We may think of the destruction of tropical rainforests as a recent phenomenon that began in the middle of the 20th century. The story of a tree, the invention of the telegraph, and the explosion of a volcano shows that industrial exploitation of tropical rainforests began much earlier.
Krakatau (also spelled Krakatoa and Krakatowa) was a volcanic island in the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java to the east and Sumatra to the northwest. On August 27, 1883, after years of grumbling, smoking and belching, Krakatoa exploded, sending plumes of smoke, ash, rock, and flames into the air. So violent was the explosion that the entire island disappeared. The sound of the explosion arrived about 3 hours later over 2,000 miles away in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. A concussive air wave traveled around the world, and tides rose in the English Channel days later.
News of the volcano’s explosion traveled around the world faster than the sound or the air waves. The telegraph had been invented a few years earlier. By 1883, undersea cables could carry telegraph signals around the world. News of the explosion of Krakatau reached Europe within hours of the explosion from telegraph stations in Batavia (now Jakarta). Tsunamis created by Krakatau’s explosion soon severed the cables leading from Batavia to Singapore, but not before the news had spread worldwide.
The development of undersea cables was the direct result of the exploitation of a remarkable Indonesian tree, known as percha (various species of Palaquium, especially Palaquium gutta). Percha trees grow in the lowland forests and kerangas (peat forests) of Sumatra, Java and Borneo. The sap was known as gutta percha (Malay for percha sap), and was used to make knife handles, tools and decorative items. Gutta percha is very similar to the latex we get from rubber trees, but there is a slight chemical difference that made gutta percha very useful. Rubber is elastic at room temperature, stretching and bending easily. Before the invention of vulcanization, rubber was also very perishable. Gutta percha is elastic when warm, but becomes hard, stiff and durable when it cools.
The first undersea cables always failed after a few hours or days in service. Wrapping copper wire in tarred hemp, rubber and other materials failed to create a durable cable. The Gutta Percha Company (later the India Rubber, Gutta Percha and Telegraph Works Company, Limited) began making a durable, practical cable from copper wire embedded in gutta percha and then wrapped with steel cable and rubber. A cable from Dover to Calais laid in 1851 was the first successful undersea cable. Soon, cable ships were laying cable in oceans around the world, creating the first global communications network. The explosion of Krakatau in 1883 is said to be the first natural disaster that was almost instantly known throughout the world.
Gutta percha was an essential ingredient for making cables from 1850 to 1930. The demand for gutta percha was insatiable. Lowland forests throughout Indonesia and Malaysia were stripped of their percha trees. Unlike rubber, which can be sustainably harvested from individual trees for decades, gutta percha harvesting destroyed the trees. Millions of percha trees were felled, and the surrounding forests were often destroyed in the process. The appetite for gutta percha spread to other trees that made similar latex, though products such as balata, from South America, were inferior.
By the early 20th century, most of the percha trees were gone. Although Palaquium gutta is no longer common, it is not threatened. Many other species of Palaquium are threatened or endangered. Synthetic polymers produced from petroleum eventually replaced the demand for gutta percha. Today, the only common use of gutta percha is in dentistry. If you have had a root canal, you are probably carrying around a bit of a percha tree in your mouth.
Today, the wholesale destruction of the tropical forests of Southeast Asia is a well-known story. Vast areas of Indonesia have been logged for wood products or for conversion to agriculture. But over 100 years earlier, European industrial development decimated the lowland forests of Indonesia in search of a precious commodity, gutta percha.
Sources: The marvelous book Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded, by Simon Winchester is the main source of material for this story, along with my personal experiences living and working in Southeast Asia. Additional information came from the History of the Atlantic Cable and Undersea Communications. There is an article on this subject by John Tully in Journal of World History, but I have been unable to locate a copy.