Henry Wickham was born in England in 1846, and he was one of fortune's fools if there ever was one. Dreamy, ungifted and of modest means, Wickham set off for the Amazon at the age of 20 to collect exotic feathers for his mother's hat business. When that venture failed he spent the next 10 years failing to set up a rubber plantation while various relatives who came over to help him dropped dead around him. From this stupendous disaster he wrung one towering, historic, ethically questionable victory. Defying 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 Kew Gardens, in a single stroke handing England supremacy in one of the key resources of the 20th century. Wickham's life is a stone-cold historical thriller, a black comedy and one of the great secret fables of the modern age.