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The insect life of the Malay Archipelago

The insect life of the Malay Archipelago (page 1)

Catalogue number: WP1/3/39

Letter from Wallace to fellow entomologist Henry Walter Bates giving an account of the insects of the Malay Archipelago and expressing ideas about geographical distribution, dated April 1856.

Wallace writes to his entomologist friend Henry Walter Bates, from Singapore. He records extensive details about the insects of the Malay Archipelago. Wallace was probably excited to be able to share his passion and admits to Bates 'the details...will be more interesting I am sure to you than to any other person...' Wallace travelled the area for some time, spending six months in Malacca and Singapore, and 15 months in Sarawak (Borneo) .

Wallace noticed differences between the insects of the Malay Archipelago and those of the Amazon, where he previously travelled. The most notable difference was the lack of 'diurnal Lepidoptera', that is butterflies that are active during the day, in the Archipelago. 'All this is very miserable and most discouraging...' Wallace grumbles. Despite such disappointment, Wallace excitedly announces finding a new butterfly: 'The magnificent Ornithoptera Brookeiana' [link to picture]. Wallace named this species, which he describes as 'perhaps the most elegant butterfly in the world', after Sir James Brooke, the respected governor of Sarawak. Wallace stayed with Brooke for a while during his travels.

Wallace gives an account of the numbers and types of insects collected in each region so far. He adds up the totals (6,000 species and 30,000 individual specimens) and urges Bates to send his own totals from the Amazon, so they can 'form a pretty good judgement of the comparative entomological riches of the two countries...' Throughout the letter Wallace remembers the Amazon more fondly than his current expedition, in terms of insect varieties and lifestyle in general. He is also rather competitive. 'What is your greatest number of species of Coleoptera collected in a day?' he asks Bates. 'Mine is 70...' This illustrates Wallace's enthusiasm and a desire to share his success.

Wallace enquires whether Bates kept his collections from different regions separate. Wallace says he puts a 'locality ticket' on each specimen and suggests that Bates does the same 'for reference and comparisons' between places and collections in the future. Such attention to detail enabled Wallace to be among the first naturalists to study the geographical distribution of species. Wallace was completely self-taught and developed his own scientific methods of collecting and cataloguing.

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