BBC Wildlife Magazine
In Wallace’s footsteps
Tracing the travels of Darwin’s rival – Alfred Russel Wallace
A journey to retrace Alfred Russel Wallace’s epic voyage of discovery in the Malay Archipelago, revisiting some key locations along the way.
It was one of those chance conversations that did it – the sort of conversation that all at once calls in the bulldozers to re-route life’s immediate trajectory and plant a sign at the junction declaring ‘DIVERSION’. That the conversation should lead to an unexpected travel opportunity was remarkable enough, but it brought in tandem an intimate appreciation of one of history’s most admirable and underrated naturalists, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution: Alfred Russel Wallace.
I have to confess that it had always been Darwin, for me. Wallace was, well, the opposition – an upstart with the audacity to arrive at the theory of evolution by natural selection all at once during a fit of malarial fever instead of earning his distinction the hard way over decades of study. Of Wallace’s other achievements I’d been equally indifferent. I was aware of his contribution to biogeography. I knew he’d spent eight years collecting specimens in the Malay Archipelago in the 1850s, and that he’d travelled in South America before that and had lost all his specimens to a fire on the return voyage. I knew about the Wallace Line – an imaginary line proposed by the naturalist, which marks the boundary between the animal life of the Australian region and that of Asia – though I couldn’t have marked it on a map.
Wallace’s account of his journey, The Malay Archipelago, was on my list of books to read before I die, though so low down that it’s likely I would have run out of time before even getting close. I knew, in short, the facts that would tick boxes, without very much regard for the man himself.
The fateful conversation took place in the tropical house at London Zoo on a chilly day in February 2019, and the warmth, verdure and familiar peaty smell were making me hunger for another tropical adventure. It had been far too long. My companion, a lifelong friend, was Dr George Beccaloni, director of the Wallace Correspondence Project and, more significantly for me, guest lecturer and naturalist on an Indonesian islands sailing voyage entitled ‘In Search of Wallace and his Living Treasures’. The year marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Malay Archipelago, and there was a spare bunk aboard the beautiful traditional Indonesian schooner Ombak Putih just crying out for me. The opportunity of tagging along as a semi-subsidised assistant guest lecturer and journalist was simply too good to refuse.
Going back in time
I was to see many of the animals that Wallace saw on his travels and to stand in a few of the places where Wallace had stood – some remarkably unchanged, others transformed beyond recognition. And because of the frank honesty and humility of Wallace’s written legacy
of The Malay Archipelago and other writings were never far away), I came to understand the sort of man he was, what moved him and what made him laugh. And above all, to realise just how wrong I’d been.
Icons of the exotic
As an ornithologist, it was the birds of Wallacea that had especially excited me, and in particular, of course, the birds of paradise. There was a possibility of seeing four species during the voyage, including the bizarre and beautiful Wallace’s standardwing, discovered, as the name suggests, by Wallace himself. If you haven’t yet had the privilege of visiting a bird of paradise display, or ‘lek’ site, this is how it happens on an ocean voyage.
Your alarm clock will go off at such an obscenely early hour you’ll think it’s broken. Then you’ll recall the reason why and all at once become caught up in the general flurry of excited preparation, everyone filling water bottles, donning head torches, putting on the appropriate shoes for a dry landing only to remember it’s a wet landing and taking them off again, deciding that in that case a towel would also be a good idea, eating a little and managing to make time for a few hurried sips of coffee. Then it’s into the boats and bounding over the balmy starlit water toward the jungle-clad shore still cloaked in darkness.
You hear the birds before you see them.
While picking your way carefully on foot by torchlight around the buttress roots and tangled vines, the forest is awakening and you realise with a jolt of excitement that the bird call that dominates the rest is being made by real, living, breathing, displaying birds of paradise.
Making their presence known
I’d always imagined bird of paradise displays to be elegant and ethereal, and was struck (at least in the species I encountered) by their restless energy and physical power. These birds – once thought to float eternally in the skies feeding on the dews of heaven – land in the trees with a leaf-shaking thud and almost at once are off again, bounding and cavorting from branch to branch, first one way then the other, screaming raucously, and every few moments spreading their wings and lifting their magnificent plumes to catch the first rays of the rising sun. Here I must continue in Wallace’s own words, for it was these – surely one of the finest passages in zoological literature – that ran through my head as I sat, mesmerised by these icons of the exotic.
“I thought of the long ages of the past, during which the successive generations of this little creature had run their course – year by year of being born, and living and dying amid these dark and gloomy woods, with no intelligent eye to gaze upon their loveliness – to all appearance such a wanton waste of beauty.”
Forced to leave school to earn a wage at the age of 14, Wallace had diligently educated himself through visits to the public library and by cultivating a genuine fascination for nature and geography. The travel writing of Alexander von Humboldt, and Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle,
had particularly excited his imagination and ignited a yearning for exploration.
What sets Wallace apart from other travel writers, however, is his unaffected, modest ‘ordinariness’. His writing openly recounts everyday human emotions: dismay that the sight of a tall, bearded and bespectacled white man caused native people to run away in terror; amusement when asked if his specimens all came back to life again; irritation at his assistant’s shoddily pinned insects; and always awe of the natural world.
One of Wallace’s most memorable passages describes his joy on catching his first specimen of a spectacular birdwing butterfly, a hitherto undescribed species that would become known as Wallace’s golden birdwing. I had the privilege of seeing these creatures on the island of Bacan during our voyage. They’re remarkably active, dancing tantalisingly close, but seldom alighting for more than a few moments, so it’s a rare treat to see one with its wings outspread.
“The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable...On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day”
Wallace earned his living as a collector of natural history specimens, sending
parcels of bird and mammal skins, shells and pinned insects to his agent in England to be sold to public and private museums. Unlike the plethora of gentlemen amateurs who travelled the globe in Victorian times, Wallace needed the money. His background was shaped by his middle-class family’s descent into penury, and he had lost a fortune from the ship’s fire on his return voyage from South America. His attitude to collecting was nevertheless far from mercenary. He collected commercially in order to travel – he didn’t travel in order to collect. He was a scientist to the core and sold only duplicate specimens, keeping everything of scientific value for systematic study. His efforts resulted in the discovery of around 5,000 new species, not to mention his contributions to biogeography and evolutionary theory. He was, after all, a quite extraordinary man. I couldn’t help wondering how many more discoveries Wallace would have made, how many more species he might have described, had he a means of exploring underwater. He mentions the aquatic world only once in
The Malay Archipelago but the spectacle of a pristine coral reef, even observed from a boat, clearly made a profound impression:
“The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges… and other marine productions, of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours… In and out among them, moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner… It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest.”
Taking the plunge
A novice swimmer myself, I’d anticipated the prospect of daily snorkelling excursions with terror, but almost at once the magic overcame the fear. Clusters of giant clams pouting siphons in serrated smiles, ragged gangs of loafing black batfish, tiny anemonefish peering out from meadows of swaying tentacles, and the occasional glimpse of a hawksbill turtle flapping languidly into the depths; these were the sights that awaited us on almost every occasion. It would be a lie to say that we didn’t encounter once-vibrant reefs now bleached and degraded.
There are few – if any – parts of the globe that haven’t been affected by pollution and climate change,
but on our voyage at least, these areas were outnumbered by magnificent coral cities teeming with life. Wallace would have loved it.
One of a cluster of western tourists gathered at the end of the village’s narrow cul-de-sac abutting the forest, an object of fascination for dozens of pairs of eyes that peeped through doorways just sufficiently ajar or over the picket fence on either side, it was not difficult to imagine myself as Wallace. The village was Dodinga, on the island of Halmahera. The date of Wallace’s occupancy was February 1858, and he was ill.
The theory of evolution
This was the site of Wallace’s epiphany, the very same spot where he arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection during a bout of malaria. Contrary to what I’d previously supposed, however, it didn’t come as a spontaneous idea from out of the blue, but just as it had to Darwin. After years of careful thought and study, the fever had merely allowed his thoughts to focus.
Self-taught, self-funded and self-driven, Wallace had none of the advantages that Darwin enjoyed, yet earned his status alongside him in history. My journey in search of Wallace and his living treasures had allowed me some privileged views of wildlife and wild places, but the greatest privilege of all was to have seen them through the eyes of the most admirable of all historical naturalists, and to have come to understand him.