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Long before the internet, the telegraph brought much of the world together in a communications network. And, as historian John Tully writes, the new nineteenth-century technology was deeply entangled with colonialism, both in the uses it was put to and the raw material that made it possible—the now-obscure natural plastic gutta-percha.

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Tully writes that the resin product, made from the sap of certain Southeast Asian trees, is similar to rubber, but without the bounce. When warmed in hot water, it becomes pliable before hardening again as it cools. It’s resistant to both water and acid. For centuries, Malay people had used the resin to make various tools. When Europeans learned about its uses in the nineteenth century, they adopted it for everything from shoe soles to water pipes. It even became part of the slang of the day—in the 1860s, New Englanders might refer to someone they disliked as an “old gutta-percha.” Perhaps most importantly, gutta-percha was perfect for coating copper telegraph wire, replacing much less efficient insulators like tarred cotton or hemp. It was especially important in protecting undersea cables, which simply wouldn’t have been practical without it.

And those undersea cables became a key part of colonial governance in the second half of the nineteenth century. Prior to the invention of the electric telegraph, Tully writes, it could take six months for news from a colonial outpost to reach the mother country, making imperial control difficult. For example, when Java’s Prince Diponegoro led an uprising against Dutch colonists in 1825, the Dutch government didn’t find out for months, delaying the arrival of reinforcements.

Then, in 1857, Indians rebelled against the rule of the British East India Company. This led panicked colonists to demand an expanded telegraph system. By 1865, Karachi had a near-instant communications line to London. Just a decade later, more than 100,000 miles of cable laid across seabeds brought Australia, South Africa, Newfoundland, and many places in between, into a global communication network largely run by colonial powers. Tully argues that none of this would have been possible without gutta-percha.

But the demand for gutta-percha was bad news for the rainforests where it was found. Tens of millions of trees were felled to extract the resin. Even a large tree might yield less than a pound of the stuff, and the growing telegraph system used as much as four million pounds a year. By the 1890s, ancient forests were in ruins and the species that produced gutta-percha were so rare that some cable companies had to decline projects because they couldn’t get enough of it.

The trees weren’t driven completely extinct, and, eventually, the wireless telegraph and synthetic plastics made its use in telegraph cables obsolete. Today, the resin is only used in certain specialty areas such as dentistry. Yet sadly, the decimation of the trees prefigured the fate of rainforests around the world under colonial and neocolonial global systems for more than a century to come.

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Journal of World History, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Dec., 2009), pp. 559–579
University of Hawai'i Press on behalf of World History Association