Thursday, 2nd July 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Happy birthday Alfred

Posted on 11. Jul, 2011 by in Alfred Russel Wallace


Is a man’s most valuable possession his bow and arrow or a butterfly or a memory or simply time?  What do you give a guy who lived a hundred and fifty years ago?

JIRLAI, Aru, Indonesia

What do you give a guy who lived a hundred and fifty years ago?

I write this on January 8, Alfred Russel Wallace’s birthday, and I want to zip back in time and give him a present.

* * * * *

Birthday presents for the young Alfred Russel Wallace were likely to have been meager.  He was the eighth of nine children born to a lower-middle class family in Usk, Monmouthshire in South Wales, and hand-me-downs were his destiny.

Wallace’s father, a devout Anglican, failed solicitor and unsuccessful businessman, could afford little in the way of material goods.

But one gift his father did give the boy was a love of reading and encouragement to use a library, and in this way Alfred Wallace voraciously consumed an eclectic assortment of books on science, natural history and travel.  His reading list included Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, Fielding’s Tom Jones, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, all of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, Malthus’ Principles of Population (of which Wallace said: “twenty years later [this book] gave me the long-sought clue to the effective agent in the evolution of organic species”), Alexander von Humboldt’s dramatic personal account of his travels in Latin America, Darwin’s journal of the Beagle, and Lyell’s Geology.  One of the books that stimulated him most was a controversial book on evolution by another amateur naturalist, Robert Chambers, who wrote Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation.

In later life Wallace came to also appreciate how much he owed his older brother William for creating pasttimes which required no cash, and as a father himself Wallace deplored the growing craze of giving to children elaborate and contrived mechanical toys which called for no creative skill on the part of the recipient.

* * * * *

I toast you Alfred with sweet tea, since this tiny hamlet on this forgotten island of Aru in this isolated corner of the archipelago is alcohol-free.

Seems the headman, in what must have been a first in Indonesia, kicked out the Chinese merchant who had stocked a tiny shop in someone’s house.  The headman was not driven by fundamentalist-Christian missionary zeal as much as he was concerned that his cash-poor fellow villagers would walk into the shop to get necessities like batteries and fishing line but would wind up spending the kids’ school fees on beer and cigarettes.

Seems people without stuff want stuff.

Wallace spent so much time in discomfort that he relished the simple luxury of having a home base in Ternate, writing “Few can imagine the luxury it was to stretch myself on a sofa, and to take my supper comfortably at table seated in my easy bamboo chair, after having for five weeks taken all my meals uncomfortably on the floor.  Such things are trifles in health, but when the body is weakened by disease the habits of a lifetime can not be so easily set aside.”

I shudder at how much stuff Wallace had to lug around.  He traveled “heavy”, as one shopping list described. “I bought knives, basins, and handkerchiefs for barter, which with the choppers, cloth, and beads I had brought with me, made a pretty good assortment.  I also bought two Tower muskets to satisfy my crew, who insisted on the necessity of being armed against attacks of pirates; and with spices and a few articles of food for the voyage, nearly my last doit was expended.” He dragged around (or more correctly, paid other to drag around) “bed, blankets, pots, wash basin, tea, sugar, butter, salt, pickles, rice, bread and wine, pepper and curry powder, and a hundred more odds and ends.”  He moaned that “packing and re-packing, calculating and contriving, [has] been the standing plague of my life for the last seven years.”

But in addition to those necessities think of what Wallace had to carry in order to survive and collect his specimens.  Canvas. Rope.  Tables and chairs. Pots and pans (including a giant skillet big enough to boil an orangutan skeleton).  Casks of alcohol (to pickle his specimens). Butterfly nets.  Frames to mount insects. Wooden boxes to pack specimens.  Equipment for stuffing animals and birds. Camphor to stop the ants from eating everything.

* * * * *

I took part on a small expedition to Pulau Enu, on the other side of Aru, near the island of New Guinea.  Ating Sumantri, the head of turtle conservation for the Indonesian nature conservation department, had the unenviable task of organizing the trip; ten days, ten people.  One afternoon Ating and I sat on the beach and made a list of what we had brought:

powdered milk, one can
coffee, six packs
tea, five packs
Khong Guan bisquits, one box
pineapple biscuits, 4 packs
pumpkin, two
cucumber, five kg
cabbage, 10 kg
beans, 5 kg
potatoes, 5 kg
onions, 5 kg
water, 20 x 20l jerrycans
bottled water, 48 bottles
rice, 25 kg
eggs, 50
soy sauce (sweet) 10 bottles
sambal hot sauce, 10 bottles
instant noodles, 24 packs
prawn crackers, 5 packs
sugar, 5 kg
vinegar, 1 bottle
shredded beef, 1/2 kg
dried beef, 2 kg
clove cigarettes, 80 packs


firewood, 10 packs
kerosene, 10 liters
rice pots, 2
rice strainer
plastic plates
plastic water jugs, 2
lanterns, 2
raffia, 1 roll
plastic sheets, 4×6 meters.  5


gasoline, 40 l (for onboard generator)
diesel, 2,000 liters

* * * * *

Wallace made some 90 major moves during his Asian travels.  Unpacking and packing.  Some psychologist said that the most stressful situations in life are loss of a loved one, getting fired, and moving.

Wallace wrote warmly about the joys of returning to civilization in Ternate, a town that was his base camp for some three years.  “A deep well supplied me with pure cold water — a great luxury in this climate.  Five minutes’ walk down the road brought me to the market and the beach.  In this house I spent many happy days.  Returning to it after a three or four months’ absence in some uncivilized region, I enjoyed the unwonted luxuries of milk and fresh bread, and regular supplies of fish and eggs, meat and vegetables, which were often sorely needed to restore my health and energy.  I had ample space and convenience for unpacking, sorting, and arranging my treasures, and I had delightful walks in the suburbs of the town, or up the lower slopes of the mountain.”

And Wallace traveled with books.  Heavy, bulky, but no doubt of great comfort to him during those lonely vigils in the wilderness.

“When I went to New Guinea, I took an old copy of ‘Tristam Shandy’, which I read through about three times,” he wrote.  “It is an annoying and, you will perhaps say, a very gross book; but there are passages in it that have never been surpassed, while the character of Uncle Toby has, I think, never been equalled, except perhaps by that of Don Quixote.”

Funny about book people and non-book people.

I was sitting in a dirty and depressing Chinese losman on Bacan island, talking to an Indonesian who worked for the electricity board and who was reluctantly on the island for business.  He was fascinated by the guidebooks I carried, rich in detail, full of photos of beautiful people and places.  After drinking tea and eating fried bananas with him I felt I could ask why most of the books about Indonesia were written by foreigners.  “Orang asing pikir bedah“, he replied.  Foreigners think differently.  I asked him to explain.  More or less he said: “Indonesians are tied to the daily search for ways to stay alive; foreigners look for ideas.”

I think he was too hard on his countrymen and certainly too starry-eyed about the noble intentions of the white race.  I offered a somewhat different theory.  That basically the Indonesian vision is inward-directed and therefore focused on family and bangsa, which is a person’s tribe or race or language group; and of course the needs of the immediate family.  But foreigners have weaker family structures, not to mention smaller families, therefore they find it easier to extend their vision outward, to other cultures.

Wallace carried a strong box filled with coins with which to buy specimens, pay laborers and have boats built. He wore heavy leather boots, impractical for the humid tropics, noting on one trip “the constant walking in water, and over rocks and pebbles, quite destroyed the two pair of shoes I brought with me, so that, on my return, they actually fell to pieces, and the last day I had to walk in my stockings very painfully, and reached home quite lame.”

In Aru I was invited for tea at the house of a man named Ely , and I glanced around and did a quick inventory — the only externally-produced things he owned were cooking utensils, plastic buckets, his machete-like parang and a few gardening tools, a battery-powered cassette player and kerosene pressure lamp.  Plus a few clothes hanging on nails and two pictures of Indonesian movie stars ripped out of a magazine and nailed to the wall.  Ely was in the cash economy, barely, not much changed from Wallace’s day when he wrote: “The houses and furniture [in Aru] are on a par with the food.  A rude shed, suppoorted on rough and slender sticks rather than posts, no walls, but the floor raised to within a foot of the eaves, is the style of architecture they usually adopt.  Inside there are partition-walls of thatch, forming little boxes or sleeping-places, to accommodate the two or three separate families that usually live together.  A few mats, baskets, and cooking-vessels, with plates and basins purchased from the Macassar traders, constitute their whole furniture; spears and bows are their weapons; a sarong or mat forms the clothing of the women, a waistcloth of the men.”

I asked Ely what he would really like if he could have anything.  “An outboard engine,” he said, somewhat hopefully, perhaps thinking that I was about to offer him a present.

I asked this illiterate but wonderfully self-sufficient man what his most valuable possession was.  I was expecting, but not looking forward to his saying “My bible.”  Instead he said the only sensible thing, and he said it immediately.  “My bow and arrow.”  Quickly he added:  “And my parang.”  I asked him why.  “With those I can hunt and build a new house.”

* * * * *

When Wallace was returning to England following four years collecting in the Amazon and Rio Negro, the ship on which he was sailing, the brig Helen, caught fire.  He lost much of his collection, acquired tediously over four years, containing one-of-a-kind specimens which were new to science, which would have earned the young man a substantial amount of money, and which would have given him a boost towards acceptance by the snotty scientific establishment of London.

How did Wallace feel?  Wallace-biographer Arnold Brackman speculated that “Wallace raced to his cabin and snatched up a “small box…which [was] luckily at hand.  The box contained a set of pencil drawings of different palm species, together with notes on their distribution and characteristics; a collection of sketches, drawn to scale, of fishes, with notes on their color, dentititon, and scale structure and a Portuguese folio notebook containing his Rio Negro diary and notes made while mapping both the Rio Negro and Uaupés.  Everything else, [his entire collection] the labor of four years, was smoldering and burning in the hold beneath the cabin.  Wallace also grabbed his watch and a purse containing a few sovereigns, the only money he posssessed.”

Wallace had lost most of his painfully-obtained collection, and later wrote: “I cannot attempt to describe my feelings and thoughts during these events [the burning of the Helen].  I was surprised to find myself cool and collected.  I hardly thought it possible we should escape, and I remember thinking it almost foolish to save my watch and the little money I had…My collections, however, were in the hold and were irretrievably lost.  And now I began to think that almost all the reward of my four years of privation and danger was gone.  What I had hitherto sent home had little more than paid my expenses, and what I had with me in the Helen I estimated would have realized about £500.  But even all this might have gone with little regret had not by far the richest part of my own private collection gone also.  All my private collection of insects and birds since I left Para [current day Belem] was with me, and comprised hundreds of new and beautiful sepecimens which would have rendered (I had fondly hoped) my cabinet, so far as regards American species, one of the finest in Europe.”

* * * * *

So, what kind of gift from the present would Wallace most appreciate?

A camera?  Maybe, but that would just add to the paraphernalia.

Swiss Army knife?  One of those insecticide fogging machines used by scientists in Panama to collect arboreal beetles? A good medical kit, with lots of mosquito repellant?

I looked up what the Singapore Straits Times newspaper published during the period Wallace was living on the mercantile island and was surprised by the goods he would have had access to.

Ads promoted perambulators, buggy whips, Irish linen, and horse hair petticoats.   Perhaps he picked up a few bottles of Rolands Macassar Oil, “patronized by Queen Victoria”, which “prevents Hair from falling off or turning grey, … cleanses it from Scurf and Dandruff.”

More likely Wallace was tempted by “The Greatest Medical Discovery of the Age” which was Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum, used to “restore the impaired power of life when exhausted by the follies of youth, maturity or old age.”

Wallace certainly could have used some good maps.  A Zippo lighter. A lightweight tent and hammock. Ballpoint pens.

I’m sure he would have welcomed any of these gifts. But I’ve decided to give him something more mundane, but perhaps more useful.

So I’ve opted for a gift that is not valuable, not frivolous, not decorative. About as practical as you can imagine.  I keep on thinking of Wallace moving camp, keeping insects out of his specimens, keeping his rice and gunpowder dry.  It must have been hell when the skies opened and rain fell like Thor himself was pissing down on the jungle.

My gift to you Alfred: A large selection of plastic bags — ranging from the heaviest duty giant-sized garbage bags to small easily-sealable sandwich bags.  For your journals.  For your butterflies. For your coffee.  For your sanity.


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