Skip to page content

Qualities of a good field assistant and hand-rearing an orang-utan

Full transcription

                                                 Sadong River Sarawak, June 25th. 1855
My dear Fanny

I will write my family letter this time to you, having just received yours of March 19th & my Mothers of April 2nd. Do not write anymore in the middle of the month the only mail here now is on the 4th. I am very much please indeed to hear that you are getting on so well & that Thomas has at last got into the transparent pictures. He has never told me yet whether there is any thing new or whether they are the same as he tried when I was with you & which I always told him would be sure to succeed if he would stick to them a little.

You have not told me what you know I should be so much interested to hear, what he is to have for them. I trust he has not taken them too cheap - It is no good doing so. An order like that should make his fortune. If he has taken them at less than 5s. each it is absurd. At that I suppose for a thousand he might make something handsome. For such an order he ought to clear £100 for a months work. I certainly think myself it would be unwise for you to go to another place in London unless Thomas has made up his mind to stay there eight or less years. The rent & expense of fitting up an establishment in a good situation would be so great as to use up all your savings up to this time & for such work as this, what better would you be off? He would be obliged to have more assistants if he meant to do a much larger business & would have more anxiety & trouble. If indeed you could get a handsome sum for the present Glass House& apparatus then indeed you might venture but secure that first.

If he has taken these clear picture at a proper piece at first & there are still as many portraits as Edward can take & you still think of going abroad or at least getting away from London in a year or two, it certainly does not seem advisable to move. If you do determine on risking the move to a better situation I hope you will live in the Country at least 6-8 miles out of town near the Railway whose station is nearest to your place of business, - where Edward could live. Then with 2 Annual railway tickets you might be very comfortable, & all the lazy summer mornings Thomas could be gardener or fowl keeper& ruralize to his hearts content - I am now obliged to keep pigs &fowls or we should get nothing to eat. I have 3 pigs now & a china boy to attend to them who also assists in skinning "orang utans" which he & Charles are doing at this moment. I have also planted some onions & pumpkins which were above grounds in three days and are growing vigorously. I have been practising salting pork & find I can make excellent pickled pork here which I thought was impossible as every one I have seen try has failed. It is because they leave it to servants who will not take the necessary trouble I do it myself. I shall therefore always keep pigs in the future.

I find there will not be time for another box around the Cape so must have a small parcel overland. I should much like my last but nothing else unless some canvass shoes are made. If the young man my mother & Mr Stevens mentioned comes he can bring them. I shall write to Mr Stevens about the terms on which I can take him. I am however rather shy about it having hitherto had no one to suit me. As you seem to know him I suppose he comes to you sometimes. Let me know what you think of him. Do not tell me merely that he is "a very nice young man". Of course he is. So is Charles a very nice boy, but I could not be troubled with another like him for any consideration whatever.

I have written to Mr Stevens to let me know his character, as regards usefulness & perseverance in doing any thing he is set about. From you I should like to know if he is quiet or boisterous forward, or sly. Talkative or silent, - sensible or frivolous. Delicate or strong. Ask him whether he can live on rice & salt fish for a week on an occasion. Whether he can do without wine or beer & sometimes without tea coffee or sugar. Whether he can sleep on a board. Whether he likes the hottest weather in England. Whether he is too delicate to skin a stinking animal. Whether he can walk 20 miles a day. Whether he can work for there is sometimes as hard work in collecting as in any thing. Can he draw (not copy), can he speak French. Does he write a good hand. Can he make any thing - Can he saw a piece of board straight? (Charles cannot & every bit of carpenter work I have to do myself). Ask him to make you any thing, - a little card box, a wooden pig a bottle stopper and see if he makes them neat straight & square. Charles never does any thing the one or the other.

Charles has now been with me more than a year & every day some such conversation as this ensues - "Charles work at these butterflies that you set at yesterday" "Yes sir" "look at that one, is it set out evenly" "No Sir." "Put it right then & all the others that want it" In five minutes he brings me the box to look at. "Have you put them all right" "Yes sir." - "There's one with the wing uneven. There's another with the body on one side - There another with the pin crooked. Set them all right this time. It most frequently happens that they have to go back a third time. Then all is right. If he puts up a bird, the head is on one side, there is a great lump of cotton on one side of the neck like a [?], the feet are twisted soles uppermost or something else - In every thing it is the same what ought to be straight is always put crooked. This after12 months constant practice & constant teaching! And not the slightest sign of improvement, I believe he never will improve - Day after day I have to look over every thing he does & tell him of the same faults. Another with a similar incapacity would drive me mad.

He never too by any chance puts any thing away after him. When done with, -every thing is thrown on the floor. Every other day an hour is lost looking for knife, scissors, pliers, hammer, pins, or something he has mislaid. Yet out of doors he does very well - he collects insects well & if I could get a neat & orderly person in the house I would keep him almost entirely at out of door work and at skinning which he does also well but cannot put into shape.

I must now tell you of the addition to my establishment in the form of an orphan baby, a curious little half nigger baby which I have nursed now more than a month. I will tell you by and by how I came to get it, but in the mean time must relate my inventive skill as a nurse. The little innocent was unweaned and I had nothing proper to feed it with but rice water. I contrived a pop bottle with a large mouthed bottle making two holes in the cork in one which I inserted a quill so that the baby could suck. I fitted up a box for a cradle with a mat to lay upon which I had washed & changed every day. I fed it four times a day and washed it once and brushed its hair which it liked very much only crying when it was hungry or dirty. In about a week I fed it with a spoon & gave it the rice water with a little solid and always sweetened to make it nice.  I am afraid you would call it an ugly baby for it has a very dark skin and red hair, a very large mouth but very pretty little hands & feet. It has now cut its two lower front teeth & the uppers are coming. At first it would not sleep at night alone but cried very much but I made a pillow of an old stocking, which it likes to hug and now sleeps very soundly. It has very strong lungs and sometimes screams tremendously so I hope it will live.

But I must now tell you how I came to take charge of it. Don't be alarmed, I was the cause of its mother's death. It happened as follows, - I was out shooting in the jungle and saw something up in a tree which of course I thought was a large monkey or orang utan, so I fired at it and down fell this little baby in its mothers arms What she did up a tree of course I can't imagine, but as she ran about in the branches very quickly I presume she was a "wild" "woman of the woods" so have preserved her skin & skeleton and am endeavouring to bring up her only daughter and hope some day to introduce her to fashionable society at the Zoological Gardens. When its mother fell mortally wounded the poor baby was plunged head over ears in a swamp about the consistence of pea soup and looked very pitiful. It clung to me very hard when I carried it home & having got its little hands unawares into my beard, it clutched so tight that I had great difficulty in making it leave go. Its mother poor creature had very long hair, & while she was running about the treelike a mad woman, the poor little baby had to hold on fast to prevent itself from falling, which accounts for the remarkable strength of its little fingers & toes which catch hold of everything with the firmness of a young vice.

About a week ago I bought a little monkey with a long tail, and as the baby was very lonely while we were out in the day time, I put the little monkey into the cradle to keep it warm. You will perhaps say (or my mother will) that this was not proper, - "how could I do such a thing,"- but I assure you the baby likes it exceedingly, and they are excellent friends. When the monkey wants to run away by himself a little as he often does, baby clutches him by the tail & ears & drags him back, and if the monkey does succeed in escaping, screams violently till he is brought back again. Of course, baby cannot walk yet, but I let it crawl about on the floor a little to exercise its limbs, but it is the most wonderful baby I ever saw and has much strength in its arms that it will catch hold of my trousers & hang underneath my leg for a quarter of an hour together without being the least tired, all the time trying to suck, thinking no doubt it has got hold of its poor dead mother. When it finds no milk is to be got, there comes another scream & I have to put in [it] back in its cradle and give it "Toby" the little monkey, to hug which quiets it immediately. From this shock account you will see that my baby is no human babyn, and I may safely say, what so many have said before with much less truth, "There never was such a baby as my baby" - and I am sure nobody ever had such a dear little duck of a darling of a little known hairy baby before!..  

Madam Pfeiffer was at Sarawak about a year or two ago and lived in Rajah Brooke's house while there. Capt. Brookes says she was a very nice old lady something like the picture of Mrs Harris in "Punch". The insects she got in Borneo were not very good, Those from Celebes & the Malaccas were the same ones for which Mr Stevens got so much money for her. I expect she will set up regular collection now as it will pay all her expenses & enable her to travel where she likes. I have told Mr Stevens to recommend Madagascar to her.

I have received the rings in the letter and am much obliged - Here I have no use for them as so near Sarawak the Dyaks prefer money. When I take a trip further into the interior they will be useful, or in the Islands further Eastwards. I also thank you beforehand for the things you have sent me by ship. I hope you secured the bacon well, filling up the Pot with bran & pasting on gummed paper around the edges.

I am very glad I did not have any thing to do with the Australian Expedition. Such tremendous delay & no well known man at the head of it. The recent news of Mr Strange's[?] murder by the natives must be a rather disagreeable commencement. A gentleman has just come here to see the place who has recently come from England to join the Mission. When he saw how we lived in open houses & open doors at night surrounded by Chinese & Dyaks he said "People in England won't believe this." He said I met a Dyak on the path with a long knife & I expected to have my head cut off." Whereas the idea of cutting off the heads of Europeans is never for a moment imagined by the poor people.

Let me hear about John & Mary when they arrive in California. I see by the Papers there have been some great failures there lately among others the House of Page Bacon & Co. through who he sent money when I was in England. I trust he had nothing in their hands. Did you learn from him how he had invested his money I hope safely but I suppose most in the Water Company.

Tell Mr Sims I have been dreadfully hard up for shoes lately & have been dissecting & patching till I am quite learned in the internal machinery of a shoe welts, ramps, quarters, uppers, &c &c. I shall take care to keep a better stock by me for the future, as shoemaking without tools is hard work. I have never told you that my musical box is a never ending delight to the Dyaks. They call it a bird and almost every day I am asked to show it them. With my best love to my dear Mother & remembrances to all friends
I must now remain
Your affectionate Brother
[signed] Alfred R Wallace

[to] Mrs. F. Sims.

Go back

Search this collection
Contact us

For enquiries about the Wallace Collection please email the library

Wallace Letters Online

Letter to Alfred Russel Wallace from the Royal Society, about his Darwin Medal award

View high resolution scans and transcripts of Alfred Russel Wallace's correspondence, including all surviving letters between him and Charles Darwin.

Explore Wallace's correspondence