Today was time to get on the trail of the rubber seeds that were brought here to Singapore in the 19th century after they’d been taken from Brazil years earlier, raised in Kew Gardens and then the seed of those seeds came here to be the progenitors of the world rubber industry and a vital strategic resource in the wars of the 2oth century.
I’d been told that the trees were planted right here, before their seeds in turn were taken and planted in Malaya and what became Indonesia, in plantations that could be bled and milked like tame herds of cows. The trees in their natural state in Brazil’s rain forest were scattered and while they were tapped for rubber, it was on nothing like the scale that happened here. By the early 1900s, Malaya was producing 40% of the world’s rubber. No wonder the Japanese made sure they secured the supply in 1941.
I took some pictures of the history on the panels and set off through the humid air into a garden of equatorial delights. There were plenty of diversions and distractions along the way to the Information Kiosk in the centre of the garden where I hoped to get some directions.
It took me about half an hour of sweaty wanderings to find the man I needed to help me and yes, he assured me, the original trees were planted nearby and there was another ancient grove at the far end near the Tanglin Gate. I set off with his handy map.
I got to the place and as I didn’t quite know what a mature rubber tree looked like, I had to wait until someone from the Park staff came along. In the meantime, I watched two Indian workers clearing around some palms and baking in their uniforms with rubber boots to cook their poor feet. The man running the weed eater was dressed up like a bee keeper armoured against stings and he must have been roasting.
Finally, I saw an aged Chinese gentleman approaching with a broom and asked him where the tree was; he pointed it out and I confess I wouldn’t have guessed. A slow lazy lizard scuttled across my path as if to say, “Here be dragons”.
Once I got up close to the tree, there was an immediate giveaway: the angular slanting cut in the old bark, healed up now but a sure sign this rubber tree had at one time been bled of its latex riches and started a whole new industrial revolution that enabled motorised transport to encircle the globe on land and in the air.
So this was the natural resource, the wonder material that had brought my grandmother and my great aunt into contact with a German rubber company manager in Liverpool in 1898, Carl Hasenburg. Both of them would – according to my mother – bear him a son, my grandmother out of wedlock, my great aunt in.
This was the same substance that ruined my great grandfather’s fortunes during the great war. My grandmother told me often how they had lost their money when her father’s shares in a German Indonesian rubber company had been made worthless by the outbreak of hostilities. This is the trail I am following to Germany on Monday: it is pretty certain that he took these shares in some way connected to his German son-in-law’s presence in the Bywater family.
The equatorial jungles have brought down many venture capitalists in their time and when men and nations fight over strategic resources, there must be losers. Here in this lush and well manicured park, it is hard to imagine that we would kill each other for a substance as harmless as latex, or risk our life’s savings on the produce of trees in far off gardens in somebody elses slice of the globe.
But it is as the song says, Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the Midday Sun. I was past any more wanderings and deliberations and headed for the gate, catching an air-conditioned bus back to my air-conditioned condo with its cool radiant pool for the expatriate colony that lives here, I suppose, as the early rubber barons did. Jenny the Filipino maid was there to greet me; my Nanny too had a life with maids, before the Great War rubber crash.