Catalogue number: WP1/3/24
Letter (dated September 1852) from Wallace to botanist friend Richard Spruce describing the burning and sinking of his ship near Brazil, the loss of his collections and his subsequent rescue
Wallace writes to his botanist friend Richard Spruce from the Brig Jordeson, his rescue ship. He gives a long and detailed account of how his previous ship, the Helen, bound for London, caught fire and sank.
After a four-year collecting expedition along the Amazon, Wallace caught a ship home from Pará, Brazil. He boarded with his collections and some live animals. After three weeks at sea, the captain announced to Wallace, 'I am afraid the ship's on fire. Come and see what you think of it.' Wallace found thick smoke, as if from heating 'vegetable matter'. In fact it was part of the cargo of balsam (a plant oil), which had not been properly stored. The crew's efforts to deal with the fire were unsuccessful and the lifeboats were made ready.
Wallace recalls a few items he recovered: 'I got a small tin box with a few shirts in it and put in my fish drawings and palms which were luckily at hand...' In addition to a few sovereigns and a watch, this was all he could reach due to the suffocating smoke. 'My collections however were in the hold and inevocably [irrevocably] lost.' He lost specimens, sketches, notebooks and even live animals.
The nearest land was 700 miles (over 1100 km) away and conditions were horrendous. Wallace says 'we were scorched by the sun, my hands, nose and ears being completely skinned, and drenched every day by the seas and spray'.
After 10 days Wallace was rescued by the crew of the Jordeson, which he describes as 'one of the slowest old ships going...she seldom does more than 5 knots'. Lack of food and severe storms made for an uncomfortable journey home.
There is an addition to the letter, written when Wallace reaches land in October. 'Oh! Glorious day! Here we are on shore...such a dinner! Oh! Beef steaks and damson tart, a paradise for hungry sinners.' Wallace was obviously very relieved, and very hungry! The ordeal did not put him off travel for long. He tells Spruce that he is trying to decide whether to visit the Andes or the Philippines next. What utter drive and determination Wallace had. He certainly did not dwell on the disaster. Fortunately, Wallace's agent had insured some of Wallace's collections, so he was left with a little money.
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