Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

In the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace with Bill Bailey

On Sunday 29 July 2013, we headed off to Wallacea for three weeks to assist comedian Bill Bailey with a documentary he is presenting about Alfred Russel Wallace. George, the Natural History Museum’s Curator of Orthopteroid Insects, acted as the Historical Consultant. Jan, the Natural History Museum’s Curator of Arachnida and Myriapoda, made a video diary and took photos of our exploits for the Museum’s Wallace 100-related events in 2013.
We have known Bill for about four years, and although his is not a scientist by profession, he’s very interested in natural history (birds in particular) and is a big fan of Wallace. He often goes to Southeast Asia on holiday and it was on one such trip, many years ago, that he read Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago and became captivated by its author.

Wallacea is the heart of the region Wallace called the Malay Archipelago, and it includes the large weirdly-shaped island of Sulawesi, as well as Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Sumba, Timor, Halmahera, Buru, Seram, and many smaller islands — nearly all of which are part of Indonesia. Wallacea is named after Wallace and is a biogeographical transition zone between the Australian region to the east, and the Oriental region to the west. The islands in it contain a mix of Australian animals (mostly marsupials, e.g. cuscus), and Oriental animals (placental mammals, like macaque monkeys, wild pigs and tarsiers). The Wallacean islands never had dry land connections to the main land masses, so it has few animals which find it difficult to cross stretches of open ocean (e.g. land mammals, land birds, or freshwater fish of continental origin).

During our three weeks in Wallacea we visited three of the most important Wallace-related places in the whole of the Malay Archipelago: Sulawesi, Halmahera, and Ternate. It was on Sulawesi that Wallace received his first ever letter from Darwin, starting a chain of correspondence which would ultimately lead to his theory of natural selection being co-published with him. The “earthquake-tortured island of Ternate”, as Wallace charmingly called it, is the place from which he posted his famous ‘Ternate paper’, which detailed his theory of natural selection, to Darwin in 1858. Halmahera, which is a large island very close to the much smaller island of Ternate, was where Wallace actually discovered natural selection whilst in a malarial delirium, and is home to the most incredible of the 5000 of so species of animals new to science which Wallace collected in the Malay Archipelago, i.e. Wallace’s standardwing bird of paradise, Wallace’s golden birdwing butterfly, and Wallace’s giant bee. We were fairly likely to see the first, less likely to spot the second, and very unlikely to come upon the third.

* * *

Our first stop: Sulawesi, a weirdly-shaped island in Indonesia. As we drove from the airport to the hotel, we were struck by the similarity of Sulawesi to Fiji — a highly humid, verdant and lush island, with numerous palms and towering volcanoes. One of the volcanoes had a plume of smoke emerging from the crown, which we should have taken as a warning of what was to come.

The following morning, we experienced our first earthquake! We rushed out of our hotel room and headed for the emergency stairs. Our room was on the 9th floor so it was a long way down. As we rushed bare footed (there had been no time to put on foot wear) in fear of our lives, we felt that we were almost literally following in Wallace’s footsteps. He wrote about an earthquake he experienced near Manado in The Malay Archipelago, although unlike us, he had found the experience fairly amusing!

We emerged into the hotel lobby covered with thick dirt from the emergency stairs and dressed only in night attire. The hotel staff tittered politely behind their hands at the sight of two dirty and semi-naked orang putih (that’s Indonesian for white people). The tremors, which we discovered later were 5.1 on the Richter scale, had finally stopped, and so we reluctantly went back to our room. We discovered later that it was the first earthquake of the year, and that some of the staff had been a bit scared.

After the excitement of our arrival, we made our way to Tangkoko National Park, located North-east of Manado on the northern tip of Sulawesi. It was here in 1859 that Wallace came to collect the strange maleo bird (Macrocephalon maleo) which used to nest on the black volcanic sand beach there. Maleos are unique amongst birds in that they bury their eggs in a deep hole and leave them to hatch. There is no parental care and the young are able to fly and forage for themselves soon after they have burrowed their way to the surface of the sand.

The eggs are huge — 5 times the size of a chicken’s egg — and they are (unfortunately) a favourite food of the local people. Egg collecting, together with the hunting of the birds and habitat destruction, accounts for the fact that the maleo is now an endangered species. It is now extremely rare at Tangkoko and no longer nests on the beach where Wallace says that many hundreds came to lay their eggs. It was a special experience to stroll along the black sand peppered with white coral fragments and imagine Wallace walking just ahead of us.

We spent few days with Bill at Tangkoko to look for some of the other peculiar animals which are endemic to Sulawesi and which are relatively easy to see there. We were fortunate to have close encounters with the rare Sulawesi black crested macaque (Macaca nigra), only 2,000 of which still survive and which are tragically eaten as bush meat by the locals. Although fearsome-looking with their fiery-coloured eyes and massive teeth, crested macaques are actually rather gentle creatures which are more interested in peering at their reflections in shiny surfaces and checking us out, than being aggressive.

We were also very keen to see the nocturnal spectral tarsier (Tarsius tarsier). Our guide took us to a tree which is visited by tourists at dusk, in order to view the tarsiers up-close-and-personal. Initially, we were rather sceptical that we would see any animals there, because there was a queue of people waiting by the tree, cameras in hand. However, our fears were unfounded because the tarsiers that hang-out there are totally habituated, and are very used to noise and the light from camera flashes and torches. Plus, we had not accounted for their biggest passion in life — tasty, big, fat, green bush crickets. The guide placed one on a branch outside the tarsier’s lair, and in the blink of an eye, a tarsier had leaped out from inside the tree and grabbed the poor cricket. It then took it back to the safety of its tree hole home, and greedily gobbled it down with relish!

The diurnal bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus) proved to be a much more elusive quarry. Sulawesi is the western-most place in the world where marsupials such as cuscuses occur and we only caught a glimpse of a pair which sleepily gazed down at us from the top of a tall tree.

From the animals’ stomachs to our own, one of the many great things about travelling to the more remote parts of the world, is the opportunity to sample the local cuisine. Wallace ate a great many weird-and-wonderful things during his travels in the Malay Archipelago, and he often writes with great enthusiasm about his culinary experiences. Whilst in Sulawesi (Celebes) he was invited to the house of a chief. He writes:

“The dinner was excellent. Fowls cooked in various ways, wild pig roasted, stewed and fried, a fricassee of bats, potatoes, rice and other vegetables, all served on good china, with finger glasses and fine napkins, and abundance of good claret and beer, seemed to me rather curious at the table of a native chief on the mountains of Celebes.”

All seems unremarkable in this description, until you spot the ‘fricassee of bats’!

Of course, being a game type of chap, and wanting to experience as much as he could of Wallace’s travels, Bill Bailey accepted an offer to try this local ‘delicacy’. We travelled up the road from the lodge where we were staying, to a traditional sturdily-built thatched wooden house. A small fire was constructed in the nicely-swept dirt backyard, and a spicy ‘gravy’ of coconut milk, spices, and chillies was prepared in a large metal pot, before the unfortunate bat (which are sold in the local markets) was popped in. After being simmered for 20 minutes or so, the bat was ready. (The species of fruit bat prepared for the meal is a common and geographically widespread one.)

Bat is considered by the locals to taste very much like rat, but given that this flavour ‘benchmark’ is unfamiliar to most Europeans, one needed to sample the bat for one’s self. Bill ate a decent sized portion. Chewing on the wing membrane, he remarked that it was like eating a musty old umbrella. Being one to try most things at least once (George decided to gracefully decline) I found that it wasn’t as bad as imagined — it tasted very much like ostrich, or a cross between chicken and liver. I have to say that I was glad not to have to eat my way through the entire dish!

* * *

The “earthquake-tortured island of Ternate” (as Wallace called it in The Malay Archipelago) is a small island off the north-east coast of Sulawesi. It consists of a large volcano (Mount Gamalama, 1,715 m), which is only inhabited around the base and is forested all the way to the crater. The volcano erupted violently in 1840 wiping out most of the town. The last more modest eruption was a few months before we arrived and the ash closed the airport for several days. This was a sobering thought, given that you can clearly see the volcano from any part of the island, and it looked a stone’s throw away from the back of our hotel.

For Wallace fans, Ternate is a ‘must’ to visit, because it was on this island (or possibly on the neighbouring island of Halmahera) in February 1858 that Wallace discovered the process of evolution by natural selection, whilst laying incapacitated with fever. After he had recovered enough to put pen to paper, he wrote an essay explaining his theory and posted it from Ternate together with a covering letter to Charles Darwin in Kent, England.

Wallace rented a house on Ternate for three years, which he used as a base to return to after voyages to distant islands in search of rare specimens. This house has become legendary, and although many have tried to locate it, the site of it is still a bit of a mystery. Wallace writes that from his house, “five minutes’ walk down the road brought me to the market and the beach, while in the opposite direction there are no more European houses between me and the mountain.” He continues “just below my house is the fort, built by the Portuguese.” This fort is called Benteng Oranye and it was built by the Dutch in 1607 on the foundations of an earlier Portuguese structure.

Some have identified a house currently owned by a Chinese family as Wallace’s residence, but it has the wrong orientation to the mountain, is too far from the fort, and the front garden is too large. We used the landmark of the fort to orientate ourselves and found a plot across the road and up-hill of the fort which is about the right size as the one that Wallace’s house would have occupied (his house was 40 feet in width and had a garden on either side of it). The width is of great relevance, because plots of land on which houses are built tend not to change in size over time. This plot is now occupied by a new two storey building owned by “Adira Finance”. It will probably never be possible to be 100% certain whether this is the actual site of the house, but we felt a step closer to finding the Wallace holy grail.

This article was adapted from George and Jan Beccaloni’s blog posts on the Natural History Museum website.

Image credits: All images courtesy of George and Jan Beccaloni, apart from the map of Wallacea, Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Prof.Milton Wainwright

    Neither Darwin nor Wallace originated the idea of natural selection. In fact both scientists admitted that they were beaten to the idea by others, notably Patrick Matthew,(search google for “Wainwright Darwin refuter” for further info.)
    Professor Milton Wainwright, Sheffield University, UK.

  2. Steve Greig

    They were beaten to it by Patrick Matthew. Also Aristotles account of evolution through natural selection is exemplary.

Comments are closed.