- Submarine Telegraphy and the Hunt for Gutta Percha: Challenge and Opportunity in a Global Trade by Helen Godfrey
By Helen Godfrey. Leiden: Brill, 2018. Pp. 330.
"Gutta percha," as Helen Godfrey notes in her opening line, "is now largely forgotten." A natural plastic derived from the latex of certain trees native to Malaya, Sumatra, and Borneo, it has almost entirely given way to synthetic substitutes; besides a few historians, almost the only people today who have ever heard of it are dentists, who still use it to fill root canals. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, gutta percha was a significant item of commerce and one of enormous strategic value. As the favored insulating material for submarine telegraph cables, it was the linchpin of the global telecommunications system that powered transoceanic trade and knit together the British Empire. It was also among the most intensively studied materials in the world, its chemical, mechanical, and electrical properties carefully tested and tabulated by British scientists and engineers. For more than fifty years, gutta percha lay at the heart of the leading high-tech industry of its day, yet as Godfrey shows, its availability to cable manufacturers ultimately rested on the skills and labor of axe-wielding forest-dwellers, many of whom, particularly in Borneo, were literally headhunters.
Godfrey's book grew out of her 2011 doctoral dissertation in economic history at the University of New England in Australia. It is packed with informative graphs correlating the booms and busts in cable laying between 1850 and 1900 with trends in the trade in gutta percha and associated goods. Drawing on both anthropological literature and economists' analyses of global commodity chains, she illuminates the very different meanings gutta percha acquired as it moved from the forests of Borneo to the cable factories of London before finally being laid to rest at the bottom of the sea.
Godfrey devotes her opening chapters to sketching the history of the cable industry and the workings of the gutta percha markets in Singapore, but her real focus is on the forests and peoples of Sarawak. This region in northwestern Borneo supplied only a fraction of total gutta percha production—most came from the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and the Dutch portion of Borneo—but it provides a rich ground for Godfrey's analysis of the [End Page 1247] ways indigenous groups responded to the new global demand for this product of their forests. Now a part of Malaysia, Sarawak has an unusual history. In the 1840s, the sultan of Brunei ceded a portion of his territory in Borneo to James Brooke, a British adventurer, as thanks for his help in suppressing a rebellion. Brooke and his successors ruled Sarawak for the next century as its "white rajahs," seeking to extract profit from it with a minimum of capital investment. They found the gutta percha trade suited them very well. Efforts in the nineteenth century to produce gutta percha on plantations or by tapping standing trees proved unworkable; instead, forest trees were felled, their bark slashed, and the latex drawn off, with even large trees only yielding about a pound. Long cables required hundreds of tons of gutta percha, and millions of trees were felled and stripped to build the global cable network. This work of felling and stripping trees was done almost entirely by indigenous people in Sarawak, mainly the Iban, renowned as fearsome headhunters.
There was no need to coerce the Iban to gather gutta percha; they were happy to do it. Widely regarded as adventurous and entrepreneurial, their values and traditions seemed tailor made for the gutta percha trade. In particular, young Iban men achieved status by heading off on long and often dangerous journeys, their goal being to earn enough money to buy prestige goods (pusaka), particularly brassware and large Chinese jars. Venturing deep into the forest to gather gutta percha they could trade for pusaka, was thus an attractive prospect. This is perhaps Godfrey's most striking point: the Iban took to the gutta percha trade because it "did not require...