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Borneo, Sarawak, Sarawak Tourism

Retracing the steps of Alfred Russel Wallace in Sarawak

AS our State is going to start restoring the Brooke Cottage and Wallace Trail at Bung Muan, Bukit Peninjau in June, I thought it might be a good idea to learn more about Alfred Russel Wallace.

It is strange that Sarawakians don’t know all that much about the man who wrote the paper that conveys his first formal statement of his understanding –a pre-natural selection understanding– of the process of biological evolution right here in our State way back in February 1855.

What became known as the ‘Sarawak Law ‘ paper — published in Volume 16 (2nd Series) of the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in September 1855, is probably the most important paper on evolution prior to the discovery of natural selection.

In the paper he discussed observations regarding the geographic and geologic distribution of both living and fossil species, what would become known as biogeography, and concluded that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a closely allied species”.

Wallace spent a total of 14 months in Sarawak from November 1, 1854 to January 25, 1856. This was apparently a longer stay than at any other destination during his travels in the Malay Archipelago.

He collected some 25,000 specimens of insects during his stay!

In his book The Malay Archipelago, Walace wrote that the first four months of his visit were spent in various parts of the Sarawak River, from Santubong — at its mouth up — to the picturesque limestone mountains and Chinese gold-fields of Bow and Bede.

In March 1865 he went to the coalworks which were being opened near the Simunjan River, a small branch of the Sadong, a river east of Sarawak and between it and the Batang–Lupar.

Several times, in Simunjan, he went after orang utans as well as raised a baby orang utan.

“This little animal was probably not more than a month old when I obtained it by shooting its mother, with whom it fell to the ground apparently uninjured,” Wallace relates in The Malay Archipelago.

“I found out afterwards that it had then broken a leg and an arm, which however mended so rapidly, that I only noticed it a week or two afterwards by observing the hard swellings on the limbs where the irregular junction of the bone had taken place.

“When I first obtained it, it was toothless, but a few days afterwards it cut its two lower front teeth. I fed it with rice-water given out of a bottle with a quill in the cork, which after one or two trials it sucked very well. When however a finger was placed in its mouth it would suck at it with remarkable vigour, drawing in its little cheeks with all its might, thinking no doubt it had got hold of the right thing at last, and wondering that all its exertions could get no milk out of it. It would persevere for a long time till at last it gave up with despair and disgust, indicated generally by a very baby-like scream.”

The book is a fascinating insight into his work here in Sarawak and how much it inspired his theories.

Be warned however that it also describes how he killed, skinned, beheaded and shipped many orang utans as specimens back to England. These were apparently quickly snapped up by buyers such as the British Museum! But his work meant that he had the best knowledge of orang utans during that period.

Because Wallace’s story is so greatly intertwined with Sarawak’s history, we should ensure that our efforts to restore the Brooke Cottage and Wallace Trail includes educating ourselves and properly documenting all those connections at the soon-to-built tourist information centre.

In the meantime you can get a copy of The Malay Archipelago in a good bookstore or read it online. The layout for the e-book from Adelaide University is particularly easy to read. The chapters on Sarawak are: Borneo — the Orangutan, Borneo — journey into the interior, and Borneo — the Dyaks.

The Star’s report:

Naturalist Wallace’s Sarawak experience retraced

KUCHING: Most Sarawakians do not realise that in Kuching they are basically following the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace.

But who is Wallace?

Wallace is one of the two founders of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The other one being Charles Darwin.

Wallace is best remembered in the Wallace Line, a zoogeographic boundary separating Australia from South-East Asia.

Wallace’s independent discovery and publication of evolutionary theory in 1858 is said to be equal to Darwin’s.

On his travel as a free-lance collector of natural history specimens, Wallace first went to the forests in the Amazon and to the Malay Archipelago (Malaysia and Indonesia), including Sarawak.

An ecologist with the Sarawak Forestry, Rambli Ahmad recently shared his adventure in retracing Wallace’s actual footsteps in Sarawak and United Kingdom, the scientist’s home country.

Rambli’s talk entitled “Following the Footprints of the Great Naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace in Sarawak (1854-56), was to inspire listeners into appreciating Sarawak’s place in one of the most important events in the science.

Wallace spent 14 months in Sarawak (November 1, 1854 to January 25, 1856), a longer stay than at any other destination during his travels in the Malay Archipelago.

Rambli noted that Wallace’s insect collecting in Sarawak was extremely productive, amounting to some 25,000 specimens.

His vertebrate collections were much fewer, but nonetheless produced new species of every order.

“He (Wallace) wrote what people commented as the best travel book written and still in print, The Malay Archipelago (1869).

“An immaginary line that divides the placental and marsupial runs between Lombok, Bali, Borneo and Sulawesi was also named after him,” said Rambli.

In The Malay Archipelago book, Walace wrote that the first four months of his visit were spent in various parts of the Sarawak River, from Santubong — at its mouth up — to the picturesque limestone mountains and Chinese gold-fields of Bow and Bede.

In March 1865 he went to the coalworks which were being opened near the Simunjan River, a small branch of the Sadong, a river east of Sarawak and between it and the Batang–Lupar.

Several times, in Simunjan, he went after orang utans as well as raised a baby orang utan.

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