Where the Rubber Meets the Road, Bike

where the rubber meets the road bike

Damn it! I was too short to ride the penny farthing bicycle. Three inches more and I could have clambered on the giant front wheel, reached the peddles, and perched on the seat. I saw a group riding penny farthings in London last summer. It was an unusual tourist experience and of course I wanted to try it. The cycling instructor was dashing in his top hat, vest and a long jacket. His clothes and the bike epitomized a carefree afternoon of cycling in Victorian style around the city.

I had forgotten about the penny farthing until I saw the enormous bike locked up in the bike stalls next to mine. Its rider was certainly a demi-giant. He would have no problems hopping on a penny farthing. The heyday of these cycles was in the 1880s.

They became more popular when rubber was added to the wooden wheels. The rides went from bone-shaking and headache-causing to comfortable – at least for those tall enough to reach the peddles. Cycling became fun. Demand pushed innovations in the design of the bikes. Soon the wheels became smaller and equal, much like our modern bikes. It was amazing that the addition of rubber caused so much social change.

Rubber. The tree does not grow in Europe. It is native to South America. For thousands of years the Aztec and Inca used it to make balls and containers. Rubber arrived in Europe as part of the trade of empire.

In Britain, rubber seeds were propagated at Kew Botanical Gardens, and then shipped to India, Malaysia, Liberia and Nigeria. Rubber joined the other plantations of colonialism.

The Belgian Congo became one of the world’s largest exporter of rubber. The massive African country grew so much rubber that it made the tiny European kingdom rich. William Henry Sheppard saw how the crop was harvested. He was a rare man – an African American missionary serving in Africa. He wrote newspaper articles and testified to lawyers and politicians.

Rubber. Those who refused or worked too slowly in the plantations were punished. Sheppard saw the baskets of chopped off right hands, counted, dried and smoked to preserve them. These were taken to the Belgian colonial officials as proof that their overseers were doing an excellent job.

where the rubber meets the road bike
William Henry Sheppard and family: African American missionaries in Africa 1890s.

William Henry Sheppard testified against Henry Morton Stanley. I knew of Stanley, from school history lessons, as a British hero and explorer of Africa. The lessons did not mention his role in the rubber trade, in the heart of Africa. Stanley was an enthusiastic promoter of empire, like the majority of Europeans in his day. In the Belgian Congo Stanley boasted of his effective methods of motivating African workers: rapes, beatings and starvation. When these failed there was always the killings and massacres. Stanley was a good shot.

Stanley was such a good sport that he was knighted for his services to empire by both the British and the Belgians. As Sir Henry Morton Stanley he had a great time on the lecture circuit in Europe and the USA.

William Henry Sheppard spent about twenty years in Africa. Add explorer and art collector and lecturer to his official title as missionary. History and memory has been unkind to Sheppard. He received no knighthood. His role as a champion of international human rights and of anti-colonial struggles in Africa is overlooked, even among academics.

So many of the objects in our everyday world have a link to colonial history. If the raw materials come from the southern part of the world, they mostly come dripping in blood. Yesterday it was rubber and sugar. Today it is coltan, a mineral essential to cell phone technology. The Democratic Republic of the Congo produces eighty per cent of the world’s supply of the expensive mineral. If both Sheppard and Stanley were alive today, and returned to the Congo, they would recognize the country immediately. Different time, same place, same shit.

I unlocked my bicycle and cycled through a city park. In a glen a couple practiced riding unicycles. They had a long way to go before they could add juggling batons to their act. Now I am too afraid to try a unicycle, never mind a penny farthing. There is something about reaching mid-life and realizing that falling from a big bicycle is not worth the temporary thrill. I headed for the ravine and biked beside the river. Summer was here at last. Black History Walks Toronto


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