Teak, the king of timber, has been an essential part of life for many communities in South and Southeast Asia for thousands of years. Native tribes in India, Sri Lanka, Burma (now Myanmar) and Siam (now Thailand) recognised the amazing properties of teak and build homes and furniture using the wood. The resin, bark and leaves of the tree were also used by traditional healers as medicine to treat minor ailments like fever and headache. By the early Middle Ages, the frames and floors of Indian trading and fishing vessels were built using teak owing to its remarkable resilience against sea water and open weather. Several hundred years later, large Chinese junkets and vessels were also constructed using teak.
However, the commercial teak industry only really came into being in the second half of the 17th century when the British Royal Navy discovered that teak was resistant to the corrosion of metal. Coupled with teak’s anti-rot properties, and perhaps more importantly, the depletion of European oak forests, teak became a critical material for Navy shipbuilders (and before long, commercial shipbuilders). Its water resistant properties saw teak becoming a fixture in the construction of bridges and outdoor fixtures in British colonies, the United Kingdom and Europe. Teak suddenly became an incredibly valuable commodity.
The first teak plantation was established in Sri Lanka a few years later. However, as demand continued to soar, the British started looking around the continent and quickly found massive amounts of teak timber in the rainforests of Thailand and Myanmar. Louis Leonowens (the son of Anna Leonowens of the King and I fame) was selected to lead the Borneo Company to negotiate commercial treaties and forestry leases with the Siamese government. A new category of expatriates, the gentlemen foresters or teak-wallahs, supervised the massive logging activities in the two countries. In Myanmar, the breakdown in the relationship between the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and King Thibaw Min, the last king of Burma (Myanmar), over timber concessions was one of the major reasons behind the annexation of the country by the British Empire in January 1886.
No one quite know when and how (though some attributed this phenomenon to the recycling of aging commercial vessels), but by the 19th century, teak patio furniture became a fixture in British, European and even American homes!
However, the continued frenzied logging of teak by the governments of Thailand, Myanmar, India, Indonesia and Philippines in the 20th century saw teak levels plummeting to near extinction levels. Nevertheless, various laws and conservation measures implemented over the last three decades, along with replantation efforts, have seen teak levels stabilising. Today, the Thai government has completely banned teak logging in the country, while in India, China, Indonesia and Myanmar, the industry is regulated heavily by the government to ensure its sustainability.