Missing Wallace letters donated

16 October 2008

Missing letters written by Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin, have recently been donated to the Natural History Museum.

Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace

The two letters reveal Wallace’s thoughts and experiences during his famous expedition to southeast Asia from 1854 to 1862. This period is important because he was searching for a scientific explanation of how new species come into existence, without them being specially created by God.
 
The letters were published in the Literary Gazette a few months after Wallace posted them to Britain and the originals were assumed to be missing until Wallace’s grandson, Alfred John Russel Wallace, discovered them in an old folder.

'When I received the letters from John Wallace I realised that no scholar had ever seen the originals, as they had been “lost” for more than 150 years,' said George Beccaloni, the Museum’s Wallace expert. 

'They are important because they were written at a historically interesting period in Wallace’s life and also because they are some of the earliest letters by him to have survived until the present time.'

Collecting specimens
A bird of paradise collected by Alfred Russel Wallace.

A bird of paradise collected by Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace collected insects, birds and mammals whilst travelling, sending them back to England for his future study or to sell to other scientists and collectors. They would have created quite a stir as most would not have been seen before.

Letters from Malacca and Borneo

The first letter, sent from Singapore in September 1854 gives Wallace impressions of the people and the town of Malacca, in Malaysia, whilst the second, written in Sarawak, Borneo, in May 1855, contains a number of interesting natural history observations. 

This letter was written only three months after Wallace wrote his ‘Sarawak Law’ essay, the most important paper about evolution before the publication of the theory of natural selection.

In the Sarawak letter Wallace describes his fascination with orang-utans:
 
‘One of the principal reasons which induced me to come here was, that it is the country of those most strange and interesting animals, the orang-utans, or “mias”,’ Wallace wrote.
 
‘I have already been fortunate enough to shoot two young animals of two of the species which were easily distinguishable from each other, and I hope by staying here some time to get adult specimens of all the species, and also to obtain much valuable information as to their habits.’
 
Two of the orang-utan specimens Wallace collected are looked after by Natural History Museum scientists today behind the scenes in the mammal collection.

Counting bats
A R Wallace's painting of a tree in a rainforest clearing in Sarawak.

A R Wallace's painting of a tree in a rainforest clearing in Sarawak. © Richard Wallace

Other animals that grabbed Wallace’s attention were the ‘immense flights of fruit-eating bats’.
 
‘They extend as far as the eye can reach, and continue passing for hours. By counting and estimation, I calculated that at least 30,000 passed one evening while we could see them, and they continued on, some time after dark,’ Wallace noted.
 
Wallace guessed the bats were probably the species Pteropus edulis. He described how their ‘expanded wings are near five feet across, and it flies with great ease and rapidity’.
 
He was also intrigued by what could have fed such vast numbers of bats.
 
‘Fruit seems so scarce in these jungles that it is a mystery where they find enough to supply such vast multitudes.’

Gloomy jungle

Wallace described the jungle he visited as gloomy and monotonous, although now and then, colourful flowers and plants would catch his eye.

A R Wallace's painting of an Aeschynanthus  flower from Sarawak.

A R Wallace's painting of an Aeschynanthus flower from Sarawak. © Richard Wallace

‘There may be seen occasionally bunches of the magnificent scarlet Aschynanthus and spikes of orchideous flowers, those of the genus Cælogyne being the most abundant and beautiful.’
 
He observes how oaks were equally found in tropical as well as temperate climates and how he saw species with red, brown, and black acorns.
 
A tall slender tree grabbed his attention; ‘One is a magnificent object, ten or fifteen feet of the stem being almost hidden by rich orange-coloured flowers, which in the gloomy forest have, as I have before remarked of tropical insects under similar circumstances, an almost magical effect of brilliancy.’

Wallace paintings
A R Wallace painting of Acorns from Sarawak

A R Wallace painting of Acorns from Sarawak © Richard Wallace

'When I read this letter I was surprised to realise that I had photographs of paintings Wallace had done of some of the plants he described in it,’ said Beccaloni. 

‘The Wallace family had discovered the original watercolours a few years ago and had photos made, but as far as I know no one had made the link between these beautiful paintings and this letter before.'

Beccaloni concludes, ‘The letters and the paintings together give a real insight into Wallace's life in the “jungle” collecting animals whilst searching for the mechanism of evolutionary change.'

'I would like to thank the Wallace family for donating the letters, which will be added to the amazing collection of Wallace letters and other manuscripts which the Museum purchased from the family in 2002.’

Further information

External links