Historical Background


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 botany.

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.

The Crew

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 wages.

The Alfred Wallace

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 technology.

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.

A Hazardous Voyage

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 Malay Archipelago

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.

The Wallace Line

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

A Flash of Inspiration

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 Fauna of the Malay Archipelago

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 of tomorrow.

The Spice Islands Archive

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.


Alfred Russel Wallace