Henry Wickham wasn't smart, he wasn't rich, and he definitely wasn't lucky. What he was, was determined. In 1866, when he was 20, he sailed for the Amazon in search of exotic feathers for his mother's hat business back in London. That was a failure, like everything else he tried, but he caught the Amazon bug, and 10 years later he pulled off the one spectacular success of his life. In defiance of malaria, anacondas, electric eels, freshwater stingrays, Confederate colonists, customs inspectors and Yanomamo tribesmen, he smuggled 70,000 priceless rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil and back to England.
This single act of biological piracy, richly recounted in Joe Jackson's astounding The THIEF AT THE END OF THE WORLD (Viking; 432 pages), "handed Britain the first worldwide monopoly of a strategic resource in human history." And Wickham? He got a pittance for his trouble and went off to farm sea slugs in the Conflict Islands, the quintessential Victorian sad sack: ignorant, incompetent, indomitable.