The horrific consequences of rubber's toxic past

Warning: This article contains an image which readers may find distressing.

The black-and-white photograph shows a man, perched on the edge of a wooden deck, looking down at two objects. At first, you can't take in what they are.

In the background are palm trees. Two other men stare grimly at their friend or perhaps the photographer, it's hard to tell.

The photo was taken in 1904 at a missionary outpost in Baringa, in what was then called the Congo Free State. The man's name was Nsala and his wife and children had just been killed.

Alice Seeley Harris's photograph of Nsala, looking at his five-year-old daughter Boali's severed hand and foot caused an uproar back in Europe.

(Above Alice Seeley Harris and her husband arrived in the Congo in August 1898)

Printed in pamphlets and displayed at public meetings, Alice's harrowing images formed the world's first photographic human rights campaign.

The resulting public pressure eventually forced Belgium's King Leopold II - Queen Victoria's cousin - to loosen his grip on the colony famously depicted in the novel Heart of Darkness.

But why was Leopold's Congo so horrific? It was down to rubber.

Rewind 70 years to New York, 1834. An impoverished, unwell, but optimistic young man knocked on the door of the Roxbury India Rubber Company.

Charles Goodyear had landed in debtors' prison when his family's hardware business went bankrupt, but he planned to invent his way out of financial trouble. His latest idea was an improved kind of air valve for inflatable rubber life preservers.

Unfortunately for Goodyear, the manager loved his valve - but confessed that his company was on the verge of ruin.

He was not alone. All over the US, investors had sunk money into this miraculous new substance - stretchy, pliable, airtight and waterproof - but it was all going horribly wrong.

Rubber was not exactly new. It had long been known to South Americans, and Europeans first reported in the 1490s that natives made "a kind of wax" from trees that "give milk when cut". That "milk" was latex - it comes from between the inner and outer bark.

Some rubber made its way to Europe, but mostly as a curiosity. In the 1700s, a French explorer brought the name "caoutchouc" from a local language: it meant "weeping wood". The scientist Joseph Priestley bestowed its common name when he noticed it rubbed pencil marks off paper.

(Above A collectable card from a 1910 set showing the extraction of "caoutchouc")

By the 1820s, an increasing amount of rubber was being shipped around the world from Brazil, and made into coats, hats, shoes, and those inflatable life preservers. Then came a really hot summer, and entrepreneurs watched aghast as their inventories melted into foul-smelling goo.

Goodyear saw his chance.

A fortune awaited whoever could invent a way to make rubber cope with heat - and cold, which made it brittle. True, Goodyear had no background in chemistry, and no money, but why should that stop him?

For years he dragged his wife Clarissa and their growing brood from town to town, renting ever more insalubrious houses, pawning their dwindling stock of possessions, and running up debts.

When Clarissa was not trying to feed the children, Charles commandeered her saucepans to mix rubber with anything he could think of: magnesium, lime, carbon black.

Eventually he found the answer: heat the rubber with sulphur. It is a process we now call vulcanisation.

(Above Charles Goodyear demonstrating the vulcanisation process)

Sadly for the long-suffering Clarissa, it led to her husband borrowing yet more money for lawsuits to try to protect his patents. He died owing $200,000 (£161,000).

But Charles's doggedness had put rubber at the very heart of the industrial economy. It was in belts and hoses and gaskets, used to seal, insulate and absorb shocks.

In the late 1880s, Scottish inventor John Dunlop supplied the missing part of the puzzle by reinventing the pneumatic tyre, which had been developed few decades previously, but which had failed to take off.

Dunlop was a vet. He had been tinkering with his son's tricycle, trying to find a way to cushion the ride. Bike manufacturers quickly saw the advantages, as did the nascent car industry.

(Above John Dunlop's son pictured on the first bicycle to have pneumatic tyres)

Demand for rubber boomed. Europe's colonial powers set about clearing vast areas of Asia to plant Hevea brasiliensis - more widely known as the "rubber tree".

But those new rubber tree plantations would take time to grow, and hundreds of other plants also produce latex, in varying quantities - even humble dandelions.

In the Congo's rainforest were vines that could be tapped to meet demand immediately.

How to get that rubber, as much and as quickly as possible?