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The History of Rome / 558 The Fever Tree Hunt | The History of Rome

558- The Fever Tree Hunt | The History of Rome

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In this episode of “The History of Rome” podcast titled “558- The Fever Tree Hunt,” the host tells stories of empire-building and thievery. The episode revolves around a tree that changed the course of history and explores the botanical adventure, exploration, and risk of malaria associated with it. The story also delves into the race between spies and pirates to obtain Queenine seeds, the first specific drug used to treat malaria. The episode sheds light on the impact of the British Empire and its legacy that continues to shape the world today.

Main Takeaways

The Fever Tree and its Historical Significance

  • The tree’s bark is used to make tonic syrup, which is a basic sugar syrup with incone bark.
  • Incone bark is from a tree native to Peru and is not found anywhere else on earth.
  • The Peruvian flag features a hidden detail, a tree logo, representing a special and hard-to-find tree that grows in a specific area between the Andes and the Amazon.
  • The tree on the flag holds national importance despite being largely cut off from the rest of Peruvian life.
  • The history of the tree stretches through the centuries and around the globe, unrelated to gin and tonics.

Malaria and the Race for Queenine Seeds

  • Malaria was a significant problem for the British Empire, particularly in India, where traveling without dying in the millions was impossible.
  • The mosquito-transmitted disease posed a threat to the functioning of the military.
  • Queenine, derived from the bark of the Chinchona tree found in South America, became crucial for the British troops stationed in tropical regions.
  • The British and Dutch competed to protect their soldiers from malaria and secure the bark, primarily available in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
  • The race to obtain Queenine seeds involved spies, pirates, and strategic cultivation of plants at Kew Gardens in London.

The Elusive Sincona Tree and its Controversial Journey

  • Markham, a self-proclaimed trader in Bolivia, led an expedition to find the Sincona tree.
  • Charles Ledger, a common tradesman, befriended an indigenous horticulturalist named Manuel Inca Mimani, who knew where the trees grew.
  • The plants obtained were contaminated, but Markham negotiated solutions to the problems.
  • Unfortunately, the plants were fried during transport, and no viable plants reached India.
  • The Dutch ended up producing the most commercially lucrative strain of Sincona in Java, controlling 90% of the trade, while the British were a minority.

The Legacy of Theft and Impact of the British Empire

  • The theft of the Sincona tree was motivated by the fear of extinction and the potential benefits to humankind.
  • Over-harvesting of the tree may have altered its DNA, potentially resulting in lower alkaloid levels in current trees compared to those 200 years ago.
  • The British Empire’s cultural impact extends beyond its land and population.
  • The legacy of the British Empire continues to shape the world today, as explored in the podcast “Stuff the British Stole.”
  • The podcast covers a wide range of stolen objects, including the mummified head of an Egyptian in a high school in Australia and the stolen number zero.


The Fever Tree and Malaria: A Botanical Adventure

The episode explores the historical significance of the fever tree, its use in making tonic syrup, and its representation on the Peruvian flag. It delves into the challenges posed by malaria for the British Empire, leading to the race for Queenine seeds derived from the Chinchona tree. The journey to obtain the elusive Sincona tree involves adventurers, spies, and pirates. The legacy of theft and the impact of the British Empire on global culture are also examined.

Capitalism, Traditional Knowledge, and the British Empire’s Legacy

The story highlights the clash between capitalism and traditional knowledge, as the British Empire’s pursuit of valuable resources often disregarded indigenous populations. The episode touches on the theft of rubber in Brazil and the ongoing cultural impact of the British Empire. It concludes by mentioning other intriguing episodes covered in the podcast “Stuff the British Stole,” showcasing the wide range of stolen objects and their significance.


Through the exploration of the fever tree and the race for Queenine seeds, this episode sheds light on the historical and cultural impact of the British Empire. It emphasizes the complex dynamics between capitalism, traditional knowledge, and the consequences of empire-building. The legacy of the British Empire continues to shape the world, making it a fascinating subject for further exploration.

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