Ancestral Art of the Indonesian Archipelago

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                                              Niki van den Heuval                              Art Gallery of NSW

In 2010 the Art Gallery of New South Wales was fortunate to acquire a collection of ancestral works of art, from present day Indonesia, as part of a bequest in honour of the collector Christopher Worrall Wilson. This generous bequest also includes his extensive library and funds for the further acquisition of Indonesian ancestral art.

An exhibition of his collection and the accompaning book by Niki van den Heuval are currently on display (March 2018) at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

My interest is in those works from the island of Nias which lies off the west coast of Sumatra and sits perched rather precariously on the leading edge of the Asian continent and above the major Indian Ocean subduction zone. Despite the threat of earthquake and tsunami a rich ancestral culture has developed on this isolated island.

Nias Map

Nias has a warrior culture and this picture shows the men posing with their weapons and shields before a communal adat house built from massive ironwood piles and with a towering roof. Pay attention to their unique sword and scabbard as well as the leaf shaped shields the men are holding.

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Portrait of warriors before an adat house. Bawomantaluo village South Nias, 1910/1916          (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Netherlands)

In former times warfare and headhunting were prevelant throughout Nias, with both activities considered vital to a society’s prosperity. The trappings of a warrior included adornments to signify success and rank, protective clothing  and weapons such as swords, spears and large shields. Carved in the form of a stylised leaf and shaped from a single piece of wood, the shield is embellished with cords of rattan that lend the surface a reptilian appearance.

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                                           Warriors, Bawomataluo village, South Nias, 1910/1916                                              (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Netherlands

The sword and scabbard were among the most important items belonging to a warrior on Nias, serving both as a physical weapon and a protective device against enemies and malevolent spiritual forces. The swords are distinguished by ornate hilts in the form of mythical creatures and their scabbards incorporate a range of talismanic devices.

The hilt of this sword is a composite protective beast which combines the features of a hornbill, deer and crocodile. The amulet basket at the head of the scabbard is caged with animal teeth and tusks, which would offer powerful protection to the user.

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                                           Wood, iron brass, ratten, crocodile teeth and pigs tusks                                         (Christopher Worrall Wilson Bequest)

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                                                                 Wood, rattan, steel, wire                                                                              (Christopher Worrall Wilson Bequest)

A Nias tribal chief wearing a headress, his protective clothing and the decorative regalia of his office, together with his sword, scabbard and amulet basket.

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                                       Portrait of a South Nias Chief,  by C B Nieuwenhuis c 1918                                       (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Netherlands)

The exhibition also includes collections from the Batak people of North Sumatra, the Dyak and Iban of Borneo, remote highlanders living in Central Sulawesi, various people of eastern Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, as well as those from the Cenderawasih Bay region of northern West Papua. The arts created by these communities include figurative sculpture, masks, amulets, weapons, textiles, adornments and utilitarian items.






























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Explore the Collision of Continents


Reposted with permission from an AIYA blog and my thanks to Lachlan Haycock

Prolific writer and historian Ian Burnet has authored numerous books about Indonesia, and has travelled expansively across the archipelago. With the recent release of his latest publication, Where Australia Collides with Asia, we decided to delve into what it is about the nation’s cultural and biological diversity that so fascinates Ian.

What is Where Australia Collides with Asia about? How did you come to write it?

Alfred Russel Wallace is one of my heroes. He left school at 14 and became interested in the natural world while working in the countryside as an assistant surveyor. He started collecting and pressing plants before he had any idea there was such a science as botany. He then educated himself through local libraries and the Mechanics Institutes that were being set up all over Britain.

He then decided he could make a living collecting natural history specimens (insects, butterflies, birds, animals) in the Amazon and sending them back for sale to collectors in England.

I always wanted to write a book about Wallace but had to find a way that was new and different to what had already been done. It was introducing the story of continental drift and where Australia collides with Asia that allowed me to do this.

What is the story behind the Wallace Line?

In 1856 Alfred Russel Wallace arrived for a few days on the island of Bali. Here he saw all the same birds that he had seen in his previous three years of collecting specimens in Singapore, Malaya and Borneo. When he crossed from Bali to Lombok and further into the eastern archipelago, he never saw the same birds again, instead seeing Australian species such as cockatoos, honeyeaters, bush turkeys and birds of paradise.

The Wallace Line represents the biogeographic boundary between the fauna of Asia (elephants, tigers, and all kinds of placental mammals including primates) and the fauna of Australasia (marsupials and all the different birds mentioned above).

Wallace was one of the founders of the science of biogeography. He was the founder of the idea of continental drift, because 50 years before Alfred Wegener had introduced the concept of continental drift and 100 years before the science of plate tectonics, Wallace had already concluded that Australia had collided with Asia. He was also, along with Charles Darwin, the co-founder of the most important scientific breakthrough of the last few hundred years – the concept of evolution through natural selection.

Not bad for someone who was self-educated!

What does your book have to say about Indonesia?

The fact that all these discoveries took place in Indonesia is something for Indonesians to celebrate. It should increase awareness by Indonesians of Indonesia’s unique position in the natural world and the importance of conservation of its already threatened species.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

I lived and worked in Indonesia for 15 years as a geologist and have visited Indonesia for work or travel almost every year for another 30 years. It was after I retired in 2004 that I started researching and writing books about the always fascinating history of Indonesia and its people (including Spice Islands, East Indies, Archipelago and Where Australia Collides with Asia).

How important is it for you to both explore personally and share with others the history of Australia’s interactions with Asia?

Indonesia, spread across seventeen thousand islands and stretching the same distance as from Perth to Wellington in New Zealand, is the most culturally diverse nation on the planet. All this is on our doorstep as Australians, but for varying reasons most of us remain unaware of how much there is to see and experience in Indonesia. My books, the tours across Java, and the sailing voyages around the eastern archipelago are my contribution to bringing the wonders of Indonesia to a wider world, especially those in Australia.

Where can we find out more information?

Details about the books and the tours/voyages are available at this website. About 130 blogs, written over five years, about my travels and interests in Indonesia are available here.

A big thanks to Ian Burnet for his time and passion for Indonesian biogeography and diversity – AIYA.




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Batavia and the Dutch Golden Age

The exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum, is on display at the Art Gallery NSW until 18 February.

The United East India Company (VOC), one of the world’s first joint stock companies, was founded in 1602 and held a state monopoly over trade with the Far East. It was the riches of Indonesian spices, Chinese silks and porcelains, Indian textiles, Japanese silver and other Asian trade goods that brought huge profits to the Dutch Republic and its shareholders. A period of unprecedented prosperity dawned for the young Republic, which was to go down in history as the golden age, and a thriving commercial class created a demand for paintings of real life.

10_VOCImage 1651, Jerominus Becx the Younger, Rijksmuseum

VOC emblem showing King Neptune and his consort with a Dutch trading ship in the centre.

The Republic of the Seven United Provinces, or the Dutch Republic, was a home to a vast number of prodigious artists who recorded the world around them and of their patrons,  with unprecedented realism. It was the wealth coming from the VOC and the East Indies, and the profits which flowed into private homes that financed much of this art.

We are fortunate that the first part of this exhibition – Across the Oceans – portrays some of the ships, ports and people of the VOC in Amsterdam and particularly in Batavia (today’s Jakarta and the capital of the Republic of Indonesia).

This scene shows passengers and goods arriving and departing from the Mussel Pier on the busy estuary in front of Amsterdam. From here voyagers would sail to the Textel to join the big EastIndiaman trading ships that would make the long voyage to the East Indies.

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The Ij at Amsterdam, seen from the Mosselsteiger (Ludolf Bakhuizen, 1673, Rijksmuseum)

It was Batavia, founded in 1619, that became the centre of the vast trading empire established by the VOC over Asia and the Orient. This painting of Batavia, only thirty years after it was established, shows how it was built like a Dutch port city with Kasteel Batavia and the Spice Warehouses to the left and right of the main canal which allowed direct acess from the sea into the city. The spice warehouses still exist today as part of Museum Bahari or the Maritime Museum. Offshore are smaller vessels bringing spices and other trade goods from across the archipelago into the warehouses and the large EastIndiamen preparing to bring these valuable goods back to the United Provinces.

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View of Batavia  (Hendrick Jacobz Dubbels, c1650-55, Rijksmuseum)

We are fortunate to have this marvellous painting of the town of Batavia from around the same time period.  Andries Beekman lived in Batavia as a VOC soldier and so this painting is based on sketches from real life. It shows the formidable Kasteel Batavia, the adjacent main canal, and the daily life of the people who lived in this trading port as they gather around an outdoor market . This painting was commissioned by the Amsterdam chamber of the VOC and was hung in the Company’s boardroom.

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The castle of Batavia, seen from Kali Besar West  (Andries Beekman, 1661, Rijksmuseum)

Detail of the painting show a Chinese woman and man greeting each other.

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A Dutch merchant taking a stroll with his Eurasian wife, accompanied by a servant, and with the orang Betawi (the local inhabitants of Batavia) and what looks like an Arab trader dressed in white, in the background.

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In the foreground a freed Portuguese mezisto slave,  known as Mardjikers (freedman) they mainly worked as clerks and other menial positions for the VOC. In the background are the local orang Betawi and some Dutch merchants.


A market table with people selling foodstuffs? Possibly Chinese? Does anyone recognise this characteristic dress?

17_Andries_Beeckman_Market stall

During this era of unparalleled wealth, power and cultural confidence, the art of painting flourished like never before. Wealthy merchants and important officials were able to enhance their prestige by commissioning works of art, often of themselves, their new lifestyle, of maritime trade and scenes from every-day life.

This painting shows an unknown VOC merchant and his wife being shaded by a servant with an umbrella. They are standing on a real or imagined island off Batavia with  the port city in the background and pointing to the fleet of VOC EastIndiamen preparing to return to the Netherlands. It is thought that it could be either Barent Pietersz Grotebroek or Jacob Martensen who were the commanders of one of the vessels.

Jacob Mathieusen, and his wife, in the background the fleet in t

A VOC merchant and his wife outside Batavia  (Aelbert Cuyp, c1650, Rijksmuseum)

This painting is of a VOC Director-General, Gerard Pieters Hulft, before his departure on the long sea journey to Batavia. The painting is as if looking through a porthole with the sea in the background and he is surrounded by artifacts expressing his interests, in books, manuscripts, navigation instruments, charts, a globe, trade documents and more books.  In the foreground is a caterpillar and moth and these words written in Latin on a white sheet of paper- ‘nothing was ever so unlike itself’, which is thought to refer to his rise from a humble town clerk to a Director-General of the most powerful company in the world.

Fortunately, he can now be remembered by this painting because he did not survive much longer than a year in the East Indies and was shot dead in an attack on the Portuguese held city of Columbo in Sri Lanka in 1656.

Gerard Pietersz Hulft (1621-56). by Govert Flinck

            Gerard Pietersz Hulft (1621-56), first councillor and director-general of the VOC                     (Govert Flink, 1654, Rijksmuseum)



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The Alfred Russel Wallace Website

Wallace websiteWallace website 2

Ian Burnet has asked me to post the Prologue of his new book Where Australia Collides with Asia -The Epic Voyages of Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the Origin of On The Origin of Species, so here it is:


The volcanoes of Mount Agung on Bali and Mount Rinjani on Lombok, their 3000 metre peaks shrouded in cloud, stand like giant sentinels guarding the northern entrance to the Lombok Strait which separates the Indonesian islands of Bali and Lombok. The strait is only 25 kilometres wide but it plunges to a depth of 2140 metres below sea level. Crossing the strait can be hazardous and its turbulent waters are the result of a major flowthrough of water between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In June 1856 the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace crossed the narrow strait between the two islands. During the few days when he stayed on the north coast of Bali he saw several birds highly characteristic of Asian ornithology of which he was already familiar and would expect to see the same birds as soon as he crossed the Lombok Strait. After a turbulent crossing and being dumped on the shores of Lombok he never saw the same birds again. He found a totally different set of species, most of which were entirely unknown not only in Java, but also in Borneo and Sumatra. Among the commonest birds he found in Lombok were white cockatoos and honeyeaters which are characteristic of Australia and are entirely absent from the western region of the archipelago. Wallace wrote in his book The Malay Archipelago:

The great contrast between the two divisions of the Archipelago is nowhere so abruptly exhibited as on passing from the island of Bali to that of Lombok, where the two regions are in closest proximity … The strait is here fifteen miles wide, so that we may pass in two hours from one great division of the earth to another, differing as essentially in their animal life as Europe does from America.

As a consequence of the lowering of sea levels during the various Ice Ages, the main Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Borneo were connected by dry land and it was the deep Lombok Strait which separates these larger islands sitting on the Asian Continental Shelf from the smaller islands of the eastern archipelago. The Lombok Strait represents part of the biogeographical boundary between the fauna of Asia and those of Australasia which was subsequently named the Wallace Line.

On the Asian side of the Wallace Line are the Asian elephant, the rare Javanese rhinoceros, Sumatran tigers and Borneo leopards, all kinds of monkeys, the orang-utans of Sumatra and Borneo, and numerous birds that are specific to Asia. On the Australasian side are the marsupials such as the possum-like cuscus and the tree kangaroos, as well as birds specific to Australasia such as white cockatoos, honeyeaters, brush turkeys and the spectacular Birds of Paradise. By his observations Alfred Russel Wallace had made a major contribution to a new science, the science of biogeography, or of the relationship between zoology and geography.

The great arc of the Indonesian Archipelago starts north of the island of Sumatra and curves south, east and north until it reaches Papua New Guinea. This arc of islands is defined by a string of active volcanoes in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores that erupt as the Australian oceanic plate is subducted under the island arc. Further east the island arc has been pushed to the north and then to the west by the Australian Continent which has been relentlessly marching northward since it separated from Antarctica 50 million years ago. Papua-New Guinea is part of the Australian continent and this journey north slowed about 20 million years ago when Papua-New Guinea collided with the Pacific Ocean Plate. The huge Pacific Ocean plate is moving westward and the resulting collision rafted segments of Papua-New Guinea, hundreds of kilometres towards the west and pushed the Indonesian island arc back upon itself. The tectonic stress caused by the continuing collision of Papua-New Guinea with the Pacific Ocean Plate has thrust the Papuan-New Guinea mountains up to a height of 5000 metres above sea level, where a tropical glacier still exists only four degrees south of the equator.

Eastern Indonesia represents a unique part of the earth’s surface, because it is here that four of the earth’s great tectonic plates – the Eurasian Plate, the Australian Plate, the Philippines Plate and the Pacific Ocean Plate are in collision with each other. Three million years ago in the region of Maluku (the Moluccas), these powerful forces fused together volcanic island arcs, continental fragments sheared off from Papua-New Guinea, seafloor sediments and coral reefs to create new land, forming the unusually shaped islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera. A subduction zone then formed along the western side of Halmahera, causing volcanoes to erupt out of the sea and spreading a thick layer of volcanic ash across the adjacent islands.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the rich volcanic soils of these newly emergent islands were quickly populated by coconut trees grown from coconuts washed up on these shores, by plants whose seeds blew with the winds, by birds and butterflies able to fly from island to island, and by animals and insects drifting on floating trees and branches. Tropical temperatures and monsoonal rains provided the environment for a diversity of plant, bird and other animal species to thrive and evolve in unique ways. The profusion of islands allowed for a separation in the evolution of different species and became an ideal natural laboratory for scientific study. Alfred Russel Wallace spent five years exploring the tropical forests of Maluku, collecting and studying the birds, butterflies, insects and other animal life of eastern Indonesia.

It was ‘continental drift’ that brought these disparate worlds together and in this book we will follow the voyage of Continent Australia after its separation from Antarctica until its collision with Asia, thus creating the biogeographic region first observed by Alfred Russel Wallace and named as Wallacea in his honour.

It was my research into Wallacea and its unique position in the natural world that led me to write about the connections between the epic voyages of Natural History taken by Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and then Alfred Russel Wallace. Here we follow ‘The Voyage of the Endeavour’ on its voyage around the world, which brought Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander to the shores of Botany Bay, where they became the first naturalists to describe the unique flora and fauna of the Australian continent. We follow ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ on its voyage around the world, which brought the young naturalist Charles Darwin to South America and the Galapagos Islands before reaching Australia, where he sat on the banks of the Cox’s River in New South Wales and began trying to understand the significance of his discoveries. We follow Alfred Russel Wallace when he crosses the narrow strait between the islands of Bali and Lombok, we follow him on his ‘Voyage to the Aru Islands’ in search of Birds of Paradise and his recognition of the significance of the Australian marsupials he found there. And we follow the famous ‘Letter from Ternate’ that Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin in February 1858, which forced Darwin to finally publish his landmark work On the Origin of Species.

Where Australia Collides with Asia - IHS poster 2





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Alfred Russel Wallace – The letter from Ternate

From January 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace made the Dutch controlled island of Ternate his principle residence and base for the next three years, while he embarked on collecting natural history specimens around the adjacent islands and as far east as Papua. He describes how a deep well provided him with pure cold water and how he had regular supplies of fish, eggs, meat and vegetables, which were often sorely needed to restore his health and energy after his expeditions.

059 Map and View of Fort Oranje, Ternate

Ternate is the northernmost of the string of volcanic islands lying to the west of the main island of Halmahera. The image shows the volcano and the clove trees the Dutch fort was built to protect.

It was while collecting on the adjacent large island of Gilolo or Halmahera that Wallace  fell sick with recurring malaria. In this semi-delirious state, ideas would flash before him and then disappear. The question of the origin of species was always on his mind and it was the writing of Thomas Malthus that provided an important breakthrough:

Something led me to think of Malthus’s essay on population and ‘positive checks’ – war, disease, famine, accidents etc. – which he adduced as keeping all savage populations nearly stationary. It then occured to me that these checks must also act upon animals … there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest – that the individuals removed by these checks must be, on the whole, inferior to those that survived.

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A view of the ‘Spice Islands’ from Ternate (Ian Burnet)

Returning to Ternate he began writing is famous paper entitled ‘On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’. He remembered the letter he had received from Charles Darwin related to his studies on how species and varieties differed from each other. Surely this was the breakthrough Darwin was looking for and Wallace put pen to paper:

The same evening I did this pretty fully, and on two succeeding evenings wrote it out carefully in order to send it to Darwin by the next post, which would leave in a day or two … I said I hoped the idea would be as new to him as it was to me, and that it would supply the missing factor to explain the origin of species.

Would Wallace’s idea be as new to Darwin as it was to him? Wallace knew that it would take three to four months for his letter to reach Darwin and around the same time to recieve a response. There was no point in him hanging around Ternate and, besides, there was the large island of Papua New Guinea to explore.


A painting of Wallace on the island of Waigeo, off the coast of Papua New Guinea

Where Australia Collides with Asia - IHS poster 2

Where Australia Collides with Asia – The Epic Voyages of Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the Origin of  ‘On the Origin of Species’




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Seen and Unseen – Book Review

Russell Darnley seeks to cover an extensive time span in his book Seen and Unseen: a century of stories from Asia and the Pacific.

Darnley Cover Image

I have read it as a memoir written as 29 stories, beginning when he was a boy growing up in Coogee in Sydney, Australia. Here, his stories begin with him exploring the headlands and rock pools around this beachside suburb with his grandfather.  They delve into the early years of the 20th century and then on to descriptions of his childhood, family and friends.

He tells stories of his student days at Sydney University and of his first travels through South East Asia in the 1970’s. I can identify with this period as we would have travelled around the same time to Singapore, Malacca, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. A period when many young Australian backpackers were on the road discovering South East Asia.

Years later in 1984, Russel is involved in setting up Asian Field Study Centres for Australian students in Bali. It is here that he first becomes aware of the interplay of the ‘Seen and the Unseen’ and begins to realise that it has always formed part of his life. Here, in Bali, he experiences just how the Balinese are immersed in both a physical and a spiritual world, and some practice ‘black magic’ as well.

Darnley Bali

Bhoma image from Ubud, Bali

Returning to Indonesia in 1999 to deliver workshops for teachers whose students are studying Australia meant he happened to be in Surabaya and Jakarta during the tremendous outburst of joy and energy of the nation’s youth, after 35 years of suppression under Suharto’s military dictatorship. He is present in the middle of the excited masses and vividly describes the political campaigning for the first democratic elections after this long period.

Russell’s description of his response to the 2002 Bali bombing in the immediate aftermath of this tragedy and his volunteer work in aiding the victims and their families at the Sanglah Hospital, must be highlight of his book (if that is the right word). Personally, I had to pause several times to recover my emotions while reading his descriptions of these traumatic events.

Darnley bombing

The Bali bombing

Seen and Unseen concludes where it starts with the now elder Russell in conversation with his long-departed grandfather around the headland of Coogee, while trying to understand his life experiences and the significance of the seen and unseen.

The strength of Russell Darnley’s writing is his ability to position himself as an observant outsider. Central to his work is the idea that interactions with people from cultures other than our own, in particular those of Asia, allow us to challenge many of our own assumptions. His engaging memoir will be a ‘must read’ by all those who have an interest in Asia and wish to follow his footsteps.


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‘Where Australia Collides with Asia’ – Jakarta Post book review

Jakarta Post logo

Don’t be confused by the title. Ian Burnet’s latest book, Where Australia Collides with Asia is not about the clash of civilizations.

Jakarta Post review

It is the story of how continental drift has created the world in which we live, and, in particular, the unique and fascinating archipelago of Indonesia, a string of islands which spans Asia and Australasia, a volatile and diverse region.

The books is also a wonderful retelling of the tales of three great British naturalists: Joseph Banks who charted the east coast of Australia with Cook; Charles Darwin, whose youthful voyages on the Beagle changed our understanding of the world, and the lesser-known Alfred Russel Wallace, whose wanderings across what is now the Indonesian archipelago, led to his own theory of natural selection.

This is Ian Burnet’s fourth book about Indonesia. In East Indies he tells the story of the 200 year struggle for supremacy in the Eastern seas – between Portugal, the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company.

In Spice Islands, Burnet hones in on the rivalry between the Sultans of Ternate and Tidore and their turbulent relationships with the Portuguese, Dutch and English. And, in Archipelago, A journey across Indonesia, he takes us on a trip across the archipelago to discover the rich cultural diversity of Indonesia.

Ian Burnet is a natural story teller. After 30 years living, working and travelling in Indonesia, he knows his stuff. In the richly illustrated Where Australia Collides with Asia we accompany Joseph Banks on his voyage of discovery with James Cook, sharing in his excitement as he collects and documents the curious plant and animal species he encounters in Australia.

We meet a young Charles Darwin, galloping across the Argentinian pampas, ‘shooting, riding, collecting and looking forward to a few revolutions’. Accompanied by his man, Syms Covington, a ‘fiddler and boy to the poop cabin’, Darwin took the opportunity to explore the coastal regions of South America where he puzzled about the presence of fossil marine shells four-thousand metres above sea level on the Andes. “I felt glad I was by myself,” he wrote of his experience of the grandeur of the Andes, “it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in the full Orchestra a chorus of the Messiah”.

We also meet Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s junior and ardent admirer. After spending more than two years exploring the Amazon, the young naturalist was lucky to escape with his life, when the brig on which he was returning to England caught fire and sunk, along with all his notes, sketches and the entire collection of specimens that was to fund the trip.

Wallace’s fortitude and humility shine through as the story unfolds. Undaunted by this devastating loss, he picks himself up and returns to the field two years later, this time to the Malay archipelago.

Back in England, for 20 years Darwin had been developing his theory. An unpublished essay in a locked drawer was the only evidence that, he in fact, was the first to propose the theory of natural selection. Unwell and anxious about the impact his theory would have, aware of the likely backlash and damage to his family and his reputation, the pain it would cause his wife, who was a committed Christian, he had put off publishing.

Meanwhile, in the steamy jungles and remote islands of what is now eastern Indonesia, Wallace finally arrived at the same conclusion. Individual species of plants and animals were not created by God in a single act of creation, but, rather, evolved gradually over time, the key principle being ‘the survival of the fittest’.

Having failed to generate any interest from an initial published paper, Wallace decided to write directly to Darwin. The older man was prompted to present a pair of articles to the elite Linnean Society in London in July 1857.

Was Wallace robbed of his rightful place as the author of the theory of evolution? Did Darwin and his friends conspire to ensure that the older scientist got the glory; to sideline a social inferior? Or is this a story of gentlemanly conduct and scientific collaboration?

As Burnet’s book explains, Darwin certainly arrived at the same conclusions as Wallace many years in advance. He just hadn’t had the temerity to publish. And following the publication and Wallace’s eventual return to England, the two men became friends and remained so until the end.

What stands out in Burnet’s tale is the immediacy of this history. The characters that Burnet portrays in this book are not so different from you and me.

Away from the confines of a dusty school textbook, Banks, Darwin and Wallace are brought to life. Here we get to know them as flesh and blood, subject to the same social pressures as are we; the same excitements and disappointments, arguments and friendships, loves and jealousies, seasickness, hangovers, fevers … and bright mornings when, as Darwin describes his time in Argentina, he had the “sky for a roof and the ground for a table”.

At the same time, Burnet’s backstory is the immensity of the planet’s geographic and biological history. And, consequently, our own fragility as a species.

Perhaps we can find parallels between Darwin’s reluctance to challenge religious authority and today’s debates over climate change, the reluctance of vested interests to accept the weight of scientific evidence for humanity’s impact on climate.

The writing is a robust; no-nonsense. It is the writing of a man who means business, and it builds trust. The story is light and entertaining yet full of insight. Through the frequent use of excerpts from Banks, Darwin and Wallace’s own writing, we get to see the world through their eyes. And through this, we get occasional glimpses of a wry, understated humour.

These were men of the world; artists, writers, scientists, adventurers, seafarers. It raises the question, where are these men and women today? After reading this book I am inclined to answer that Ian Burnet may be one of them – a scientist, an historian, a traveller and a fine writer.

The Jakarta Post – contributed by Mark Heyward



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