Saturday, 15th June 2024

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

The search for Ali

Posted on 30. Jan, 2018 by in Alfred Russel Wallace and his assistant Ali

This article is excerpted from a chapter in Dead, But Still Kicking. Part I–The Set-Up contains an extensive review of Ali’s background and how he assisted Wallace, Part II-The Conversation with Spirits reviews my frustrating attempts to “speak” with Ali with the help of various mediums.


The Search for Ali
Can eager shamans solve the mystery of Wallace’s “faithful companion?”


Ali, age about 22, in an 1862 photograph taken in Singapore. This is the only photo we have of the young man. I’ve been consulting mediums to try to locate his descendants.


TERNATE, Indonesia

“Why don’t I just go to the source?” I asked.

I was having a seafood dinner with Ofa Firman, the son of the Sultan of Ternate. I was telling him my frustrations about trying to find the descendants of Ali, the young man who accompanied Alfred Russel Wallace through Southeast Asia. I thought that if we could find Ali’s descendants then that might spur a new burst of support for conservation in the region.

I explained to Ofa Firman that on several previous visits I had encouraged university professors to ask graduate students to take on the search for Ali’s descendants. I spoke with officials in the tourist office, and with folks in the local historical society, about starting a public awareness campaign. I offered to write a newspaper article explaining who Ali was and why we’re looking for his descendants. All these friendly people had agreed – Yes, very interesting. Yes, we can do something. And each time, after I left, nothing had happened. I was frustrated that my seemingly Quixotic quest seemed doomed to be defeated by the black hole of enthusiastic Indonesian inertia.

Perhaps it was personal – they didn’t like me, or they weren’t enthusiastic about expending effort on someone else’s idea.  Or perhaps Wallace’s star was shining less brightly – the small street where his house was ostensibly located, which had in the early 21st century been re-named Jalan Alfred Russel Wallace (Alfred Russel Wallace Street) had been downgraded to Lorong Alfred Russel Wallace (Alfred Russel Wallace Small Alley).

“And by ‘source’ you mean what?” Ofa Firman asked as he passed me a plate of tamarind prawns.

I suggested that together we create a new form of historical research. Rather than examining academic tomes, instead of sifting through dusty Dutch records, instead of going door-to-door in the Malay settlements, why not talk to Ali himself? “That sounds like a fine idea,” Ofa Firman said, “but there’s a slight hitch.  Ali is dead. Which means he’s a ghost.” A hantu in Indonesian terms.

“Ternate is full of mediums,” I said, passing him a platter of chilli crabs.  They were a specialty of Royal’s Resto & Function Hall.  “Let’s talk to Ali himself and get the true story.”

Let’s call it History by Hantu. If my History by Hantu works, what might we learn?  Will we unravel the “mystery of Ali?” (On a broader scale, could such investigations answer the great historical mysteries? What if we could speak with Lee Harvey Oswald and ask if he acted alone, and for what reason?  Or get into the head of Napoleon, or Cleopatra, or Genghis Khan? Wouldn’t scholars love to ask Shakespeare if he wrote all those plays and sonnets? Or ask Mary, mother of Jesus, about that virgin birth story.) [1]

“I know just the guy,” Ofa Firman said.

# # # # #

Part I: The Set-Up

Why Ali?

The Borneo newspapers in 1858 sported a large headline: “Local Borneo lad helps develop theory of evolution.”

The local reporters told how a teen-aged cook from Sarawak named Ali assisted Alfred Russel Wallace on his eight-year adventure in Southeast Asia, culminating in Wallace’s development of the Theory of Natural Selection, written while Ali and Wallace were living in Ternate, a picture-postcard-beautiful island in eastern Indonesia that was the original source of cloves, and therefore one of the most legendary of the Spice Islands that spurred European exploration, trade, and colonialism.

The Borneo newspapers revealed how Ali nursed Wallace during a malaria fever, giving the older Englishman strength and moral support to write the theory that changed the way we view ourselves and our place in the scheme of things.

The Borneo newspapers, of course, said none of these things.  Ali was then, and remains, a footnote, an historical afterthought written in small type.

* * *

Searching for Ali was just one of my Asian quests.

I seek tiger magicians in Sumatra.  Snowmen of the Jungle in Flores.  I seek reasons why people believe in the power of magic amulets and oceanic mermaids and white elephants. I seek the secrets of growing healthy, juicy tomatoes. I seek a writing voice that makes people sit up and take notice – I don’t expect them to leap and shout “huzah!” but a satisfied smile once in a while would be welcome.  I seek someone who can explain the Higgs boson. I seek the answer to why some people believe in a stern Hairy Thunderer while other people bow to a benign Cosmic Muffin while other people value spirits in the trees and waterfalls and other folks consult astrological charts and intricately designed tarot cards and yet other people scoff at metaphysics and choose to rely on their own judgment and inner moral compass.

And I have spent forty years trying to find out more about Ali. Who he was, why he went with Wallace, what his contribution was, and where he ultimately settled.

I clearly needed spiritual intervention.

* * *

Western history treats famous explorers as bigger-than-life individuals who braved the elements alone, stoic, unflappable and with immense strength of character and fortitude.  But actually, all explorers, the famous as well as the over-looked, relied on often-unheralded people to assist in their odyssey.  Lewis and Clark had Sacagawea, Edmund Hillary had Tenzing Norgay. Ferdinand Magellan had Enrique, a slave he bought in Malacca and whom he encouraged (I use the term advisedly) to renounce Islam and convert to Catholicism.  Enrique became Magellan’s interpreter, guide and assistant; he may also have been among the first people to complete the circumnavigation of the globe, since Magellan, who gets the credit, was killed in the Philippines before finishing the epic journey while Enrique might have continued the voyage to its conclusion.

British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace had Ali, and without Ali’s assistance it is unlikely Wallace would have been as successful as he was.

That’s about all we know.

* * *

Alfred Russel Wallace spent the first six months in the Malay Archipelago exploring the outskirts of cosmopolitan Singapore and the hilly region around Malacca, now in Peninsular Malaysia. While in Singapore Wallace renewed his acquaintance with James Brooke, the famed “White Rajah” of Sarawak, who invited him to Borneo.

Wallace’s prior four-year Amazon adventure had helped him immensely in learning to survive in alien environments and cultures.  But in Asia he was a stranger in a strange land. Nevertheless, he was quick learner and rapidly gained competence in Malay, the lingua franca of the region.

While in Sarawak, in late 1855, Wallace hired Ali.

Ali accompanied Wallace on most of his subsequent Asian travels. Starting out as a cook, Ali himself evolved – he learned to collect and mount specimens. He took on more responsibility for organizing travel (just imagine the negotiations with self-important village chiefs, unreliable porters and laborers, and greedy merchants, whose eyes no doubt grew large when they saw a white man like Alfred come to buy supplies). Ali became both a friend and a valuable assistant; Wallace called him “my faithful companion.”

* * *

There’s an awful lot we don’t know about Ali. We speculate on where he came from. How Wallace met him. Whether he went to school. Where he settled after he parted ways with Wallace. And most interesting, what did Ali think of the tall, awkward, bearded Englishman who spent his days collecting innumerable insects and his nights writing in a small notebook by the dim light of an oil lamp.

* * *

Christopher Vogler is a Hollywood screenwriter whose book The Writer’s Journey explores how a classical mythic structure is used in popular films such as Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. “All stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies,” Vogler says. “They are known collectively as The Hero’s Journey.”

One essential archetype in the hero’s journey is the character Vogler calls the Mentor (and which philosopher Joseph Campbell refers to as the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman), who teaches and protects heroes and gives them gifts. In classical mythology, as well as contemporary novels, the Mentor is a sage adult – Merlin guiding King Arthur, the Fairy Godmother helping Cinderella, or a veteran sergeant giving advice to a rookie cop.

If you wish to plot Ali’s hero’s journey in this way, then Wallace was clearly the Mentor, and Ali took the role of a keen, but initially naïve, son who grows in competence and confidence as the story progresses. We can assume that when Wallace met Ali, the Malay teenager had never left Sarawak, probably had never had a serious conversation with a European, and had a limited worldview. Wallace took him on a magnificent journey lasting almost eight years, and by the time Ali and Wallace parted company, Ali no doubt had grown considerably.

“Ali would have been one of the most widely traveled Malays of his age,” according to Jerry Drawhorn of California State University, Sacramento. “He would have seen most of what is today modern Indonesia (Papua to Sumatra). He would have seen the ancient Hindu temples of Java; the modern metropolises of Batavia and Singapore; the primitive villages of the people of Dorey and the stylized royal courts of central Java. He tasted modern science and medicine and yet retained his beliefs in ghosts and men who could transform into tigers.”

* * *

The reverse is also true.

Just as Wallace taught and guided Ali through new adventures, perspectives and skills, Ali was similarly Wallace’s guide.  The Englishman was a good pupil and Wallace’s steep learning curve, abetted by Ali, included mastering the Malay language, understanding the vagaries of dozens of cultural groups (Wallace compiled fifty-seven vocabularies during his travels in Asia), and becoming comfortable with an Asian world view in which female vampire ghosts, crocodile whisperers, bird omens and kings who consort with mermaids, danced an intricate waltz of life as seen through a spectral prism.

* * *

Under what circumstances did Wallace hire Ali?  My theory:

Wallace formed a friendship with Rajah James Brooke and Brooke’s secretary and friend Spenser St. John.  I figure that one night, over brandy, James Brooke said: “Look here Wallace, here in Sarawak people know you’re my friend and they will tolerate your curious behavior and listen to your baby-talk Malay and won’t cheat you too much. But out there [no doubt he was pointing south to the maze of thousands of Indonesian islands where Wallace was heading] they’re going to eat you alive.” Brooke then asked one of his Malay assistants if he had a young relative who would be willing to go off on an adventure from which he might not return. The result was the Wallace-Ali partnership.

Here’s how Wallace described his engagement of Ali as personal assistant:

When I was at Sarawak in 1855 I engaged a Malay boy named Ali as a personal servant, and also to help me to learn the Malay language…. He was attentive and clean, and could cook very well.[2]

Wallace described how Ali grew into the job, growing from cook to collector to preparer of specimens to manager of a often-changing team of laborers, hunters, and boat crews – more than one hundred men worked for Wallace in the Malay Archipelago.

[Ali] soon learnt to shoot birds, to skin them properly, and latterly even to put up the skins very neatly. Of course, he was a good boatman, as are all Malays…. He accompanied me through all my travels, sometimes alone, but more frequently with several others, and was then very useful in teaching them their duties, as he soon became well acquainted with my wants and habits.[3]

Wallace made no secret of the fact that many of the 125,660 specimens he obtained in the Malay Archipelago were collected by his various collecting assistants (perhaps some thirty men over the years), including an English assistant named Charles Allen.  Earl of Cranbrook, a leading ornithologist and mammologist, and historian Adrian G. Marshall, wrote that Wallace regularly “bought trade specimens [and] was always ready to recruit casual help in collecting, whether small boys with blowpipes or local hunters and bird traders.”[4] [5]

Yet it was Ali who saw himself as the senior collector, taking pride in his work and collecting a bird that became one of Wallace’s most-prized specimens:

Just as I got home I overtook Ali returning from shooting with some birds hanging from his belt. He seemed much pleased, and said, “Look here, sir, what a curious bird!” holding out what at first completely puzzled me. I saw a bird with a mass of splendid green feathers on its breast, elongated into two glittering tufts; but what I could not understand was a pair of long white feathers, which stuck straight out from each shoulder. Ali assured me that the bird stuck them out this way itself when fluttering its wings, and that they had remained so without his touching them. I now saw that I had got a great prize, no less than a completely new form of the bird of paradise, different and most remarkable from every other known bird…. This striking novelty has been named by Mr. G.R. Gray of the British Museum, Semioptera Wallacei [today it’s known as Semioptera wallacii], or “Wallace’s Standard-wing.”[6]

Ali was so proficient that he might have been responsible for collecting a large number of Wallace’s total of 8,050 bird specimens, which included 212 new bird species.

Within a year of hiring him Wallace described Ali as “my head man.”

Ali, the Malay boy whom I had picked up in Borneo, was my head man. He had already been with me a year, could turn his hand to any thing, and was quite attentive and trustworthy. He was a good shot, and fond of shooting, and I had taught him to skin birds very well.[7]

And Wallace eventually trusted Ali to go by himself to buy natural history specimens. Note  that Ali was ill (poor health dogged both Ali and Wallace throughout the journey) and that he was trustworthy and respected by outsiders:

My boy Ali returned from Wanumbai, where I had sent him alone for a fortnight to buy Paradise birds and prepare the skins; he brought me sixteen glorious specimens, and had he not been very ill with fever and ague might have obtained twice the number. He had lived with the people whose house I had occupied, and it is a proof of their goodness, if fairly treated, that although he took with him a quantity of silver dollars to pay for the birds they caught, no attempt was made to rob him, which might have been done with the most perfect impunity. He was kindly treated when ill, and was brought back to me with the balance of the dollars he had not spent.[8]

Ali showed that he had pride in his work; it was more than a job – he seemed to enjoy his role as a trusted bird collector and was willing to endure pain and discomfort to obtain a rare creature.

Soon after we had arrived at Waypoti, Ali had seen a beautiful little bird of the genus Pitta, which I was very anxious to obtain, as in almost every island the species are different, and none were yet known from Bouru [now Buru]. He and my other hunter continued to see it two or three times a week, and to hear its peculiar note much oftener, but could never get a specimen, owing to its always frequenting the most dense thorny thickets, where only hasty glimpses of it could be obtained, and at so short a distance that it would be difficult to avoid blowing the bird to pieces. Ali was very much annoyed that he could not get a specimen of this bird, in going after which he had already severely wounded his feet with thorns; and when we had only two days more to stay, he went of his own accord one evening to sleep at a little hut in the forest some miles off, in order to have a last try for it at daybreak, when many birds come out to feed, and are very intent on their morning meal. The next evening he brought me home two specimens, one with the head blown completely off, and otherwise too much injured to preserve, the other in very good order, and which I at once saw to be a new species, very like the Pitta celebensis, but ornamented with a square patch of bright red on the nape of the neck. [italics added][9]

And in due course Wallace trusted Ali to scout locations that might be sufficiently productive for Wallace to go to the expense and trouble of moving his camp.

It became evident, therefore, that I must leave Cajeli [on Buru] for some better collecting-ground … I sent my boy Ali … to explore and report on the capabilities of the district [Pelah]…. [after an account of a difficult walk that occupies two pages of text Wallace continues] I waited Ali’s return to decide on my future movements. He came the following day, and gave a very bad account of Pelah, where he had been. [italics added][10]

* * *

I don’t want to overstate Ali’s involvement, since his role was supportive rather than intellectual, but the young man was present when Wallace made his most important scientific breakthrough in his quest to understand the process of evolution.

Ali had not yet been hired in February 1855 when Wallace wrote his Sarawak Law (“On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species”).  This paper, published in September 1855, was an important first step towards Wallace’s Theory of Natural Selection and includes the statement “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.”

Ali, however, played an important supporting role in Wallace’s second breakthrough, which came three years after the Sarawak Law.

Wallace wrote that, while in Jailolo (Halmahera) and Ternate in eastern Indonesia in February 1858, Ali cared for him during the periods when he was “suffering from a sharp attack of intermittent fever.” During one particularly severe malaria attack Wallace had a breakthrough that explained the mechanism of natural selection. Within two days of the fever subsiding he had written “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type,” sometimes called the Ternate Paper, which contained the momentous concept “the fittest will survive” to explain the mechanism of natural selection.  Wallace then sent his paper to Charles Darwin, who up to that point had not published one word on evolution or natural selection.

* * *

Much has been made of Ali’s nursing skills. Yet Wallace wrote that he in turn cared for Ali on various occasions when the young man was incapacitated by often-serious illnesses and injuries. Wallace and Ali both suffered, and they helped each other overcome continuing episodes of fevers, inflammations, suppurating sores, accidents, shipwrecks, and general misery, not to mention the exasperation of trying to manage a string of often-unreliable, sometimes larcenous, hired hands. 

While on the island of Lombok, for example, Wallace asked his host for “a horse for Ali, who was lame.”[11] Apparently the horse never appeared, and Wallace noted:

I gave Ali my horse, and started on foot, but he afterward mounted behind Mr. Ross’s groom, and we got home very well, though rather hot and tired.[12]

In another passage, from Macassar (now Makassar), Wallace wrote about his concern for Ali’s health, mixed with his annoyance at not having a regular cook.

Although this was the height of the dry season, and there was a fine wind all day, it was by no means a healthy time of year.  My boy Ali had hardly been a day onshore when he was attacked by fever, which put me to great inconvenience, as at the house where I was staying nothing could be obtained but at meal-times. After having cured Ali, and with much difficulty got another servant to cook for me, I was no sooner settled at my country abode than the latter was attacked with the same disease, and, having a wife in the town, left me. Hardly was he gone than I fell ill myself, with strong intermittent fever every other day. In about a week I got over it by a liberal use of quinine, when scarcely was I on my legs than Ali again became worse than ever. His fever attacked him daily, but early in the morning he was pretty well, and then managed to cook me enough for the day. In a week I cured him.[13] 

And Wallace sought medical help for Ali in Maros, north of Makassar (and again bemoaned the inconvenience).

My boy Ali was so ill with fever that I was obliged to leave him in the hospital, under the care of my friend the German doctor, and I had to make shift with two new servants utterly ignorant of everything.[14]

And again on Macassar, Ali once more came down with fever, and again Wallace was annoyed that his routine was disrupted:

My Malay boy Ali was affected with the same illness, and as he was my chief bird-skinner I got on but slowly with my collections.[15]

* * *

I wonder what we might learn by flipping things around and looking at the Wallace-Ali relationship from Ali’s point of view. What did Ali think about all those characteristics (well-educated, science-influenced, relatively wealthy, curious, much-travelled, open-minded, meticulous, living far from his family, willing to sacrifice comfort for the sake of the quest) that intrigues us about Wallace? Can we speculate on how Ali judged his tall, gawky, bearded (beards are a constant source of fascination, and often fear, to many rural Asians) employer? At times Ali might have been confused – Wallace was his boss, but he cared for Ali when he was sick, almost as a father might have done. How did Ali try to make sense of this Englishman, who, with all the wealth and status that designation implies, deliberately chose not to live like other white foreigners but instead insisted on spending miserable weeks camped out in the forest, in palm leaf shelters that leaked, fighting rats, dogs, and ants that tried to devour his specimens.  And my word, those specimens.  Often, they were dull in color and to Ali without interest. Yet Wallace seemed as happy to collect a miserable grey-brown beetle as tiny as a rice grain with the same enthusiasm as he collected a big, bold hornbill. And what mental illness drove Wallace to spend long periods huddled over his journal writing intently about an ant. A miserable semut!  And so many of them! Wallace said they were all different, but Ali couldn’t see much beyond the fact that some were big and some were small and some were black and some were red. And Wallace smelled. Even in the forest, Ali took pride in his hygiene, washing his clothes and himself at every opportunity with buckets of rain water or in a nearby stream.  But, he had to admit, some of the butterflies and birds were attractive. However, all told, if Ali was in control of the shotguns he might better have used his time and ability to shoot deer for the dinner table.

* * *

Wallace was travelling independently – he had no government or military support system.  He also had little cash – he was a self-described “beetle collector” who earned enough to survive by sending natural history specimens to Samuel Stevens, his beetle agent in London, who then sold the critters to enthusiastic collectors. (Darwin, on the other hand, during his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle, lived on-board in what was, in effect, a floating base camp, with Royal Navy sailors on hand to provide security, logistics, laundry, and food. He had a permanent, dry place to write his notes and mount his specimens. (The downside: Darwin shared a cabin with the captain, Robert FitzRoy, who, Darwin noted, had a quick temper which resulted in behavior sometimes “bordering on insanity.”)

Wallace moved camp some one hundred times during his eight years in Southeast Asia, and we can imagine that greedy local merchants saw big profits when a white man like Wallace came along to buy supplies.  Ali probably reduced the amount that Wallace was over-charged, and helped in negotiations with self-important village chiefs: Hello good sir, do you mind if I set up a camp in your forest and shoot your birds and collect your butterflies?  Ali organized the thousands of annoying details of travel, and he hired and fired porters and laborers.

* * *

In 1862, after some seven years travelling together throughout the Indonesian archipelago Wallace and Ali made their way to Singapore.  Wallace was getting on a ship to return to England. Wallace took Ali to a photographer; the picture (the only one we have) shows a full-mouthed, serious, dark-complexioned lad with wavy hair, thick eyebrows, and a broad nose, dressed in a dark European-style jacket and under-jacket, white shirt, and a white bow tie. Wallace remembers the farewell:

On parting, besides a present in money, I gave him my two double-barrelled guns and whatever ammunition I had, with a lot of surplus stores … which made him quite rich. He here, for the first time, adopted European clothes, which did not suit him nearly so well as his native dress, and thus clad a friend took a very good photograph of him. I therefore now present his likeness to my readers as that of the best native servant I ever had, and the faithful companion of almost all my journeyings among the islands of the far East. [italics added] [16]

* * *

The small community of Ali-scholars ponder two basic questions.  These questions have little import in the bigger scheme of things, but they keep a few people busy exchanging academic papers and snippy emails. And for me they are the basic questions I intend to ask Ali, assuming I can find a suitably skilled medium.

First, where did Ali come from?  Was he born in Sarawak (the general assumption) or did he originate in Ternate (the view of some historians and several Ternate-based mediums).

Second, when Ali parted ways with Wallace, where did he “retire?”  The two options seem to be either Sarawak (the choice of some Sarawak-based mediums), Ternate (the general consensus), or a ludicrously distant country (an imaginative London-based medium).

* * *

Ali’s birthplace

Option I – Sarawak

Let’s examine the first claim, that Ali was from Sarawak.

That conclusion fits in with the fact that Wallace hired Ali in Sarawak, described Ali as “my Bornean lad,” and, in a 1867 lecture in London, referred to Ali as “a native of Borneo.”[17]

Kuching residents Tom McLaughlin and Suriani binti Sahari claim that Ali’s patronym was Ali bin Amit (Ali, son of Amit),[18] that he was born around 1849, was the youngest of five children, and came from Kampung Jaie, today about two hours’ drive from the Sarawak capital of Kuching.[19]  McLaughlin and Suriani, who have spent years speaking with Sarawak historians and residents, suggest that Ali worked in Rajah James Brooke’s household under the tutelage of his elder brother Osman, later known as Panglima (General) Seman,[20] and subsequently moved to Osman’s residence in Kampung Panglima Seman. McLaughlin and Suriani consulted a bomoh (local shaman) who indicated that Ali met a man named Edward at James Brooke’s palace, who taught him English. 

John van Wyhe, of National University of Singapore, and Gerrell M. Drawhorn, of Sacramento State University, similarly say “It is likely that Ali was from the groups of Muslims living in various small villages of houses on stilts along the Sarawak River. He may also have come from the village of Santubong….  Ali was perhaps about 15 years old, dark, short of stature with black hair and brown eyes. He would have grown up on and around boats. He would have spoken the local dialect of Malay and was probably unable to read or write.”[21]

* * *

Option II – Ternate

Another view suggests Ali was not from Sarawak.

Cranbrook and Marshall suggest that Sarawak has not been confirmed as Ali’s birth-place.

They offer circumstantial evidence that Ali was “a roving youth of Malay race born and raised outside Sarawak, and it is plausible that Ali’s ‘own country’ was Ternate, where he had grown up hearing the Dutch style of Malay, where he found his wife with surprising alacrity and where he chose to settle permanently.”

Their arguments are that “Ali’s domestic abilities – ‘he was clean and could cook very well’ – denote independence from his family, and possibly some previous experience as a servant.  His evident capability to organise his employer’s affairs, with a level of command over other men, implies maturity and self-reliance. Ali’s language, his skills and his self-confident authority are wholly inconsistent with the image of an unsophisticated Sarawak lad…. Ali’s prowess as a boatman could have been gained through serving on inter-island voyages.”

Cranbrook and Marshall offer another argument that Ali wasn’t from Sarawak.  They note that in one passage in The Malay Archipelago Wallace quotes Ali; this is the only time we hear a direct quote attributed to the young man.  Wallace wrote that he and Ali were staying in a house on Arru (now Aru) island in 1858 containing “about four or five families & there are generally from 6 to a dozen visitors besides. They keep up a continual row from morning to night, talking laughing shouting without intermission…. My boy Ali says ‘Banyak quot bitchara orang Arru’ [roughly The Aru people are very strong talkers] having never been accustomed to such eloquence either in his own or any other Malay country we have visited.”  Cranbrook and Marshall say that the phrase “is far from the vernacular of Sarawak Malay and shows that, early in his employment, Ali addressed [Wallace] in the Bazaar Malay typical of the area of Dutch control.”[22] [23]

* * *

Just to review.

We know Wallace hired Ali in Sarawak.

We think, but aren’t certain, that Ali was born in Sarawak.

* * *

Where did Ali “retire?”

That leaves the second (and to my mind, more important) question, which took me to Ternate to speak with Ali’s spirit. After saying goodbye to Wallace in Singapore (where Ali had his photo taken) did Ali “retire” to Sarawak, Singapore, or Ternate?

 * * *

The only accurate answer to that last question – where did Ali go to “retire” – is that we aren’t sure.  The few people who have pondered that question certainly have ideas. We have ideas, we have snippets of evidence, a bunch of clues and a jumble of hunches. But we don’t have a smoking gun.  Or do we? We’re not certain. The search goes on.[24]

* * *

Option I – Sarawak.

Malaysia has two states on the island of Borneo – Sabah and Sarawak. I have a particular fondness for Sarawak, since that is where, in 1969 at the age of 22, I began two years working as an education adviser for the U.S. Peace Corps.  Although the state has become more sophisticated in the years since, it retains a semi-rural rural vibe enhanced by strong cultural traditions.  It is a good example of an ethnic, linguistic, and religious melting pot, with residents from all the major religions and some dozen or so ethnicities, including various tribal groups, all living in relative harmony.  Also, like much of the rest of Southeast Asia, Sarawak has diverse and fascinating natural diversity which is being hammered by oil palm plantations encouraged by the nasty cocktail of corrupt politicians, greedy businessmen, and apathetic consumers. My novel Redheads explores this dynamic.

People of Sarawak have a modest awareness of Wallace, and almost zero awareness of Ali.

Among the few people in Kuching who care about the Ali saga is Tom McLaughlin, an American historian, and his Sarawak-born wife Suriani binti Sahari.

McLaughlin and Suriani base most of their case on interviews with elders (including one prominent bomoh, or Malay shaman) living in Malay communities around Kuching. McLaughlin and Suriani believe that following his Singapore farewell to Wallace Ali boarded a ship for a two-day passage and returned to Sarawak.  They say Ali “built a 20 post house on stilts at Kampung Jaie.… He became involved in processing of palm sugar … he smoked palm cigarettes and loved coffee … [he purchased] sweets for the children [and walked] with a cane.”

McLaughlin and Suriani were told Ali had a black sea chest of British origin, which they say contained a “picture of Ali with a European gentleman [and] papers with British seals.” The box was evidently haunted because it “became alive each Thursday night making noises. Because of the belief in ghosts, the box was taken out and placed in the sea.”

For several months in 1859, while Wallace was travelling in Indonesia, Ali seemingly disappeared from Wallace’s chronicle. Some observers call this Ali’s Gap Year; I call it his Agatha Christie period.  McLaughlin and Suriani believe that during this year Ali “probably returned to Kampung Jaie to check on his nephews” and to return for the Hari Raya (Eid) celebrations.

McLaughlin and Suriani also state that according to local folklore, after Ali returned to Sarawak he married a woman named Saaidah binti Jaludin.[25]  And McLaughlin and Suriani quote a long pantun (a form of traditional song often used to relate myth and historical events) sung to them by Jompot bin Chong, the grandson of Panglima Osman (Seman) who they say was Ali’s elder brother.  Verses include statements like these (in translation from Sarawak Malay): “How are you, Wallace the white man/Wallace and brother Ali are good friends/Unfortunately this year our team work has ended.” McLaughlin told me that he was skeptical himself with the “bomoh’s observations until Jompot came up with the pantun. He didn’t even have to think about it … just spouted it out. Then I checked with an 86-year-old ‘pantun expert’ here in Kuching and she said she had heard of it. The pantun, in itself, is very strong evidence that Ali was here.”[26]

And finally, they were told that “[Ali] died just after the Japanese invaded Kuching,” which would have made Ali about a hundred years old at the time of his death.  They visited what they were told was Ali’s grave in Kampung Jaie. In an attempt to “test” the authenticity that this was indeed Ali’s grave, McLaughlin and Suriani brought a bomoh and local official to the site.  They said that the government official was so overpowered by the spirit of Ali that he collapsed on top of the grave.


And then there is the curious story of Ali Kasut (“Ali of the Shoes”).  In 1863 two young British brothers, Arthur and Frederick Boyle, hired a Malay guide to help them explore the interior of Sarawak. Curiously, Ali wore western clothes instead of traditional Malay attire, including “two or three pair [of shoes] made of black English leather, without which he was never visible.”[27] This shoe-wearing Ali worked for the young men as a capable camp manager and boat captain. He spoke reasonable English.  Ali Kasut, as they named him, had recurrent outbreaks of fever, which is consistent with “Ali Wallace” whom we know was seriously ill no fewer than six times on his journey with Wallace.  Jerry Drawhorn, a Kuching-based historian, notes that “Frederick Boyle never mentions that ‘Ali Kasut’ was ‘Wallace’s Ali,’ but then again Wallace had not yet become the famous writer of the ‘Malay Archipelago.’”[28]

         When the Boyles left Sarawak they gave Ali Kasut a “large sampan.” Frederick Boyle suggested that Ali Kasut perhaps had “Visions of trade with the simple Dyaks at a profit of 1000 per cent … a hundred Malay pleasures became tangible in the near future, and possibly the wealth and influence of a real Nakodah showed themselves at the end of the vista, with, maybe, half a dozen honestly purchased wives, and a steeple-crowned residence like that of the uxorious merchant at Muka.”[29]

         Jerry Drawhorn told me “I do think that Ali Kasut is ‘most likely’ Wallace’s Ali.[30]

         So, if Ali returned to Sarawak to work with the Boyles, did he remain there? Or after his responsibilities with the Boyles were completed did he move back to Ternate?

* * *

Option II – Singapore.

Perhaps Ali stayed in Singapore?  I put the question to various historians in Singapore and was greeted with polite interest and zero desire to follow-up. There is no evidence, and no one suggests that Ali stayed in Singapore; I think we can discount this possibility.

* * *

Option III – Ternate.

There are several convincing morsels of evidence that Ali settled in Ternate.

Wallace and Ali spent a long time in Ternate; Wallace used the town as his eastern Indonesia base camp for some three-and-a-half years, where he recovered from voyages to distant islands and prepared for their next adventure.  Wallace wrote fondly about the creature comforts he enjoyed in Ternate – “a deep well supplied me with “pure cold water … luxuries of milk and fresh bread … fish and eggs … ample space for unpacking, sorting, and arranging my treasures … delightful walks.”[31]



Wallace twice refers to Ali’s having married and established a family in Ternate; Wallace refers to Ali’s marriage in a letter to Samuel Stevens from Ceram on November 26, 1859:

[My] best [man, referring to Ali] is married in Ternate, and his wife would not let him go [with Wallace to Ceram]; he, however, remains working for me and is going again to the eastern part of Gilolo. [italics Wallace][32]

Many years later, in his autobiography, Wallace again refers to Ali’s marriage and suggests that Ali’s wife had loosened her grip on her husband’s travels.

During our residence at Ternate he married [probably in early 1859], but his wife lived with her family, and it made no difference in his accompanying me whenever I went till we reached Singapore on my way home.[33] [34]

Earl of Cranbrook and Adrian G. Marshall agree that Ali returned to Ternate, stating unequivocally “After ARW [Alfred Russel Wallace] departed from Singapore, Ali returned to Ternate to re-join his wife and, perhaps, a young family.”


And there is a particularly tantalizing piece of evidence that Ali settled in Ternate.

In 1907 American naturalist Thomas Barbour visited Ternate and claimed he met Ali. We know that Ali was about 15 when he met Wallace in 1855, so he would have been around 67 when he met Barbour, a relatively old man but well within the limits of possibility.

Three times Barbour mentions meeting Ali. 

In 1912 Barbour, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, wrote in a scientific paper: “I showed a Ceram specimen of L. muelleri [Lerista muelleri, common name: wood mulch-slider] to many intelligent natives of Ternate, including indeed Ali, the faithful companion of Wallace during his many journeys, now an old man [in 1907 Ali would have been around 67], and all agreed that they had not seen such a lizard before.”[35]

In 1921, in another scientific paper, Barbour wrote: “On the day of my walk to the Ternate lake an old Malay spoke to me; he had long forgotten his English, but he tapped his chest, drew himself up and told me he was Ali Wallace. No lover of ‘The Malay Archipelago’ but remembers Ali who was Wallace’s young companion on many a hazardous journey. After my return a letter from Mr. Wallace speaks of his envy of my having so recently met his old associate.”[36] 

And in his autobiography of 1943, Naturalist at Large, Barbour wrote the most detailed account.

Here came a real thrill, for I was stopped in the street [in Ternate] one day as my wife and I were preparing to climb up to the Crater Lake. With us were Ah Woo with his butterfly net, Indit and Bandoung, our well-trained Javanese collectors, with shotguns, cloth bags, and a vasculum for carrying the birds. We were stopped by a wizened old Malay man. I can see him now, with a faded blue fez on his head. He said, ‘I am Ali Wallace.’[37] I knew at once that there stood before me Wallace’s faithful companion of many years, the boy who not only helped him collect but nursed him when he was sick. We took his photograph and sent it to Wallace when we got home. He wrote me a delightful letter acknowledging it and reminiscing over the time when Ali had saved his life, nursing him through a terrific attack of malaria. This letter I have managed to lose, to my eternal chagrin.[38] [39] [40]


This should be sufficient evidence, but one historian notes that there are questions about Barbour’s claims and “we should perhaps be wary.”  Barbour’s letters to Wallace have never been found, the historian argues, so we are relying on Barbour’s recollection and Wallace’s single letter, which we do have. Barbour said he sent Wallace a photo of Ali, but Wallace’s reply indicated that he hadn’t – an archivist at the Harvard University archives, where Barbour’s papers are housed, terms this an example of Barbour “misremembering.” No such photo has been found in either Wallace’s or Barbour’s archives. Perhaps instead of meeting Ali Barbour actually met one of the Ternate-based “collectors” who travelled with Wallace who said “I knew Ali and Wallace.”  Perhaps Wallace’s very polite statement that he would have preferred a photo of Ali (“Thanks for sending me news of …. my ‘boy’ Ali – a photograph of whom would have been more interesting to me than those of the men of Dorey, who are pretty nearly as I left them 50 years ago.”) indicates that Wallace desired confirmation of Ali’s existence in Ternate.  Wallace doesn’t ask Barbour for any news about Ali, or how to contact him, which might indicate he was skeptical about Barbour’s claim.  Wallace did not include the Barbour information about meeting Ali in the New Revised Edition of his autobiography that came out in the Autumn of 1908 (the Wallace to Barbour letter dates 21 February 1908). Clearly there was time to include the Barbour information in a footnote. Or in the reprint of The Malay Archipelago in 1913.

               Conclusion? My money’s on Barbour, but there is no definitive proof that he met Ali on a Ternate street.

* * *

Nevertheless, since Barbour’s report is the only shred of hard evidence we have that Ali had settled in Ternate, I went to the island and spoke to the mayor and various officials to encourage them to find Ali’s descendants.  After leaving Wallace in Singapore Ali would have returned to Ternate as an important and relatively wealthy man. He had travelled widely, and been friends with a tall, respected, undeniably quirky Englishman. He had his photo taken wearing European clothes. He had tall tales to tell, and wasn’t shy about recounting them to anyone who would listen. Wallace recalled that while in Singapore Ali had “seen a live tiger [and] made much of his knowledge when we reached the Moluccas, where such animals are totally unknown. I used to overhear him of an evening, recounting strange adventures with tigers, which he said had happened to himself. He declared that these tigers were men who had been great magicians and who changed themselves into tigers to eat their enemies…. These tales were accepted as literal facts by his hearers, and listened to with breathless attention and awe.[41]

People, especially family members, would have heard his stories and repeated them as part of family history.

I suggested to Ternate government officials, royal family members, journalists, and academics that they could place an article in the local paper; I even volunteered to write it.  “Let’s show Ali’s photo and story to the village elders,” I suggested.  “Let’s get a university student to write a thesis on the search for Ali.”  I pointed out that this search could generate national, even international news, and be a stimulus for the tourist business and a catalyst for conservation.  It would certainly help build local pride, which is always a good thing for elected officials to bask in.  Bagus, everyone said.  Good idea.  Lots of enthusiasm, no action.  Indonesian apathy?  A dearth of intellectual curiosity?  A reluctance to pursue a “foreign” idea?

In a fit of frustration, I went on what I knew would be Quixotic quest. Surely, I thought, someone would have a memory of great-great granduncle Ali.

I gave lectures to history and biology students at universities in Ternate and neighboring cities and encouraged them to seek Ali.  A few students I spoke with privately expressed polite interest, but quickly zoned out when I explained that for their research they would have to speak with old folks in the villages and go through dusty records.  “But that sounds like … field work!” they would explain, before politely excusing themselves.

* * *

It seems as if Ali is destined to remain an enigma, a lost soul in the large filing cabinet labeled: People Who Did Important Things But Never Got Any Credit. I suspect we all have a bunch of Alis in our memory banks and karmic stockpiles, folks who have helped us in innumerable ways, folks to whom we rarely raise a glass. We don’t know Ali’s birthday. But perhaps we might declare January 8, Wallace’s birthday, as Global Ali Day, to give remembrance to those who nursed us, did us unexpected favors, who, sometimes, without our awareness, eased our paths.

# # # # #

Part II: The Conversations with Spirits

Part I – The Three Dukuns

Scratch Indonesia’s cosmopolitan surface and you’ll see a plethora of shamans, mediums, psychics, and soothsayers, all of whom claim some ability to speak with hantu, the Indonesian term for ghosts and spirits.

Ofa Firman, and a few other friends, recommend I meet Nurdin Amin, commonly known as Ohm (Uncle) Udin, a noted dukun (shaman) whose uncle was related to an earlier Sultan of Ternate. He’s very good. Well known.  He lives behind the Muslim cemetery. Bring him some cigarettes.

With a couple of friends, I easily find his simple but comfortable house that indeed is just behind the Salero cemetery that adjoins the Sultan’s palace.

“I’d like to speak with Ali,” I say, showing Udin the only extant photo of Ali, taken in Singapore in 1862 when Ali would have been about 22. As with other encounters in Indonesia I find a request like this is received with the same “sure, give me a minute” response as if I am in a department store and ask whether a particular brand of a home espresso machine comes in red.

Udin, 50, a slender man with an impressive moustache, long thin hands, and large eyes that shift quickly between a warm gaze and an intense stare, opens one of the packs of kretek I have brought, places one of the clove cigarettes in a black holder, and takes a few puffs before replying. “I’ll need some help with this one.”

We walk a few hundred meters to a similarly simple and comfortable house on the main road. This is the home of Ibu (mother, madam) Ratna, a carefully dressed woman of a certain age with a gentle, calm appearance. She wears a black jilbab (the Indonesian term for hijab) and a bright blue batik dress.

We are soon joined by a third medium, Ibu Dayu, 37, originally from Bali and married to a man from Ternate. Ibu Dayu has a small business selling decorative stones from nearby Bacan island. I ask if she deals in magic stones.  She laughs. “Just normal jewelry.”  She shows me some of the rings she has designed.


The three mediums work together, concentrating their efforts towards Ratna, who sometimes asks Dayu or Udin for clarification.  I appreciate the idea of having multiple mediums focusing on Ali, and, since we know the power of triumvirates – Musketeers, Tenors, and Stooges – in my mind Ratna, Dayu, and Udin become the Three Dukuns.

Ratna clearly has the power. She closes her eyes, and almost immediately begins coughing. It is a sharp, high-pitched cough.  Her hands tremble.  She starts crying.

Ratna’s voice is thin and high-pitched.  “Sad. So sad.”

She relates Ali’s story over the next fifteen minutes. It is not a logical story in which incident A is followed by incident B.  But why should I anticipate otherwise?  Virtually no one tells a story in a clean chronological timeline; this is particularly true when one is chatting with a spirit for whom (I assume) time has little meaning.

“Ali had a problem with a girl in Ternate. She broke his heart”

Who broke his heart?

“A girl. His wife.  He doesn’t want to talk about it.”

Ask him to talk about it.

“Very sad.”

Ratna is crying.

“Ali and Wallace were good friends.”

No points for Ratna, when we first met I had mentioned Ali and Wallace were friends.  Like other mediums, upon hearing that they were “friends” she assumed that Wallace and Ali were on a roughly equal social status.

“Ali is a romantic man. He liked scenic places.  He liked to take his wife to Akah Rica beach in Ternate where they watched the sunset.”

Here’s the classic conundrum. Is Ratna channeling something Ali said, or is she putting her local spin on the conversation by mentioning a modern scenic place that she thinks people of Ali’s period would have gone to relax?

“They liked to go to Akah Rica. So romantic.” Ratu cries again.

If we accept that spirits live in a nether-world unburdened by oceans, distances, and cultures, then why am I intent on speaking with Ali’s spirit in Ternate? Couldn’t I have similarly channeled Ali with a medium in any country with a medium who speaks any language?

One reason, I suppose, to go to the geographical source when pursuing History by Hantu is to get the benefit of the local belief systems.  If I consult a medium in, say, Rwanda, the hypothetical Rwandan medium would no doubt see things through a Rwandan filter. I think cultural perceptions are important.  In this case we get a vision of Ali’s life through a Ternate view point – the local view of an ideal courtship (romantic sunset walks at Akah Rica beach).

“He is not too tall, not too fat.

That describes perhaps 80% of the people in this region.

Ratna continues to cough. Her arms shake. “His wife is from the royal family of Jailolo.”

This is interesting. She’s referring to neighboring Halmahera island, where Ali nursed Wallace during his bout with malaria, and where Wallace wrote the outline of his Theory of Natural Selection.  Wallace later refined and mailed the essay to Darwin from Ternate, hence its common description as the Ternate Paper.

“She looks Arabic. Her father is Arabic.”

I want to shout. Her name! What’s her name?

“Her name: Shinta Qomariah Kaulana.”

This is huge. We have a name for Ali’s wife.

“She and Ali have one son: Ahmad Kaolan Ibrahim Djafar.”

And a name for their son!

“They lived in Foramadiahi village.”

I know the place. It’s one of the four original villages of Ternate. Not too far away.

Ratna continues crying.

“Why are you crying?”

“Wallace asked Ali to accompany him to Singapore.”

Loss of credibility for Ratna – this isn’t a psychic breakthrough since I had earlier mentioned that Ali and Wallace separated in Singapore and Ali subsequently returned to Ternate. 

“Ali asked Shinta to go with them to Singapore.  She refused.”

This is news. I wonder what reason she had for refusing? Afraid of travel? Stubborn? Unwilling to endanger her son? Or perhaps she saw this as a chance to escape a loveless marriage?  I recall Wallace’s contradictory comments about the relationship. He said that Ali’s wife “would not let him” travel with Wallace to Ceram, then noted that “his wife lived with her family, and it made no difference in his accompanying me wherever I went till we reached Singapore on my way home.”

“When Ali returned to Ternate he was broken-hearted that Shinta and their son had disappeared.”

Shinta abandoned Ali! I wonder. Maybe I should channel Shinta?

“Ali never saw them again.”


            “They were gone when he returned. She disappeared. Left him. He was heart-broken.”

That could explain the crying. So sad, as Ratna says repeatedly.

Ratna regularly loses contact with Ali; it’s almost like having a dodgy internet connection or a broken radio signal at the far end of the broadcast range. It’s as if Ratna is sitting in the dark on a stormy night, waiting for a burst of lightning to illuminate her surroundings for a brief moment. During the disconnect time she is patient, sometimes sitting quietly waiting for the contact to be restored, occasionally chatting with Dayu.

“Ali died at around the age of forty.”

Big problem with this answer. This contradicts Thomas Barbour’s report that in 1907 he met Ali in Ternate, when Ali would have been around 67.

The connection is broken again. Ratna pauses to ask Dayu a question. She re-enters her trance.

I ask where is Ali buried?

“Foramadiahi.  He was a follower of Sultan Babullah.”

Ratna has gone off-piste. She’s referring to Sultan Babullah Datu Shah, one of Ternate’s most prominent sultans – the Ternate airport is named after him.  He reigned from 1570–1583, some three hundred years before Ali lived in Ternate.

This is another example of Ratna’s cultural bias. She has accorded Ali a noble status that is almost certainly bogus, simply because she (perhaps in good faith) feels it is correct. I am a foreigner, with perceived status myself, and I think she feels that Ali should also have a respectable social position.

Ratna is exhausted, and the connection is broken. 

I ask if we can visit Ali’s grave.


My interpreter goes out to hire an oplet, a public mini-van.  The cost is about $20 for half a day. We all pile in and drive half an hour to Foramadiahi village, on the other side of the island.  The oplet goes part-way up a steep, narrow, paved path, then the path becomes too steep and we are forced to walk in the mid-day sun. At the top of the hill we turn left and walk another twenty minutes to the grave of Sultan Babullah. It’s an historic site in Ternate, well-maintained, with a gate and sign-boards at the entrance.  The sultan’s grave, under a mature banyan tree, is surrounded by half a dozen other graves.  Some graves have worn headstones markers, but they offer no hints about the occupants because Muslim graves do not have inscriptions identifying who is buried there.  We sit down around a grave that has been renovated with white bathroom tiles within the past decade or so.  The grave is prominently placed, in the shadow of the banyan tree and just below the grave of Sultan Babullah.

We sit around the grave. Dayu’s young daughter is bored and wants her mother to hold her.

Ratna goes into a trance.

“Sad. Sad.”

I ask why Ali, a commoner, is buried here, next to a great Sultan.

“Ali was a tariqat.”

Ratna is referring to a person who has studied a mystical form of Sufism.

But my Western brain, always seeking a logical explanation, still can’t figure out why Ali would be buried in this particular site.

“He became a holy man and god gave permission for him to be buried here.”

This is unsatisfying.  Ofa Firma later confirms that the grave around which we sat is occupied by one of Sultan Babullah’s relatives.

We are at the point of diminishing returns. We are all tired.  I think we have asked all we can of Ratna.


Along the coast road we stop and buy a few bottles of water.  I give a tip to the mediums and retreat to the comfort of my air-conditioned hotel room to take a headache tablet and realize I didn’t ask the single question that might have helped us find Ali’s descendants: His full name. Tom McLaughlin and Suriani binti Sahari in Kuching (who got some of their information from local shamans) had provided Ali’s name – Ali bin Amit – but I am skeptical of their information and desperate to have a second opinion. 


While this particular intervention didn’t result in a big breakthrough, Ibu Dayu said we should try again, that sometimes the signals get crossed.  And if that fails, well, there are plenty of other dukuns in Ternate.


On a subsequent visit to Ternate I meet again with the Three Dukuns.  They say they have new information that Ali’s descendants live in Halmahera.  I don’t have time to go with them, but Emelya, a guide from the Ternate mayor’s office, offers to accompany them.  The Three Dukuns say they will need two days, with a budget of a couple of hundred dollars.  I’m tempted, but am uncertain how the results would be communicated to me and would prefer to go with them myself. However, after I leave Ternate Emelya continues the negotiations and the Three Dukuns tell her the search will take about a week, and the budget for their time and services has increased to nine hundred dollars.  Through Emelya I tell them not now, maybe when I come back to Ternate.[42]

Part II – The spirits that keep office hours

I climb into the front seat of the air-conditioned taxi at Ternate airport. After a few words of greeting – May I know your name? How’s life? Will it rain this afternoon? Who won the election for governor? – I ask the driver, Irjan, if he knows any good mediums.

And that’s one of my criteria for choosing which places in the world to visit. Not just the presence of mediums, but the reality that I can ask a total stranger for his recommendation of a high-quality medium as easily as asking where I can find the best seafood in town. 

With just a moment’s hesitation (Who is this foreigner who just entered my life?) Irjan replies that his cousin might be suitable.  She’s famous, and works with many of the important people in Ternate, a claim I’ve heard about most of the Ternate mediums I’ve met. He’ll arrange a meeting; we’ll see her the next day.

Amalia is in her thirties, wearing a pink jilbab (the Indonesian term for an Islamic hijab), a black T-shirt, jeans.  She speaks in a soft voice. Perfectly ordinary in appearance and demeanor. With a couple of Irjan’s curious friends, who are present either because they have some psychic abilities themselves or simply because they are curious and bored, we drive out to a simple seaside recreation area.  It’s a weekday afternoon and the place is almost deserted. We sit on benches under a thatched-roof shelter and drink fresh coconut water. I explain that I’m looking for Ali. Can she help?

“We’ll do it next Wednesday night. Or Thursday night if you prefer.”

Well, the day we meet is a Saturday, and I explain I have a flight out of Ternate on Tuesday.


I’m not sure if she’s busy, or suddenly changed her mind.

“The spirits only are available on Wednesday and Thursday nights.”

I had heard of mediums not being available due to other engagements or illness or needing time to prepare. But I’ve never heard of spirits of dead people having strict office hours like a bank or government office.  I’ve learned that in Indonesia it is good to be optimistic, to spread your net widely, and hope for the best but be prepared to be disappointed. This is one of those times when I need to take a deep breath. “Too bad, next time I’ll come back on a day when the spirits are working.”

Part III – The medium of transformation

The most dramatic of my dukun experiences in Ternate occurs when I meet Iis Ariska Abdullah.

As with many of my encounters, this meeting involves some leg work and a bit of serendipity.

My Kuching friends Tom McLaughlin and Suriani binti Sahari told me that when they visited Ternate (also in search of Ali) they employed a taxi driver and guide named Mansur, who had a relative named Iis who was a medium. Unfortunately Tom and Suriani did not keep their phone numbers, full names, or addresses.

After asking other taxi drivers, guides, and hotel staff for several days I finally locate Mansur,

a talkative fellow who enjoys telling me about the important people he has ferried around the island. He is happy to introduce me to his cousin Iis (exact family relationships can be fluid).

Iis gives readings to the Ternate royal family and is well known in Ternate spiritual circles. She is a normal-appearing young woman, works in a government office, lives in comfortable, spotless, solid middle-class house. Family photos adorn the walls, the furniture is, to my taste, too heavy and formal for the tropics.  I’m welcomed by her proud parents. If they are nervous it’s perhaps because it’s unusual for them to welcome a foreigner, not because they are apprehensive about their daughter’s upcoming trance.

I explain briefly that I want to speak with Ali and find his descendants.  I try not to give too much away.

Iis slips away to her room and returns wrapped in a Muslim prayer shawl, a mukena. This garment, a form of chador, is usually a sober white or pastel color. Iis’s mukena, however, is muted gold with a motif of embroidered red flowers.

It is as if Iis has donned a magic cloak.  She undergoes a transformation as dramatic as any I’ve seen.  The sweet, quiet young woman has become a crone, scrunched and jittery, with a high voice that conveys a feeling of deep sadness.

Iis wiggles her fingers, twists her body to make herself even smaller in the large chair, rocks back and forth and cries out. Her face is in extreme pain. She looks like she is paralyzed, and has trouble speaking, her mouth is twisted, she chews her words. She later explains she was channeling her grandmother, who would speak with Ali.

She suddenly laughs, not the giggle of a young woman or the response to a joke, but a cackle I would imagine coming from one of the witches in Macbeth.

Her eyes are closed, then she opens them. But even though she faces me and my friend Rinto, she doesn’t seem to see us.  Yet she responds to questions.

“You are a traveler,” she says to me.

What a disappointing first comment.

“You are the most popular man in the world for Ali.”

I think I understand her meaning – that I’ve taken an inordinate interest in the man. Nice, but still an empty bit of praise.

I ask her the usual questions about Ali’s background.

“Ali is not from Sarawak.” She explains he is from Ternate, and was sent to Sarawak as an ambassador for trade and to promote Islam.

He would have been a young boy, I argue.

Iis tries to clarify.  Has she been caught in a wrong guess and needs to talk herself out of trouble? But she’s clearly in a trance, so I have no idea what’s going on in her head. How did she come up with this stuff?“Ali went with older relatives because they sensed he was bright and that travel might be enlightening for the lad.  They were all from a “normal” family that was nevertheless related to the sultan [that would have been Sultan Muhammad Zain, who reigned 1823–1859].”

I subsequently checked with my friend Ofa Firman, son of the late sultan; he does not believe this story.

This seems to be another example of exaggerating Ali’s importance, similar to how Ratna of the Three Dukuns told me that Ali was a holy man and therefore deserved to be buried next to Ternate’s most famous sultan.

I want to clarify whether Ali was from a noble family or was a commoner, but Iis is rushing ahead, clenching her fists, making whimpering sounds, tightening her body into an awkward posture.

“Ali had conflict with other people. He had a different perspective.”

I have no idea what that means. 

“You are on a holy mission.”

Nice of her to say, but I disregard it as a culturally-biased compliment.

Iis then gives me a piece of information that appeals to my left-brained quest for data. The name of Ali’s wife: Siti Humairah.  “She might be mixed Ternate Malay and Arabic.”

Interesting and perhaps important. Although the name is different this corresponds to the Three Dukuns who said Ali’s wife was Arabic.

“Ali and Siti had six children, three girls, three boys.”

And she returns to the story that Ali was sent to Sarawak with older relatives.

“The Sultan of Ternate sent Ali, who was then a boy, and five adults to Sarawak.  In due course Ali met Wallace.”

This opens an entirely new concept of Ali, which relates, with a bit of imagination, to the Three Dukuns’ claim that Ali is buried next to Sultan Babullah Datu Shah, in Kampong Foramadiahi, Ternate, because he was a holy man.

But Iis clarifies that Ali wasn’t a holy man but a kapitalao, the admiral of the sultan’s fleet.

This is completely new information, and quite unbelievable.  But before I can ask for clarification Iis is off on another tangent.  She gives me more information than any other medium has.

The mother of Sultan Mudaffar Syah wrote a book about Ali. She dictated it to a scribe named Naida in the Melayu [Malay] language and it exists as a handwritten manuscript.”[43]

This is an example of a medium inflating a response. After the conversation with Iis I check with Ofa Firman.  The truth is that there is a book titled Naida, but it was written by a prime minister of a Ternate sultan around 1800 (decades before Ali was born). And Ofa Firman says that his grandmother (Sultan Madarfasyah’s mother) never wrote a book and no such manuscript exists.

Is Iis lying? Misinformed?  Unconcerned about accuracy? Concocting a story that sounds plausible in order to appease me?  All of the above?

Then it gets even more interesting. She returns to the kapitalao story.

“Ali returned to Ternate and rose through the ranks to become the admiral of the sultan’s fleet, the kapitalao.”

And then Iis tells me something that mirrored what Sultan Hamengku Buwono IX of Yogyakarta said about his relationship with the Mermaid Queen.  Happy coincidence? Is Iis reading my mind? Or is this international medium-speak?

“We cannot look at Ali using logic.  Even though he was a cook the Sultan felt that Ali was special and sent him to Sarawak and then made him kapitalao.”

So, the young inexperienced Malay boy has morphed into a proud, high-ranking military officer.  Another example of cultural embellishment.

“Ali is wearing his military uniform. He looks like a gentleman. He wears a gold turban. He introduces himself to me, saying: ‘I am Kapitalao Ali.’”

Lovely image, but a lot of new and dramatic information for me to digest. But I’m intrigued by the image of Ali as a man who liked fancy dress.  He seemed proud to be photographed, in Singapore in 1862, shortly before Wallace returned to England, wearing a stylish European suit; I can accept the idea of Ali being proud to dress up. The Malays, both women and men, of the archipelago are known to be proud of their personal appearance and take pleasure in dressing elegantly. Also, we know from Wallace’s writing that Ali was garrulous and liked to be the center of attention.  So, the concept of an idealized Ali dressed in full military regalia makes sense, but the reality is ridiculously far-fetched.

“He looked Arabic.”

Well, according to that single photo we have of Ali, taken in Singapore in 1862, Ali had dark skin and could well have been, at least partially, of Arabic descent.

“He was tall.”

And here we come unstuck. Wallace said Ali was short. The 1862 photo shows a young man of about twenty-two, but gives no indication of his height.  When Barbour met Ali decades later, he describes him as “wizened,” meaning hunched over like an old man (Ali would have been around 68). This “tall” description surprises me.

“Ali learned cooking from his mother, who worked in the sultan’s household.”

I wonder, did I mention to Iis that Wallace first hired Ali as a cook? Or is this new information?

Suddenly, Iis’s posture changes – she becomes less cramped, more fluid and expansive. Her voice shifts register – it becomes deeper, more masculine. She is now in touch with her grandfather (she explains later), and Iis demands a cigarette.  We pass her a lighted clove cigarette, which she puffs hungrily.

A missed question. Does Iis smoke in normal life?

Iis smooths her chin, as if caressing an imaginary goatee. Her posture becomes less cramped; she seems more contemplative.  “There was a conflict between Ali and other people.”

I recall Ratna’s comment that “Ali had conflict with other people. He had a different perspective.” I wonder if all of Ternate’s mediums regularly get together for coffee and share experiences they’ve had with curious clients.

What kind of conflict?

Iis doesn’t respond to the direct question.  She puffs her cigarette, which she holds like a man. “Your book has many problems.”

A true mind-reader.

“Many different perspectives.”

What does this woman know about writing, or my book? But she’s right, of course. Problems. Perspectives. I’ve got them all.

“You are on a holy mission.”

Again, a holy mission. A quest. Where does this stuff come from?  Is this a generic comment made by Indonesian mediums, like the assurance “Your grandmother loves you and protects you,” given by British mediums?

“Ali plays games.”

The Indonesian language is less precise than English. And Iis is speaking in standard Indonesian mixed with dialect.  It’s unclear whether she is saying “Ali was playing games” (a historical observation)  or “Ali is playing games” (referring to the current conversation.)  Either statement requires clarification. Playing games with whom? For what ends? I want to shout “come on woman, speak in simple, complete, illustrative, declarative sentences.”

“You have to work for it.”

That’s a message for me from Iis? Or wisdom offered by Ali?

“He was nothing. But special.”

And she repeats her earlier comment.

Ali was nothing special. Sometimes ordinary people are special. Don’t use logic.

And it’s over. Iis shakes, grunts, and slowly comes out of her trance, a touch dazed, as if awakening from an afternoon nap in a sweaty place.  She leaves the room to remove her mukena, and returns as just another normal-appearing young Indonesian woman. She has no idea what just took place.  Her parents, who had watched the session, offer us tea and biscuits.

Part IV – Hard-to-digest statements in London

While speaking with Wallace via Nasrin Moazenchi in London (see chapter “Beings of a Like Mental Nature to Ourselves”) I naturally ask about Ali.

Nasrin’s comments were curious. I’ve conflated the information that Nasrin gave me while we sat on the walking path next to Regent’s Canal with additional information she provides me a few weeks later.

“Ali did not tell me where he was born but I think he said it was a small village near Sarawak.”

Had I mentioned to her that Ali came from Sarawak? I must have.  It’s not a location known to many people outside of the region. Unless she got it from Ali?

“He is buried near Sarawak in a little church in a family private section. He showed me the church but I did not see any name but the triangle shape on the church had a dark blue color with a cross on top.”

Now, about his being buried in a church.  By all accounts, and by all logic, Ali was Muslim, and the idea that he is buried in a church (and in a special family plot), is ridiculous.

In a follow-up discussion, Nasrin self-corrects.

“I see a small building, with a steep roof and a yelllow and red circle on the gable. A weathervane.  It’s similar to some of the graveyard memorials we find in Persia.”

Well, Nasrin is originally from Iran, so she is putting a cultural spin on this reading.

“Where did he go when he left Wallace?”

“When he separated from Mister Wallace he went to Burma and started his life.” 

Wow. Where to begin with this exchange?  Ali went to Burma?  Ridiculous.

“[In Burma] he continued to do his own research.”

He continued to do his own research?  Hmm.  A number of mediums have given Ali qualities and expertise he didn’t have.  They exaggerate his importance, perhaps to please me – if a European arrives suddenly, expressing an interest in a man named Ali, logically, that Ali chap must be important. But Ali wasn’t a scientist. He wasn’t a researcher. Nor was he part of a high-level diplomatic delegation, later an admiral serving the sultan, as Iis in Ternate said, nor a holy man, as Ratna suggested, nor a scientist as Nasrin said. He was a simple, good-natured, helpful, perhaps illiterate lad.

“He exchanged letters with Wallace but as the time passed this contact got less as he had children and was busy with his own life.”

Absolutely no evidence of this. Nasrin is speculating like the others, who grossly inflated Ali’s abilities and career path.  Nasrin is culturally-biased and guessing that Ali was an educated, Christian, scientist.

“He kept those letters in a wooden box. However, he didn’t say where they are now.”

Tom McLaughlin and Suriani binti Sahari mention that Ali kept valuables in a now-haunted black sea chest. Let’s give Nasrin the benefit of the doubt and say that it’s possible that Ali kept valuables (but not necessarily letters from Wallace) in some form of wooden box.

 “Ali is with Wallace in a distant galaxy.

His birth?

“Born in Malaysia, some village. Was working on a farm. He was young.”

Where did they meet?

“Somewhere in Malaysia. I see a restaurant.”

One of the big mysteries is where and how Wallace met Ali.  A restaurant? They didn’t have modern European-style restaurants in mid-19th-century Sarawak.  But if Ali was a cook conceivably, they could have met at a dinner at someone’s house, or a coffee shop or food stall in the bazaar, or even (my speculation) while Wallace was dining with Rajah James Brooke. In my filmic scenario Brooke might have said to Wallace “My junior cook Ali comes from a good family and is curious about many things. He’s honest and good-natured. Why don’t you take him along on your travels?”

“Ali is dark, slim, short.”

Yes. “And his name?”

“They’re not telling me Ali’s full name. They don’t say. I have a problem when I ask about the name.”


“Ali is curious to learn. They had a teacher-student relationship.  Ali had a dream to learn.”

“Ali says he wants to live his life journey. He says he wanted to do a lot of things.”

Interesting.  Here Nasrin is describing an Ali who is a keen student, not an unsophisticated youth.

“Had a wife and children.”

When Nasrin asked this of Wallace and Ali earlier, she says Wallace chimed in and joked “Go to the archives.”

“One of Ali’s ancestors was from China. Maybe grandfather.”

Highly unlikely.

Ali’s children?

“Descendants. One, a son? – is in Norway.”

Wheee! And Nasrin is off into never-never land.

She adjusts her story, sticking with Nordic countries but shifting from Norway to Finland. “One of his children is in Helsinki. He said his family is named something like Parsavalus or Parsavarus. I am not sure.”

All of his children would surely be long dead. And to claim that he has a descendant in Norway or Finland (with a vaguely-Finnish-sounding name) is implausible, but not impossible. Nasrin’s responses are convoluted and improbable; I am inclined to discount other information she has given me.  But let’s speculate. Maybe by “children” she means great-great grandchildren.  Maybe one of Ali’s distant female descendants married a man from Finland (or Norway).  It would have been highly unlikely during Ali’s lifetime, but in the early 21st century it would not have been unusual for such an inter-national, inter-cultural marriage to take place. Or am I giving her too much of a benefit of the doubt?

“Wallace liked to test him.  Because they didn’t trust others, they started to talk among themselves.” 

I like the idea of Wallace and Ali as co-conspirators.

“Ali doesn’t want to talk.  It’s really hard to get information out of him.”

Other mediums have said something similar, noting that while I have an emotional bond with Wallace, I do not have a strong connection to Ali. He can choose whether or not to converse.  Is this his decision based on my vibrations? Does the talent of the medium come into play? What  about the personality and ability of the medium’s Spirit Guides?  So many co-conspirators, I sometimes feel like I’m entering a psychic world with a flow chart created by the Robert Mueller investigation.

Part V – Ali remains elusive in Geneva

During the conversation with Alfred Russel Wallace, described in the previous chapter, Brigitte tries to connect with Ali.  Based on the given information she can not establish to her satisfaction that it was really Ali she is connecting to, she stops the reading.

I ask: “Why do you think you can’t make the same kind of contact as you did with Wallace?”

For Brigitte this is obvious. “You have a connection with Wallace, and he has a connection with you. Wallace wanted to speak with you.  You have no real connection with Ali, and vice versa.”

Part VI – Ali, a seated skeleton

Barbara Kohler is a well-known German medium.  On my behalf a friend asked her to contact Ali, giving her only the information that Ali was an assistant to Alfred Russel Wallace.  The only clarification Barbara asked was “Wallace, the explorer?” We can safely assume that Barbara had no prior knowledge of Ali.

These are the answers she has received:

“Ali was born near the sea, small coastal village on an island, perhaps Sumatra?”

Well, Borneo, but Sumatra’s a pretty good guess.

“He was indigenous, grew up in poor conditions, underprivileged.”

Likely true, but this could also be Barbara’s cultural bias creeping in.

“Alfred Russel Wallace offered Ali a job… as a simple mate first, hauling boxes, cooking…
then he worked his way up.”

Extraordinary, not the fact that Ali was lugging boxes, but that he was cooking, and most important, “worked his way up.”

“Ali could write, you can find Ali’s handwriting on documents!”

No evidence Ali was literate.

“So he kept lists, cataloged.”

She’s giving him more credit than he deserved. There is no evidence Ali was involved in cataloguing or written administration.

“He got more and more knowledge.”

Now this is interesting and accurate.

“He is extremely loyal, faithful… position of trust… scientific tasks were handed over to him.”

True, although it is an exaggeration that Wallace handed him “scientific tasks.”  Collecting and skinning birds, yes. Does that count as “scientific?”

“Ali travelled with Wallace from given circumstances… it was not intended.”

I don’t know what she means.

And then Barbara comes up with a bombshell.

“Ali‘s contribution was a caring support… he nursed Wallace during a serious illness.”

If we accept that Barbara had no prior knowledge of Ali, and little knowledge about Wallace, how could she know that Ali nursed Wallace in Ternate during the malaria attack during which Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection.

“Ali was paid with silver coins, with it he supported his family, and his tribe.”


“Ali had no family of his own, no children!”

This is untrue, at least if we accept Wallace’s repeated comments that Ali had a family in Ternate. Not to mention the many (and conflicting) reports by other mediums that Ali had a wife and children.

“After leaving Wallace Ali returned to his village, and lived with his brother or cousin… in any case blood relationship, until his death.”

Evidence against this – remember, Barbour recalls meeting “Ali Wallace” in Ternate.

“Ali died rather young, between 40 and 50 years.  Although he ate mostly fish he died due to blood-vessel obstruction, and heart disease.”

This contradicts Barbour, who met Ali Wallace in Ternate when Ali would have been about 67 years old.

“No one in the village knew about his merits.”

Unlikely, from Wallace’s notes Ali was voluble and a keen story-teller, often self-aggrandizing himself when recounting stories of his voyage with Wallace.

Where did he die?

“No one can say, Ali died anonymous, unnoticed.”

But then Barbara added.

“I see a seated skeleton in a cave.”

Now we’re in the fascinating realm of Indiana Jones and gruesome funerary rituals. It’s starting to get a bit woo-woo, and I love it.

I’m impressed by Barbara. She got some of Ali’s story-arc correct, particularly the bit about nursing Wallace.  And, to be honest, I love the “seated skeleton” image, improbable as it is.

Ali remains in the shadows, a mostly hidden, largely reticent, illusionary spirit.



Ali’s biography is based on a confusing jumble of facts (precious few), supposition (plenty), and information sourced from mediums in several countries (contradictory and unreliable). The source of the information is (in brackets).

1. Ali’s family name/patronym:

  • Unknown – Wallace never mentioned it, there are no contemporary records
  • Ali bin Amit – Ali, son of Amit (McLaughlin and Suriani)
  • Ali Doja Khan, from clan Soamole – this is a clan name in the Sula islands, North Maluku Province (Iis)

2. Ali’s wife:

  • Shinta Qomariah Kaulana (Three Dukuns)
  • Siti Humairah (Iis)
  • Saadiah binti Jaludin (McLaughlin and Suriani)

3. Ali’s siblings

  • Four older brothers – Chek, Osman, Tad, Lon. (McLaughlin and Suriani)

4. Ali’s children

  • Two sons – Said (who died childless), and Rajak, who fathered seven children (five girls and two boys) (McLaughlin and Suriani)
  • Six children – three girls, three boys (Iis)
  • One son – Ahmad Kaolan Ibrahim Djafar (Three Dukuns)
  • A child/descendant lives in Norway or Finland (Nasrin)

5. Ali’s birthplace:

  • Kuching (region), Sarawak (Wallace, McLoughlin and Suriani, van Whye and Drawhorn, Nasrin)
  • Ternate, Indonesia (Cranbrook and Marshall, Iis, Three Dukuns)

6. After Wallace departed from Singapore Ali spent the remainder of his life in:

  • Sarawak, Malaysia (McLaughlin and Suriani, also Boyle who wrote that he met “Ali Kasut” in Sarawak, with modern interpretation that this man was indeed Ali Wallace. In any case, this does not prove Ali stayed in Sarawak)
  • Ternate, Indonesia (Barbour, Three Dukuns, Iis, Cranbrook and Marshall, van Whye and Drawhorn, Wallace – implied since he did not express surprise that Barbour met Ali in Ternate in 1907)
  • Burma (Nasrin)

7. Ali’s burial site:

  • Unkown (No contemporary records, and Wallace had no further contact with Ali after they parted ways in 1862.)
  • Kampung Jaie, Sarawak (McLaughlin and Suriani)
  • Kampong Foramadiahi, Ternate, adjacent to grave of Sultan Babullah Datu Shah; or Ini Susupu, Jailolo, Halmahera (Three Dukuns, who gave two answers)
  • Hate Bicara, Jailolo, Halmahera, or the Chinese cemetery – Kubur Cina – in Ternate (Iis, who gave two answers)

8. Ali’s descendants currently live in:

  • Ini Susupu, Jailolo, Halmahera (Three Dukuns)
  • Sarawak (McLaughlin and Suriani)
  • Finland (Nasrin)

And my best guesses?

  1. Ali’s family name:  Unknown
  2. Ali’s wife: Unknown
  3. Ali’s siblings: Unknown
  4. Ali’s children: Unknown
  5. Ali’s birthplace: Around Kuching, Sarawak
  6. After Wallace departed:  Ali spent the remainder of his life: Initially Sarawak, with the Boyle brothers, then Ternate. Died some time after meeting Barbour in 1907
  7. Ali’s burial site: Unknown, likely on Ternate or neighboring islands
  8. Ali’s descendants currently live in: Unknown, could be anywhere

NB: The author is on a continuing quest to know more about Ali and locate his descendants, and welcomes information. Please contact Paul Sochaczewski via his website:



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[1] I am not the first to consider a form of History by Hantu.  French author Victor Hugo had conversations with Mozart, Dante, Plato, Galileo, and Moses. Jesus visited Hugo three times, during which he suggested a new religion with Hugo as its prophet. Hugo also channeled Shakespeare, producing a play featuring Heaven, Hell, Paradise, Louis XV, and a peasant maiden named Nihila. In one long soliloquy Paradise tells Hell: “How happy mankind is! No more evil! …  Mankind is an immense flower whose roots are bathed in light and who has as many petals as the mouth of God has kisses.”

In another oft-cited case, in the 1920s the Rev. John Lamond spent his holidays at the village house in Domremy, France, where Joan of Arc grew up. As recounted by Lamond’s friend Graham Moffat, Lamond spent hours meditating beside the famous “fairy tree” where Joan saw her visions and heard the voices of her guides. Moffat wrote: “By this means, though he himself was devoid of psychic gifts, [Lamond] hoped to get into touch with the still living spirit of the ‘Maid of Orleans.’” Back in London Lamond had numerous “interviews” with Joan through the trance mediumship of a psychic named Mrs. Mason, learning “much interesting information that was entirely unknown to her biographers.” The result of this spirit-enhanced research:  A biography, Joan of Arc and England, and a play about her life.  “While it must be admitted that G.B.S. [George Bernard Shaw] has given us a drama more skilfully constructed and more intensely dramatic, Dr. Lamond’s work depicts the real Joan,” noted Moffat, a playwright himself who believed that his dead father and brother helped in writing his plays.  “When we consider that it was written by a Scottish parson whose knowledge of theatrical technique cannot have been very profound, [Lamond’s] play is an astonishing fine piece of work. Here is no credulous village girl deceived by church bells into thinking that she hears voices; no victim of hallucinations; but a clairvoyant and clairaudient maid directly inspired from the spirit world and raised by Heaven-given power to be the saintly heroine of France …. divinely inspired, her campaign against the English invaders of her country was designed and carried out with the aid of her spirit guides.”

[2] Wallace, Alfred Russel (1905).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cranbrook, Earl of and Marshall, Adrian (2014).

[5] Wallace, Alfred Russel (1869a)

[6]  It might more accurately have been named “Ali’s Standard-wing/Semioptera alii.

[7] Wallace, Alfred Russel (1869a)

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Wallace, Alfred Russel (1905).

[17] Wallace, Alfred Russel (1867).

[18]  Wallace never indicated Ali’s patronym.

[19] McLaughlin, Tom and binti Sahari, Suriani (In press).

[20] Panglima refers to a commander or general.  Compare this with the observation of the medium Ms. Iis in Ternate (see following section) in which she said that Ali was royalty from Ternate and was sent as part of a group of noblemen to Sarawak by the Sultan of Ternate.

[21]  van Whye, John, Drawhorn, Gerrell M. (2015).

[22] I have problems with Cranbrook and Marshall’s conclusion that the “Banyak quot bitchara orang Arru” quote indicates Ali was not from Sarawak.  First, the incident occurred after Ali had been with Wallace for two years; plenty of time for him to have become accustomed to speaking “standard” Malay. Second, Wallace was recalling a relatively unimportant conversation and there is no reason to think that Wallace would have either remembered it accurately (can you remember verbatim a mundane conversation you had just yesterday?). Third, Wallace provided the essential meaning of Ali’s statement, using the basic Malay that would be recognizable to any reader familiar with the region. Writers “approximate” all the time.  I don’t place too much credence that this particular piece of evidence answers the questions about Ali’s origin.

[23] A small number of historians have in recent years expended considerable energy dissecting this phrase, considering it a Rosetta Stone-like looking glass into Ali’s origins. It could mean that the Aru people speak loudly and aggressively. Or it could mean that they are hard bargainers.  For a detailed analysis of the linguistics behind this phrase, and a discussion of the various forms of Malay used in the archipelago during the time of Wallace’s visit, see: Drawhorn, J. (2016).

[24] What I find interesting is that people seem to arrive at conclusions in one of two ways. They might have an opinion and then seek evidence to support their views (for instance, people who espouse creationism and use Biblical references and circular logic as their proof).  Or they might examine data and come to a conclusion based on statistics, logical arguments, and replicable experiments (for example, people who believe in climate change because the science is, in their minds, sufficiently convincing). Often it is a combination of what we want to be true, united (or justified) with a dose of hard evidence.  The balance between the two options varies depending on our personalities, education level, and social environment.  Consider how we judge a politician running for elected office.  Do we believe the countless stories circulating about her? What news stories do we believe? What rumors do we believe? Is there any unassailable “truth?” For example, do we believe, in our hearts, that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya in spite of hard evidence he was born in Hawaii?  Do we believe that U.S. astronauts really landed on the moon or are we convinced the 1969 moon landing was a hoax produced in a top-secret government TV studio in Nevada? What is the tipping point that causes our support (or disapproval) to flip?  So, it is with the search for Ali’s retirement home.

[25] I asked McLaughlin to explain the contradiction of Ali having a Sarawak wife, since Wallace twice mentions that Ali married in Ternate – see below. McLaughlin suggested that I was looking at the situation with an overly Western perspective in which monogamy is the norm, and noted that polygamy was permitted both by Islamic Shariah law as well as by adat, the traditional culture and value system to which Ali would have adhered. Also, according to McLaughlin, Ali had made a promise to look after the children of his brother Panglima Osman (Seman), and familial responsibility in Sarawak overcame the obligation of his marriage in Ternate.

[26] McLaughlin, Tom and binti Sahari, Suriani (in press).

[27] Boyle, Frederick (1865)

[28] Drawhorn, J.  (2016)

[29] Boyle, Frederick (1865)

[30] Drawhorn, J. (2018) Personal correspondence.

Drawhorn writes: “I do think that Ali Kasut is ‘most likely’ Wallace’s Ali. Just too many convergences. The fact that Ali Kasut (and Wallace’s Ali) were in Singapore at the same time. That Ali Kasut (unusually) wore Western clothing (and that Wallace’s Ali purchased a set of Western clothing … and not at Wallace’s behest, who thought that he looked better in his traditional attire). That Ali Kasut spoke some English. That Ali Kasut was experienced in outfitting the needs of Europeans on expeditions. That Ali Kasut was ‘well-travelled’ and was familiar with Sarawak and Borneo (they hired him as a guide). That would suggest that he was not a Singapore Malay … most of the trade at that time was undertaken by Sarawak Malays. Ali Kasut seemed familiar with the Brooke administrators. Like Wallace’s Ali, Ali Kasut seemed quite responsible and organized.”

“The counterpoints to this are that Frederick Boyle does not mention Ali being Wallace’s assistant. But then again, Boyle doesn’t mention Wallace at all. From our perspective that might seem odd, but remember that Wallace was not widely known outside of the actual biological community and was just beginning to establish his fame as ‘more than a collector’ back in London at the time of Boyle’s journey. Ali, himself might not have name-dropped [which I find difficult to imagine since Wallace implies Ali fancied himself a bit of a raconteur]. And no other writer from the era mentions anything about Ali or his return, either.

“So, while I lean to the general accuracy of Boyle’s account, it also likely contains some literary license and exaggerations. I also think that Ali Kasut is most likely Wallace’s Ali. Nothing in his account clearly eliminates this, and much within it supports that view.”

[31]  Wallace, Alfred Russel. (1869a).

[32]  Wallace, Alfred Russel (1859).

[33]   Wallace, Alfred Russel (1905).

[34] Ali had advantages that would have made him a desired husband. Besides having some cash and a reputation of having travelled widely with a European, Ali likely was acquainted with a Dutchman named van Duivenboden, whom Wallace dubbed the “King of Ternate “in recognition of the man’s wealth and influence.  Duivenboden (full name: Maarten Dirk van Renesse van Duivenbode) no doubt knew of the young man’s reliability and experience.

[35] Barbour, Thomas (1912).

[36] Barbour, Thomas (1921).

[37] Some critics take issue with this quote, arguing that Ali might have more naturally addressed Barbour in Dutch or Malay.  From my point of view there are several valid explanations.  Undoubtedly Ali would have learned a bit of English while with Wallace, and he was dredging out his limited English vocabulary to impress foreign visitors who obviously were interested in biology, particularly after having heard them speak English among themselves.  Perhaps Ali did address Barbour in Dutch or Malay, and Barbour simply gave readers the English translation.  And as for Ali referring to himself as Ali Wallace, well that makes sense, since Malays don’t use family names but refer to themselves as the son or daughter of so-and-so. Why wouldn’t Ali consider himself Wallace’s son, or at least an adopted or honorary son? (And the common honorific throughout Indonesia given to an older man is bapak, or “father.”) Perhaps the encounter was not even as theatrical as Barbour claims; he might have dramatized it for the sake of his narrative. But it might well have occurred as reported since we know Ali was a bit of a showman, as evidenced by Wallace’s recollection of Ali’s pleasure in telling exaggerated stories that enhanced his standing in the community.  And it is unlikely anyone except Ali would have had a serious discussion with a foreign collector about an obscure lizard. For me there is no reason to doubt Barbour’s sincerity in reporting meeting Ali.

[38] Barbour, Thomas (1943).

[39] It would have been nice if Wallace had also written a note to Ali. 

[40] I think it is important that Wallace expressed no surprise that Ali was living in Ternate; so his letter to Barbour is one more piece of evidence that Ali “retired” to Ternate. Of course, one might interpret Wallace’s request for a photo of Ali as a very polite way of expressing doubt about the accuracy of Barbour’s account and asking for “proof.”

[41] Wallace, Alfred Russel (1867).

[42] Trying to make a windfall profit from a gullible foreigner seems to be a regular practice among some of the mediums I visited.  See similar attempts to get-rich-quick from the medium in Pontianak (chapter “Are You Strong Enough To Go Through With This?”), and the nat medium in Yangon (chapter “The Trees Speak”).

[43] Sultan of Ternate Mudaffar Syah of Ternate, Ofa Firman’s father, reigned from 1975–2015.