growing in Eastern plantations which are directly descended from the survivors of this consignment. Cross was also responsible for the introduction of Ceara rubber to Kew about the same date a less difficult feat owing to the greater powers of resistance possessed by the seeds of Manihot.
By far the largest and most important supply of Hevea seeds to reach Kew was, however, that brought home by H. A. Wickham in 1876. Wickham, who was resident at the time in the rubber country of the Amazon, was commissioned to supply seeds to the Indian Government ; but the Brazilian authorities were naturally opposed to the export of the seed, and it was a remarkable chance which threw the required opportunity in Wickham's way. An ocean-going steamer trading to the Amazon was there abandoned by her supercargoes without a return freight Wickham boldly chartered the steamer on behalf of the Indian Government, and all hands were pressed into the service of collecting seeds. The cargo once aboard was passed by the port authorities as botanical specimens, and upwards of 70,000 seeds were thus safely transported to Kew. Less than 4 per cent, of these seeds, however, germinated. The writer has Mr Wickham's personal assurance that these seeds came from full-sized forest trees actually being worked for rubber, which grew at a considerable distance from the river on forest-covered plateaux some hundreds of feet above flood-level. The often repeated statement that the parents of the rubber plantations had their origin in swampy ground liable to floods, may therefore be taken to be entirely without foundation.
Although the Government of India paid all the expenses connected with the introduction of Wickham's seedlings, Ceylon was selected as the site of their chief tropical nursery. A special garden at Henaratgoda, in the low country near Colombo, was opened to receive them, and here were set out some 2000 plants which arrived in Ceylon in 1876 in 39 Wardian cases by the s.s. Duke of Devonshire.
In the same year smaller consignments of plants of Hevea brasiliensis were despatched from Kew to Burma, Java, Singapore, and the West Indies. In 1877 plants were sent to Mauritius and West Africa, and in 1878 to Fiji.
Plants of Hevea Spruceana were first sent to Ceylon in 1883, but they do not appear to have survived.
Castilloa and Manihot Glaziovii, Ceara rubber, were also distributed by Kew to the samp colonies at about the same date.