The question of how different species have adapted to and survived
in particular environments has always puzzled scientists. Many
great thinkers have addressed this problem but failed to provide
satisfactory answers. Charles Darwin, whose voyage on H.M.S
Beagle made him famous, spent twenty years developing a suitable
theory which would explain this mystery. He was near to publishing
his ideas when a letter from the Malay Archipelago shocked him
and almost plunged him into despair. The writer was Alfred Russel
Wallace, a young botanist who had gone to the far east simply
to study and document the region's wildlife. It is all the more
remarkable, then, that Wallace's voyage resulted in the formulation
of a theory which closely resembled and supported Darwin's efforts.
In March 1996 Tim Severin will set off on a 1,200 mile voyage
through the Moluccan Islands of eastern Indonesia. Along with
a specially chosen crew, Tim will sail in Wallace's wake and retrace
Wallace's visits to these magnificent islands. They will attempt
to gauge how this valuable tropical region has coped in the century-and-a-half
since Wallace's visit.
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823 - 1913) is one of the forgotten fathers
of modern science. He was born in the village of Usk in Monmouthshire,
England. His father died when Alfred was young. Not long after
formal schooling ended for Alfred. He joined his brother, William,
in surveying a number of English counties over the next four years.
This experience was to teach him how to make accurate observations
and detailed recordings, skills which would be of immense importance
in later life. Shortly after this, Wallace was appointed to the
position of drawing-master at the Collegiate School in Leicester.
It was here that he met Henry Walter Bates, a fellow teacher who
introduced his young colleague to the methods and delights of
After two years the friends set out for South America on an expedition
which would see them explore the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers.
In order to cover a larger area Bates and Wallace split up. Wallace
sent his collection of specimens to Para for storage in advance
of transportation to England. He spent over four years in the
tropical jungles of Brazil before setting sail for home in 1852.
Disaster struck on the high seas. Wallace's ship caught fire and
had to be abandoned in great haste. He lost his entire collection
and most of his notes. Luckily, the crew and passengers were rescued
by a passing vessel and, after further difficulties, arrived at
Deal in an exhausted state.
Such a calamity would have defeated a lesser person but Wallace
turned his energies to writing an account of his time in Brazil,
Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro (1853). Within twelve
months he again left England and sailed eastwards towards Singapore.
It was here, over the next eight years, that A.R. Wallace was
to make the great voyage which led to his formulation of the theory
of Natural Selection.
Singapore, in 1854, was a bustling place. Traders from near and far would bring their goods to the city's teeming marketplaces. Spices, in particular, were highly prized. Ships from many different nations would arrive to transport the precious commodity across the world's seas. It was here that Wallace spent his first few weeks. After a brief rest he headed to the islands of the Moluccas group, the place from where the modern voyage will set sail. Here he made the initial preparations for exploring the region.
Wallace's first task was to obtain a seaworthy boat and a skilled
crew. He hired Kei Islanders to construct the prau which he used
for travelling between the islands. He employed native sailors
whose skill was central to the safe passage of the boat. Getting
a good crew together is as difficult and important a task in 1996
as it was in Wallace's day. Tim Severin's past voyages have succeeded
because he gathered about him committed and able crew-members.
On The Spice Islands Voyage Tim's crew will be split into
a boat team and a land team.
The boat team's primary function is to sail the Alfred Wallace
through dangerous and unpredictable waters. Among the crew
will be the captain, Tim Severin, two Kei Islanders, a marine
scientist and a photographer/artist. Each will have to learn how
to handle a prau, navigate if required and undertake repairs should
the need arise. The land team, guided by an Indonesian crew member,
will assist in the exploration of each island.
Sailing on board such a small, open vessel will not be an easy task. Space will be scarce and the crew will only have each other for company for long periods. They will also be exposed to the elements with little shelter. It is important, therefore, that they develop a harmonious spirit of teamwork under Tim Severin's guidance. The following extract, from The Malay Archipelago, details what happens when such co-operation is missing:
Five men had engaged to work at the prau till finished, and then
go with me to Mysol, Waigiou and Ternate. Their ideas of work
were, however, very different from mine, and I had immense difficulty
with them; seldom more than two or three coming together, and
a hundred excuses being given for working only half a day when
they did come. Yet they were constantly begging advances of money,
saying they had nothing to eat. When I gave it to them they were
sure to stay away the next day, and when I refused any further
advances some of them declined working any more. As the boat approached
completion my difficulties with the men increased. The uncle of
one had commenced a war, or some sort of faction fight, and wanted
his assistance, another's wife was ill, and would not let him
come; a third had fever and ague, and pains in his head and back;
and a fourth had an inexorable creditor who would not let him
out of his sight. They had all received a month's wages in advance;
and though the amount was not large, it was necessary to make
them pay it back, or I should get no men at all. I therefore sent
the village constable after two, and kept them in custody a day,
when they returned about three-fourths of what they owed me. The
sick man also paid, and the steersman found a substitute who was
willing to take his debt, and receive only the balance of his
The design of Tim Severin's vessel, the Alfred Wallace,
has been entrusted to the renowned English naval architect, Colin
Mudie. Colin's design is based on the native Malay prau which
has sailed these waters for centuries.
The Alfred Wallace is 48 feet long and built in the traditional
way. It is powered solely by wind caught in two large, rectangular
sails. The vessel will be steered by a quarter rudder. Although
the craft is very much in keeping with traditional design and
construction methods, it does carry sophisticated communications
Wallace's only ties with his family and supporters were out-of-date letters from home and infrequent messages passed on to him by the crews of ships he sometimes encountered. No such difficulties are anticipated on the modern voyage. Satellite communications equipment - which must be compact and light-weight - will be vital to the voyage's success and safety. A Sat-C Maritime radio will be used to send faxes around the world to the sponsors, participating schools and the crew's families. Tim will also utilise a laptop computer to transmit photographs and written messages.
During the five months of the voyage the crew of the Alfred
Wallace will make at least twelve landfalls in sites of special
environmental and historical significance. They will retrace Wallace's
own footsteps and attempt to assess the impact of man on each
particular landscape in the intervening century-and-a-half. They
will be on the lookout for some of the spectacular flora and fauna
which Wallace recorded in the best-selling account of his travels,
The Malay Archipelago.
Danger will be an ever-present element of this voyage. The Alfred Wallace will have to deal with sudden storms, treacherous currents and forbidding shorelines. Tim will hopefully avoid pirates (whom Wallace encountered and who still operate further north) as well as any marooning incidents. Wallace was forced to abandon two of his crew on a deserted island for a month before they were eventually rescued. Although the modern voyage will try to eliminate danger as much as possible one can be certain that the Alfred Wallace and her crew will have a great deal of adventure and excitement. The following extract from The Malay Archipelago details the problems which Wallace faced:
My first crew ran away in a body; two men were lost on a desert
island, and only recovered a month later after twice sending in
search of them; we were ten times run aground on coral reefs;
we lost four anchors; our sails were devoured by rats; our small
boat was lost astern; we were thirty-eight days on a voyage which
should have taken twelve; we were many times run short of food
and water; we had no compass lamp owing to there being not a drop
of oil in Waigiou when we left; and, to crown all, during our
whole voyage from Waigiou to Ternate, occupying in all seventy-eighty
days (or only twelve days short of three months), all in what
was supposed to be the favourable season, we had not one single
day of fair wind. We were always close brace up, always struggling
against wind, currents, and leeway, and in a vessel that would
scarcely sail nearer than eight points from the wind! Every seaman
will admit that my first (and last) voyage in a boat of my own
was a very unfortunate one.
The islands of the Malay Archipelago cover a vast area. They stretch
for more than 3,000 miles from east to west and about 1,300 from
north to south. In all, there are over 13,000 islands in this
archipelago but many of them are tiny and uninhabited. As he could
only visit a small proportion of the islands, Wallace divided
the Archipelago into five groups of islands. The Spice Islands
Voyage will be mostly concerned with the Moluccan Group, comprised
of Seram, Batchian, Gilolo and the smaller islands of Ternate,
Tidore, Ambon, Goram and Banda. The Ké Islands, although
included in the Papuan Group by Wallace, will be the embarkation
point for the Alfred Wallace.
Wallace was noted for more than providing an explanation for the processes of evolution. His observations in the Malay archipelago led him to propose an imaginary line running between the region's islands. This imaginary line, later known as Wallace's Line, was the boundary between the animal life of the Australian region and that of the Oriental region. Wallace's own words best explain his idea:
In this archipelago there are two distinct faunas rigidly circumscribed which differ as much as do those of Africa and South America and more than those of Europe and North America; yet there is nothing on the map or on the face of the islands to mark their limits. The boundary line passes between islands closer together than others belonging to the same group. I believe the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia while the eastern part is a fragmentary prolongation of a former west Pacific continent. In mammalia and birds, the distinction is marked by genera, families, and even orders confined to one region; insects by a number of genera and little groups of peculiar species, the families of insects having generally a very wide or universal distribution.
from My Life: Letters & Reminiscences, pp. 358-359
In 1858, while suffering from a bout of fever, Wallace had time to think about issues raised by his work on the islands. One question in particular exercised his mind. In both the human and animal worlds, why do some die and some live? His studies had shown that the healthy generally evaded disease, that "the strongest, swiftest and most cunning" escaped from their enemies and that the best hunters avoided famine. With these thoughts to the fore, a solution presented itself to him:
Then it suddenly flashed upon me that this self-acting process would necessarily improve the race, because in every generation the inferior would inevitably be killed off and the superior would remain - that is, the fittest would survive.
Wallace wrote down his thoughts immediately and within two days
had sent a letter to Charles Darwin. The consequences of this
action were to excite the scientific world greatly. Wallace's
reputation was made, yet he continued his collecting work in the
archipelago with admirable dedication.
The primary purpose of Wallace's journeys was to "obtain
specimens of natural history, both for my private collection and
to supply duplicates to museums and amateurs". In so doing,
he amassed a total of 125,600 specimens. These included 310 specimens
of Mammalia, 100 of Reptiles, 8,050 of Birds, 7,500 of Shells,
13,100 of Lepidoptera, 83,200 of Coleoptera and 13,400 other insects.
The crew of the Alfred Wallace will not attempt such a
mammoth task; they will be concentrating on the generation and
transmission of information which will be used to aid schoolchildren
come to an understanding of the delicacy of their world.
During the course of the voyage, Tim Severin and his crew will
introduce the participating schools to a wonderful assortment
of wildlife. They will describe the beautiful Birds of Paradise
and their living habits. They will swim in the traditional feeding
grounds of the unusual dugongs and investigate these creatures
for us. We will also learn about the tarsiers, pythons, black
monkeys, hornbills and butterflies which inhabit the islands.
The children who participate in this project will have a new and
an exciting world of wildlife opened up to them. This is the first
step in educating the children of today to be the conservationists
The greatest consequence of Wallace's voyages in the Malay Archipelago was to record in detail the undisturbed condition of the islands. His account of the voyage, The Malay Archipelago (1869), opened up a whole new world to thousands of readers. His collections provided scientists with much material for fruitful research and his theory of natural selection revolutionised science. For all this we are grateful but the time has come to reassess the condition of this most valuable region. As part of the modern expedition, educational packs will be formulated in partnership with Irish, Indonesian and American schools and stored with a view to future adaptation and use. The combination of Wallace's work with the findings of Tim Severin and his crew will be used to create a uniquely valuable educational resource.