This week we celebrate the 150 year anniversary of the publication of Alfred Russel Wallace’s book, The Malay Archipelago. This wonderful book is an account of the eight years he spent in British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies collecting natural history specimens, including his discovery of the biogeographic boundary between Asia and Australia which came to be called ‘The Wallace Line’, his descriptions of the region between Asia and Australia which came to be known as ‘Wallacea’, and the recognition from his studies of the fauna that Australia had collided with Asia.
The Malay Archipelago is undoubtedly the classic work on the flora, fauna and peoples of the area which is now called Malaysia and Indonesia. Based largely on four field journals which Wallace kept during the eight years he spent there between 1854 and 1862, it ranks as the greatest travel book on the region and for its analysis of the geographic distribution of animals, it is one of the most important natural history books of the nineteenth century.
The main purpose of Wallace’s travels, as he states in the preface to his book, was to obtain natural history specimens for his private collection and to sell duplicates to museums and amateur naturalists through his agent in London. Altogether he collected an astonishing 125,660 specimens of natural history, mainly beetles, butterflies and birds from across the archipelago.
The Malay Archipelago was published in London on 9 March 1869 in two volumes of 1500 copies and it quickly sold out. A second edition of 750 copies came out in October that year and edition after edition followed. A German translation came out in 1869 and a Dutch translation in 1870 and it is believed that the book has never been out of print.
The Malay Archipelago was dedicated to Charles Darwin and he must have received an advance copy because he wrote to Wallace on 5 March 1869. ‘ I was delighted at receiving your book this morning. The whole appearance and the illustrations with which it is so profusely ornamented are quite beautiful … As for the dedication, putting quite aside how far I deserve what you say, it seems to me decidedly the best expressed which I have ever met.
Wallace begins The Malay Archipelago with this evocative description of the region:
If we look at a globe or a map of the eastern hemisphere we shall percieve between Asia and Australia a number of large and small islands, forming a connected group distinct from those great masses of land, and having little connection with either of them. Situated upon the equator, and bathed with the tepid water of the great tropical oceans, this region enjoys a climate more uniformly hot and moist than almost any other part of the globe, and teems with natural productions which are elsewhere unknown. The richest of fruits and the most precious of spices are here indigenous. It produces the the giant flowers of the Rafflesia, the great green-winged Ornithoptera (princes among the butterfly tribes), the man-like orang-utan, and the gorgeous birds of paradise. It is inhabited by a peculiar and interesting race of mankind – the Malay, found nowhere beyond the limits of this insular tract, which has hence been named the Malay Archipelago.
What is interesting is that nowhere in The Malay Archipelago does Wallace mention his famous ‘Letter from Ternate’ or his essay ‘On the Tendency of Species to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type’ which he wrote in three days and sent to Charles Darwin from Ternate in March 1858. Stating that he “hoped the idea was as new to Darwin as it was to himself and that he believed it would supply the missing factor to explain the origin of species”. Of course the idea was not new to Darwin, although he had never published his theory, and it was Wallace’s letter which precipitated the joint presentation to the Linnean Society in July 1858, while Wallace was still in the Dutch East Indies, of his and Darwin’s common theory on the Origin of Species.
The 50th Anniversary of this momentous event was celebrated in 1908 when Alfred Russel Wallace was presented the Darwin-Wallace Gold Medal. The President of the Linnean Society, in welcoming the delegates and guests on this occasion, said:—
“We are met together today to celebrate what is without doubt the greatest event in the history of our Society since its foundation. Nor is it easy to conceive the possibility in the future of any second revolution of Biological thought so momentous as that which was started 50 years ago by the reading of the joint papers of Mr. Darwin and Dr. Wallace, ‘On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties’ and on the ‘Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection’ …
Darwin and Wallace not only freed us from the dogma of Special Creation, a dogma which we now find it difficult to conceive of as once seriously held —they afforded a natural explanation of the marvellous indications of Design which had been the great strength of the old doctrine…
Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace, We rejoice that we are so happy as to have with us today the survivor of the two great naturalists whose crowning work we are here to commemorate. Your brilliant work, in Natural History and Geography, and as one of the founders of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, is universally honoured and has often received public recognition, as in the awards of the Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society, and our own medal in 1892. Today in asking you to accept the first Darwin-Wallace medal, we are offering you of your own, for it is you, equally with your great colleague, who created the occasion which we celebrate today.”