On 11 June 1877, a total of 22 rubber seedlings from the Kew Gardens in England were sent to the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Of the 22 seedlings, nine found their way to Kuala Kangsar, Perak, 11 were sown in the Botanic Gardens of Singapore, and the remaining two were probably planted in Malacca. This consignment of 22 seedlings was, however, not the first attempt at propagating rubber in Singapore; in the previous year, all the 50 seedlings that were sent from Kew perished on their journey to Singapore. At the time, rubber was not popular with planters as their money and attention were invested in more profitable crops, particularly tapioca, gambier, pepper, sugar and coffee. Besides, little was known of rubber planting and many planters were reluctant to take the risk of planting a crop that would require about six years to reach maturity.
From the mid-1870s to the 1890s, experiments were carried out to make rubber planting commercially viable, yielding several breakthroughs due to the efforts of Henry Nicholas (H. N.) Ridley, a botanist who was the director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (1888–1912). One of Ridley's important achievements during the 1890s was the invention of the herring-bone method of tapping. Unlike the traditional method of incision, which often resulted in over-tapping and killed the tree, this new method allowed for just a section of the bark to be removed. Ridley also researched on the most suitable places for planting, the ideal density per acre, the best method of raising seedlings, the most effective processing techniques, and the best means of packing and shipping processed rubber.
Throughout the late 1880s and 1890s, Ridley set out on a personal mission to convince coffee growers to switch to rubber cultivation. Around the same time, there was an explosive growth in world demand for rubber due to the burgeoning automobile industry, which was in turn fuelled by the invention of the pneumatic tyre by Dunlop in 1888. Coincidentally, this was also the period when coffee plantations in Malaya were destroyed by diseases. Consequently, more planters started growing rubber as an alternative crop.
1. Hooi, C. (1977). First successful planting of the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis in the Botanic Gardens, Singapore. Heritage: A Bi-annual Publication of the National Museum, Republic of Singapore, 2, 21. Call no.: RSING 959.005 H; Drabble, J. H. (1967, July). The plantation rubber industry in Malaya up to 1922. Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 40(1), 53. Retrieved September 4, 2013, from JSTOR.
2. Drabble, Jul 1967, p. 53.
3. Huff, W. G. (1994). The economic growth of Singapore: Trade and development in the twentieth century (p. 181). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Call no.: RSING 338.959570094 HUF.
4. Hooi, 1977, pp. 22, 26; The grand old rubber tree and a sketch to stretch Ridley's imagination. (2008, January). Gardenwise, 30, 26. Retrieved September 4, 2013, from http://www.sbg.org.sg/publications/72.pdf
5. Drabble, Jul 1967, p. 53; Hooi, 1977, p. 26.
6. Drabble, J. H. (1973). Rubber in Malaya, 1876–1922; the genesis of the industry (pp. 7–10) Kuala Lumpur: Oxford Univ. Press. Call no.: RSING 338.173895209595 DRA; Mr H. N. Ridley. (1936, January 3). The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Allington, K. (1973, April 9). The 'mad' man and his rubber seeds...The Straits Times, p. 20; Henry Ridley. (1956, October 26). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Hooi, 1977, p. 26
9. Drabble, Jul 1967, p. 54; 'Malaya went rubber crazy'. (1950, October 29). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.