Scared Pale Men
Neal Stephenson on Lord Kelvin

The Grand Strategy of the British Empire

A decade ago Neal Stephenson went to East Penang Botanical Garden:

4.12: Mother Earth Mother Board: 5° 26.325' N, 100° 17.417' E Penang Botanical Gardens: Penang... lies just off the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. The British acquired it from the local sultan in the late 1700s, built a pathetic fort above the harbor, and named it, appropriately, after the hapless General Cornwallis. They set up a couple of churches and established the kernel of a judicial system. A vigorous market grew up around them. A few kilometers away, they built a botanical garden.

This seems like an odd set of priorities to us today. But gardens were not mere decorations to the British - they were strategic installations.

The headquarters was Kew Gardens outside of London. Penang was one of the forward outposts, and it became incomparably more important than the nearby fort. In 1876, 70,000 seeds of the rubber tree, painstakingly collected by botanists in the Amazon rain forest, were brought to Kew Gardens and planted in a greenhouse. About 2,800 of them germinated and were shipped to the botanical gardens in Sri Lanka and Penang, where they propagated explosively and were used to establish rubber plantations.

Most of these plantations were on the neighboring Malay Peninsula, a lumpy, bony tentacle of land that stretches for 1,000 miles from Bangkok in the north to Singapore in the south, where it grazes the equator. The landscape is a stalemate between, on one hand, the devastatingly powerful erosive forces of continual tropical rainstorms and dense plant life, and, on the other hand, some really, really hard rocks. Anything with the least propensity to be eroded did so a long time ago and turned into a paddy. What's left are ridges of stone that rise almost vertically from the landscape and are still mostly covered with rain forest, notwithstanding efforts by the locals to cut it all down. The flat stuff is all used for something - coconuts, date palms, banana trees, and above all, rubber.

Until artificial rubber was invented by the colony-impaired Germans, no modern economy could exist without the natural stuff. All of the important powers had tropical colonies where rubber was produced. For the Netherlands, it was Indonesia; for France, it was Indochina; for the British, it was what they then called Malaya, as well as many other places.

Without rubber and another kind of tree resin called gutta-percha, it would not have been possible to wire the world. Early telegraph lines were just naked conductors strung from pole to pole, but this worked poorly, especially in wet conditions, so some kind of flexible but durable insulation was needed. After much trial and error, rubber became the standard for terrestrial and aerial wires while gutta-percha (a natural gum also derived from a tree grown in Malaya) was used for submarine cables. Gutta-percha is humble-looking stuff, a nondescript brown crud that surrounds the inner core of old submarine cables to a thickness of perhaps 1 centimeter, but it was a wonder material back in those days, and the longer it remained immersed in salt water, the better it got.

So far, it was all according to the general plan that the British had in mind: find some useful DNA in the Americas, stockpile it at Kew Gardens, propagate it to other botanical gardens around the world, make money off the proceeds, and grow the economy. Modern-day Penang, however, is a good example of the notion of unintended consequences.

As soon as the British had established the rule of law in Penang, various kinds of Chinese people began to move in and establish businesses. Most of them were Hokkien Chinese from north of Hong Kong, though Cantonese, Hakka, and other groups also settled there. Likewise, Tamils and Sikhs came from across the Bay of Bengal. As rubber trees began to take over the countryside, a common arrangement was for Chinese immigrants to establish rubber plantations and hire Indian immigrants (as well as Malays) as laborers.

The British involvement, then, was more catalytic than anything else. They didn't own the rubber plantations. They merely bought the rubber on an open market from Chinese brokers who in turn bought it from producers of various ethnicities. The market was just a few square blocks of George Town where British law was enforced, i.e. where businessmen could rely on a few basics like property rights, contracts, and a currency...