More traducing of Britain by the BBC

One of the demoralising features of contemporary British life is the dirge of hyper criticism of British history which the media subjects us to.  With Niall Ferguson’s televised history of the British Empire (2005), things have got a little better of late, but there is still a long way to go to eliminate anti-British bias since the nadir reached in the BBC TimeLife co-production on the British Empire in 1972.  This was an ignorant diatribe against the British people using photographs from the Belgian Congo for instance to show how badly the British treated the Africans in the late Victorian period, and grossly wrong accounts of events in India, Canada and elsewhere.  Some people who had lived through or close to the events described were reduced to tears by the portrayals.

The general approach of the media graduate of the mid ‘60s onwards seems to be one of automatic unthinking condemnation of British activities overseas from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  It never seems to occur to them that it is actually deeply offensive to many of their fellow citizens, their own kith and kin; indeed they would be the first to condemn stereotyping criticism of other peoples and nations (except the Germans and Americans of course).

Thus in the October 31st BBC1 telecast of Michael Palin’s wanderings around Brazil[1] he tells us that Sir Henry Wickham “stole” rubber seeds from Brazil to take them to Kew Gardens.  Later in the programme we were told that the British had stolen these seeds, despite one of the Brazilians actually telling Palin that the seeds were all around – as seeds from big trees tend to be.

The truth is that in 1876 Wickham had gathered and packed and about 70,000 seeds (hevea braziliensis) weighing almost a ton, shipped them from Central Brazil about 1,000 miles down the Amazon, and thence to Liverpool, an operation which clearly needed the goodwill and cooperation of the local people and the Brazilian authorities.   From these 70,000 about 2,100 germinated and grew into plants.  Wickham’s insight was to see that if systematically cultivated in plantations, hevea braziliensis could be the foundation of a major new industry, given the discoveries of Goodyear and Hancock in 1839-41 that latex (a sticky fluid) from several types of tree actually, could be turned by vulcanization (reaction with sulphur) into what we now know as natural rubber (a solid).

Such an industry was established in Malaya from about 20 plants shipped out from Kew in 1878.  From its starting point in the Malayan jungle, under dedicated management this mini-plantation grew to become the largest natural rubber producer in the world.  Contrary to Palin’s further comment that somehow these events “destroyed” the Brazilian rubber industry, the facts are that after the success of the Malayan venture became clear, attempts were made to establish plantations in Brazil near the latex producing trees.  The local Indian people were not however well-disposed to the regular systematic procedures needed not only to tap the latex and convert it to rubber, but also to protect the trees from mould and other infestations.  Moreover shipping costs to its principal markets were very high.  As a result the Brazilian ventures failed[2], as did a later venture by Henry Ford in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Perhaps Palin, a former comedian turned travel journalist, could not have been expected to know all this.  But he should have checked his facts before using words like “stole”.  He was, after all, quite expensively educated in Modern History at Brasenose College, Oxford.

[1]  After the now standard BBC ritual of telling us that Brazil has the sixth biggest economy in the world (which I personally doubt given the unreliability of our own and other people’s GDP figures).

[2]  Hevea braziliensis is not the only source of latex.  Attempts were made at many places in the tropics to establish latex rubber plantations based on other tree types, but by the 1930s it was generally agreed that the Malayan plantations produced the best results.

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