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The archipelago of Alfred Wallace

The archipelago of Alfred Wallace
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 09 04 PM IST

Seminal: Alfred Russel Wallace
Seminal: Alfred Russel Wallace
Updated: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 09 04 PM IST
It is difficult today to imagine a name other than Charles Darwin associated with the theory of evolution and its enormous cultural and philosophical consequences for Western thought. But Darwin was hardly an isolated genius. His theories, and his reputation, were built on the work of fellow natural scientist Alfred Russel Wallace: In their own day, the theory of natural selection was known as the Darwin-Wallace theory.
Seminal: Alfred Russel Wallace
Thanks to a glittering scientific career that touched on everything from glaciology to land reform, the younger, more prolific Wallace was easily the more famous scientist at the time. His magnum opus, The Malay Archipelago (published 1869, in Britain and the US), was a best-seller in its day. It is a journal of his studies in Malaysia, Singapore and the Indonesian islands from 1854-62. With the peculiar stubbornness with which Victorian cultural imperialism infiltrates our postcolonial, postmodern perceptions, it continues to be the most influential English-language study of the region.
Like so many great works of Victorian cultural imperialism, it also remains annoyingly, deliciously readable, much like that other seminal work of the natural science canon, Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. From volcanoes in Borneo to an ethnography of “Hindoo”-influenced Bali, Wallace’s scientific rigour and his pioneering interest in the biogeography of the region come together in a long, learned, but terrifically lucid work. The “land of the orang-utan, and the bird of paradise” chronicled in his book would capture Britain’s interest in a region where, as Wallace politely put it, they had “few possessions”. Years later, Joseph Conrad would take to sleeping with a copy at his bedside. We might speculate that Darwin, to whom The Malay Archipelago was dedicated, did the same.
Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘The Malay Archipelago’ is now in the public domain and is available as a free download on Google Books and the Internet Archive. Selected excerpts:
Visiting Pangerango and Gedeh, Java
At about 7,500 feet we came to another hut of open bamboos, at a place called Kandang Badak, or “Rhinoceros-field,” which we were going to make our temporary abode. Here was a small clearing, with abundance of tree-ferns and some young plantations of Cinchona. As there was now a thick mist and drizzling rain, I did not attempt to go on to the summit that evening, but made two visits to it during my stay, as well as one to the active crater of Gedeh. This is a vast semicircular chasm, bounded by black perpendicular walls of rock, and surrounded by miles of rugged scoria-covered slopes. The crater itself is not very deep. It exhibits patches of sulphur and variously-coloured volcanic products, and emits from several vents continual streams of smoke and vapor. The extinct cone of Pangerango was to me more interesting. The summit is an irregular undulating plain with a low bordering ridge, and one deep lateral chasm. Unfortunately there was perpetual mist and rain either above or below us all the time I was on the mountain; so that I never once saw the plain below, or had a glimpse of the magnificent view which in fine weather is to be obtained from its summit. Notwithstanding this drawback I enjoyed the excursion exceedingly, for it was the first time I had been high enough on a mountain near the Equator to watch the change from a tropical to a temperate flora.
Singapore: Asia’s next top holiday
The colonizing eye: Wallace’s book is peppered with illustrations of local foliage and detailed anatomical sketches.
The island of Singapore consists of a multitude of small hills, three or four hundred feet high, the summits of many of which are covered with virgin forest. The mission house at Bukit-tima was surrounded by several of these wood-topped hills, which were much frequented by wood-cutters and sawyers, and offered me an excellent collecting-ground for insects. Here and there, too, were tiger-pits, carefully covered over with sticks and leaves, and so well concealed, that in several cases I had a narrow escape from falling into them. They are shaped like an iron furnace, wider at the bottom than at the top, and are perhaps fifteen or twenty feet deep, so that it would be almost impossible for a person unassisted to get out of one. Formerly a sharp stake was stuck erect in the bottom, but after an unfortunate traveller had been killed by falling on one, its use was forbidden. There are always a few tigers roaming about Singapore, and they kill on an average a Chinaman every day, principally those who work in the gambir plantations, which are always made in newly-cleared jungle. We heard a tiger roar once or twice in the evening, and it was rather nervous work hunting for insects among the fallen trunks and old sawpits, when one of these savage animals might be lurking close by, waiting for an opportunity to spring upon us.
In which Wallace adopts a baby orangutan
While carrying it home it got its hands in my beard, and grasped so tightly that I had great difficulty in getting free, for the fingers are habitually bent inward at the last joint so as to form complete hooks. At this time it had not a single tooth, but a few days afterward it cut its two lower front teeth. Unfortunately, I had no milk to give it, as neither Malays, Chinese nor Dyaks ever use the article, and I in vain inquired for any female animal that could suckle my little infant. I was therefore obliged to give it rice-water from a bottle with a quill in the cork, which after a few trials it learned to suck very well. This was a very meager diet, and the little creature did not thrive well on it, although I added sugar and cocoa-nut milk occasionally, to make it more nourishing. When I put my finger in its mouth, it sucked with great vigor, drawing in its cheeks with all its might in the vain effort to extract some milk, and only after persevering a long time would it give up in disgust, and set up a scream very like that of a baby in similar circumstances.
supriya.n@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 09 04 PM IST