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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Alfred Russel Wallace – The voyage to Aru

The British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was the greatest of all archipelago travellers in his search for rare and exotic natural history specimens to send back from eastern Indonesia to collectors in Britain.

Macassan traders made annual voyages to the Aru Islands in the eastern extremity of the Indonesian archipelago to collect pearl shell, trepang or dried sea slug, and most importantly – bird of paradise skins. For collectors, a bird of paradise specimen was worth more than any other bird on the planet and their skins were traded across the world from Macassar. From here it was a thousand mile voyage in a native boat, the Bugis prahu, a boat which had made the Macassan traders famous on their annual voyages to the eastern islands and as far south as Arnhem Land in Australia to collect trepang for the Chinese markets.

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Wallace’s voyages around the eastern Indonesian archipelago

For Alfred Russel Wallace, it was the lure of the bird of paradise that had brought him to the archipelago in the first place and here was an opportunity to reach their distant lands. Despite his trepidation it was a lure he could not resist:

When I found that I really could do so now, had I but the courage to trust myself for a thousand miles voyage in a Bugis prau, and then for six or seven months among lawless traders and ferocious savages. I felt somewhat as I did as a schoolboy.

Wallace brought with him an eight month supply of necessities – sugar, coffee, tea, a keg of butter, sixteen flasks of oil, cooking utensils, lamps and candles as well as luxuries such as a dozen bottles of wine and some beer. His hunting and collecting supplies consisted of guns, bags of shot, gunpowder, insect boxes, pins, preserving alcohol, as well as tobacco, beads and parang (machetes) for trading. Despite his initial trepidation when first contemplating this voyage, Wallace declared that he had never, either before or since, made a twenty day voyage so pleasantly, or with so little discomfort and he wrote:

I was much delighted with the trip, and was inclined to rate the luxuries of the semi-barbarous prahu as surpassing those of the most magnificent screw-steamer, that highest result of our civilisation.

050 Paris Caboteurs de Macassar 1830 Admiral Francois-Edmund Paris Musee de Marine, Paris

Macassan prahus – Admiral Francois Edmund-Paris, 1830, Musee de Marine, Paris

There was no Dutch colonial presence on these remote islands and Wallace was the only white man in the settlement. For obvious reasons he became a curiosity and he describes his many visits from the locals:

This was the first time a real white man had come among them, and, they said, “You see how the people come every day from the villages around to look at you”, This was very flattering, and accounted for the great concourse of visitors which I had at first imagined was accidental. A few years before I had been one of the gazers at the Zulus and the Aztecs in London. Now the tables were turned on me, for I was to these people a new and strange variety of man, and I had the honour of affording to them, in my own person, an attractive exhibition.

054 Dobbo during the trading season

Illustration from ‘The Malay Archipelago’ showing Wallace conversing with the locals on Aru

Aru Island had always been part of the Australian-New Guinea continent and Wallace noted the presence on Aru of marsupials such as the Aru Wallaby seen in the bottom left of this picture along with Australian scrub turkeys, which led to his conclusion that Australia had collided with Asia.

It was months later that Wallace was able to see the Great Bird of Paradise in full plumage with its long trains of silky feathers. Lying in his hut before dawn he awoke to their cries as they went to seek their breakfast. The mating season had begun and he observed their extravagant ‘dance parties’, conducted to win the watching female birds. As they danced, the males raised their tails into magnificent golden fans, shook these quivering fans, and then froze like an open flower, before quivering again. Wallace was the first European to see the elaborate courtship dances of these birds, he now knew that the Bird of Paradise really deserves its name and must be ranked as one of the most beautiful and most wonderful of all living things.

058 Paradesia Apoda


Rosenberg Cover Image 3

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The Wallace Line

In June 1856 the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace crossed the narrow strait between the islands of Bali and Lombok. During the few days when he stayed on the north coast of Bali he saw 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 where he had spent the last two years.

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.

Where Australia Collides with Asia - IHS poster 2

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.

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.


That larrikan of the Australian bush, the yellow crested white cockatoo, made his presence felt all across Wallacea which is the name given to that part of the eastern archipelago which has Australian species.

Here he has pushed himself into an Indonesian market scene, which a Dutch artist has used to display the many varieties of tropical fruits found in Indonesia.

Rijksmuseum_Indonesian Market_Cockatoo

He also hitched a ride on a EastIndiaman to travel to Holland where he has pushed himself into a ladies boudoir in this allegorical scene by Jan Brueghel. Of course he will soon spoil this scene of happy domesticity by screeching the only sound he knows.


The Sense of Hearing by Jan Brueghel

Read more about the voyages of Alfred Russel Wallace, the Wallace Line and Wallacea in this recently published book entitled  ‘Where Australia Collides with Asia.

Rosenberg Cover Image 3

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The Banda Islands – Fort Belgica

The original Fort Belgica was rebuilt in 1673 and the new design consisted of a low outer pentagonal structure with five angled corner bastions and a higher inner pentagon with five tall circular towers. The fort was built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to protect their monopoly of the nutmeg trade from the Banda Islands and particularly by attack from the English East India Company.

The original plans for the new fort drawn in 1667.


An arial photo showing the outline of Fort Belgica today.

Fort Belgica Alexandre Girardeau

Drone photograph by Alexandre Giradeau

Notwithstanding its massive design, an armanent of 50 cannon and a garrison of 400 men, the fort was captured twice by the English. Once in 1796 when it surrended to an English fleet without a shot being fired and once in 1810 when the fort was captured by British marines led by Captain Christopher Cole.  As he described the attack:

The gallantry and activity with which the scaling ladders were hauled up after the out-work was carried and placed for an attack on the inner-work, under sharp fire from the garrison exceed all praise. The enemy, after firing their guns and keeping up an ineffectual discharge of musquetry for ten or fifteen minutes, fled in all directions through the gateway, leaving the Colonel-Commandant and ten others dead, and two officers and 30 prisoners in our hands. 

(Extract from the book East Indies by Ian Burnet)

The commanding position of Fort Belgica can be seen from this drone photograph.

Fort Belgica2

Drone photo courtesy of the Nutmeg Tree Hotel

The massive walls of the fort seen from the ground.


It is a great location to entertain visitors with cultural dances and here are the nutmeg girls resting on the ramparts of Fort Belgica.

Nutmeg Girls

And it is a great location to take sunset photographs.

Belgica Sunset

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Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2017

UWRF 2017 header

From humble beginnings in 2002, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival has evolved into one of the world’s most celebrated literary and artistic events – an annual pilgrimage for lovers of literature and conversation.

Bringing together some of the world’s most powerful voices in a melting pot of artists, authors, thinkers and performers, the Festival is a platform for meaningful exchange and cross-cultural dialogue. A place where artists and audiences alike can discuss shared inspirations, ideas and concerns, the Festival transcends cultural and geographical borders to create a truly global community.

Not withstanding the rumblings of Gunung Agung, this years UWRF will be another outstanding event. Featuring writers such as Jung Cheng (Wild Swans), Robert Dessaix (Night Letters), Tim Flannery (The Future Eaters), Madelaine Thien (Do Not Say We Have Nothing), Ian Rankin (Inspector Rebus stories) and Simon Winchester (Krakatoa). Personally I will be following the adventurers such as Tim Flannery (The Future Eaters), Per Andersson (The Amazing Story Of The Man Who Cycled From India To Europe For Love), Nigel Barley (The Island of Demons), Simon Winchester (Krakatoa) and Rob Henry (the documentary As Worlds Divide).

Below are some of the ‘blurbs’ regarding my participation in the Festival:


Ian Burnet has spent 30 years living, working and traveling in Indonesia. His previousthree titles, Spice Islands, East Indies and Archipelago – A Journey Across Indonesia, reflect his fascination with the nation’s diverse history, ethnicity and cultures. His latest book, Where Australia Collides with Asia, follows the epic voyages of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace around the eastern archipelago.

Ian Burnet telah hidup, bekerja, dan berkeliling di Indonesia selama 30 tahun. Tiga karya Ian yang berjudul Spice Islands, East Indies dan Archipelago – A Journey Across Indonesia adalah karya-karya yang mencerminkan ketertarikannya akan beragam karakter, etnis dan budaya di Indonesia. Buku terbarunya, Where Australia Collides with Asia, mengikuti kisah perjalanan hebat dari naturalist asal Inggris Alfred Russel Wallace yang mengelilingi bagian Timur nusantara.

Main Program: Banda Tales

26 Oct 2017 13:00 – 14:15
/ 4-Day or 1-Day Main Program Pass
Taman Baca. Festival Hub, Jl. Raya Sanggingan (Google Maps)

350 years ago when nutmeg was worth more than gold, the tiny island of Run played a dramatic role in Indonesia’s colonial history when it was ‘swapped’ by the British for Manhattan. Rich in precious spices, Run and the Banda Islands were the battleground of the legendary spice trade. 350 years on, these writers share their connections to the fabled Spice Islands.

Saat buah pala lebih berharga dibandingkan emas 350 tahun yang lalu, pulau kecil Run memainkan peran penting dalam perjalanan sejarah kolonialisme di Indonesia saat pulau tersebut ditukar dengan Manhattan oleh Inggris. Kaya akan rempah-rempah, Pulau Run dan Banda merupakan ladang pertempuran dari perdagangan rempah. 350 tahun kemudian, para penulis ini bertukar pikiran dan berbagi cerita tentang keberadaan pulau rempah-rempah tersebut.


Festival Club @ Bar Luna: Where Australia Collides with Asia

26 Oct 2017 18:15 – 19:15
/ / Free
Bar Luna. Jl. Raya Ubud (Google Maps)

Stow away on some of the most epic voyages of natural history with author and historian, Ian Burnet. Follow the fascinating footsteps of Banks, Darwin and Wallace and explore the remarkable biogeographical boundary that lies just east of Bali and separates the fauna of Asia and Australasia.

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Special Event: Set Sail for the Spice Islands

29 Oct 2017 11:00 – 13:30
IDR 350,000
Casa Luna. Jl. Raya Ubud (Google Maps)

Set sail for the legendary Spice Islands over a three-course long table lunch at Casa Luna. Restaurateur and Festival Founder and Director Janet DeNeefe joins forces with culinary activist and filmmaker Rahung Nasution to evoke the extraordinary flavors and coveted ingredients that changed the course of history. Historian Ian Burnet and photographer-documentary maker Muhammad Fadli will help steer the ship.

Includes three-course long table lunch.

Berlayar ke Kepulauan Rempah-Rempah legendaris selama makan siang meja panjang tiga haluan di Casa Luna. Pendiri dan Direktur Restoran dan Festival, Janet DeNeefe akan bergabung dengan pegiat kuliner dan pembuat film, Rahung Nasution untuk membangkitkan rasa yang luar biasa dan bahan-bahan yang didambakan yang mengubah jalannya sejarah. Sejarawan Ian Burnet dan fotografer pembuat karya dokumenter Muhammad Fadli akan membantu mengarahkan sesi tersebut.

Termasuk makan siang meja panjang tiga haluan.

Rosenberg_Spicejak2Final_crop - Copy (2)


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