Catalogue number: WP1/3/34
Letter from Wallace to his sister Fanny describing life in Sarawak, the qualities he looked for in a field assistant and Charles' failure to meet them, and hand-rearing an orphaned orang-utan, dated June 1855.
Wallace writes this long letter to his sister Fanny from the
Sadong River in Sarawak (Borneo). He gives her advice about her
husband's photography business, and then describes living in
Sarawak, raising pigs and growing vegetables.
Wallace was offered a new assistant from England. In response he gives a lengthy description of the qualities he would expect. An assistant should be able to 'live on rice and salt fish for a week...do without wine or beer...tea, coffee or sugar'. He should be able to 'skin a stinking animal', walk 20 miles a day, draw, speak French, and also have good handwriting and be able to 'saw a piece of board straight'.
This makes you wonder if anyone could meet Wallace's requirements! His current assistant, Charles Allen, certainly did not. Wallace complained that he was constantly correcting Charles' work and telling him what to do. His butterflies were arranged unevenly with crooked pins. Charles was also poor at stuffing birds. '...The head is on one side, there is a great lump of cotton on one side of the neck ...the feet are twisted, soles uppermost...what ought to be straight is always put crooked.' Wallace despairs, 'this after 12 months' constant practice and constant teaching! And not the slightest sign of improvement...' To his credit, Wallace acknowledges that Charles worked well outside, when collecting insects.
The second half of this letter is devoted to describing his hand-rearing of an orphaned baby orang-utan. While on a collecting trip, Wallace had shot its mother. She tumbled out of a tree, the baby in her arms. Despite it being perfectly usual for Wallace to kill animals for collection, he felt guilty and went to great lengths to nurture the baby. 'The little innocent was unweaned and I had nothing proper to feed it with but rice water.' He improvised, making a bottle and a cradle. He fed it four times a day, washed it and brushed its hair, 'which it liked very much'. Wallace even bought a monkey (and named it Toby) as a companion for the orang-utan.
He was besotted and exclaims, 'I am sure nobody ever had such a dear little duck of a darling of a little hairy baby before!' The idea of killing an orang-utan for a collection is quite shocking these days. However, Wallace did not have the advantage of photography that naturalists today might use instead.
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View high resolution scans and transcripts of Alfred Russel Wallace's correspondence, including all surviving letters between him and Charles Darwin.