A Victorian Ecological Disaster: Imperialism, the Telegraph and Gutta-Percha

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Tully, John (2009) A Victorian Ecological Disaster: Imperialism, the Telegraph and Gutta-Percha. Journal of World History, 20 (4). pp. 559-579. ISSN 1045-6007


The nineteenth century saw the creation of the largest empires the world has ever seen. The carve-up was accomplished by the sword but it was consolidated by the invention of the electric telegraph. The communication that could take over six months by ship for messages to reach the imperial capital from the colonies could now be accomplished almost instantaneously. This required a huge industrial undertaking and involved the manufacture and installation of hundreds of thousands of miles of cable, much of it laid across the deep ocean beds. The key to the success of the new system was a natural plastic, gutta-percha (almost forgotten today), which proved indispensable as insulation for the submarine cables. However, as this article will show, the “gum” was obtained by profligate, inefficient, and ultimately unsustainable methods of extraction, which killed the trees in the process. The imperial authorities and the telegraph companies gave little thought to the future of a precious finite resource: it was merely one more tropical commodity to be ruthlessly exploited. So great was the demand for the gum that the wild trees that provided it were almost extinct by the late nineteenth century. The communication made possible by the discovery of a unique vegetable commodity native only in the colonial world destroyed the very trees that allowed it to occur.

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Item type Article
URI https://vuir.vu.edu.au/id/eprint/4647
DOI 10.1353/jwh.0.0088
Official URL http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_world_hist...
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 0502 Environmental Science and Management
Historical > FOR Classification > 2103 Historical Studies
Historical > Faculty/School/Research Centre/Department > School of Social Sciences and Psychology
Historical > SEO Classification > 970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology
Keywords ResPubID18215, empire building, colonisation, electric telegraph, submarine telegraph cables, gutta-percha, environmental sustainability
Citations in Scopus 42 - View on Scopus
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