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March 28, 2013
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This month’s letter comes from Ternate, when Wallace was 4 years into his 'Eastern journey ' exploring the Malay Archipelago. I selected this letter not just for its content, fascinating though it is, but for the story behind it and the fact that this innocent letter has caused quite a stir, albeit unintentionally.

 

Wallace travelled to the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) in March 1854, eighteen months after returning from his Amazon expedition. He spent eight years exploring the islands, travelling a total of 14,000 miles and undertaking 60-70 separate journeys. In this time he amassed a huge, diverse and important collection of insects, birds, mammals and reptiles – around 25,000 specimens in total, with well over a thousand of these new to science.

 

The scientific observations Wallace made on these islands contributed to some of his most important work. The two volume book The Malay Archipelago published in 1869 was written about his eight years there, and was so successful that it hasn’t been out of print since its publication.

 

The letter in question is one from Wallace to Frederick Bates, brother of Henry Walter who was Wallace’s Amazon companion. It was written from Ternate, on 2nd March 1858 and discusses insect collecting, insect coloration and other musings on the richness of the archipelago.

 

Frederick, like his brother Henry, collected insects and had written to Wallace previously about the sorts of things he had been collecting, in particular exotic insects. Wallace shared details in the letter about the sorts of species he had been collecting and where they had been found. He mentioned to Bates that his second Macassar collection should reach England soon and he believed it contained "the most remarkable lot of Carabidae ever collected in the tropics in so short a time". He gives a vivid account of what life as a collector in the tropics sometimes amounted to, spending "hours daily on my knees in wet sand & rotten leaves".

 

WCP367_L367_1.jpg

Letter to Bates from Ternate, 2nd March 1858

 

The letter has an extremely rich entomological content, discussing species found in different localities and the research he has been conducting which will contribute to scholarly work upon his return. Musing on the richness of the archipelago, Wallace writes:

 

"I could spend 20 years here were life long enough, but feel I cannot stand it away from home & books & collections & comforts, more than four or five, & then I shall have work to do for the rest of my life. What would be the use of accumulating materials which one could not have time to work up?"

 

Luckily for us, he heeded his own words of wisdom, returning in 1862 to write and publish much on the region.

 

The link in the letter to the story behind it comes as he writes, "I have lately worked out a theory which accounts for them naturally". This sentence is a reference to the now famous essay he wrote whilst recovering from a fever in February 1858. The essay in question was on the theory of evolution by natural selection, which he sent together with an accompanying letter to Charles Darwin shortly after penning it, asking Darwin to forward it on to Sir Charles Lyell.

 

Darwin received the letter and essay on 18th June, writing to Lyell the same day asking what he should do with Wallace’s work. Knowing that Darwin had deivsed a similar theory Lyell and Joseph Hooker thought the fairest thing to do would be to read the two men’s work at a meeting of the Linnean Society. This was duly done on 1st July 1858, leading to the publication of "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection" – thus uniting the two great scientists as co-discoverers of this ground-breaking theory.

 

Whether or not it was fair for the essay to be read publically without Wallace’s knowledge is a whole other blog entirely – the controversy this blog is concerned with is the date on which Darwin received Wallace's essay, 18th June 1858, and the discovery of the letter to Frederick Bates in the later decades of the twentieth century which was received by Bates on 3rd June 1858.

 

OK, you might say, two completely different letters to two completely different people, written around the same time – why should that cause a stir? Well, there was only one steamer a month that carried mail on its journey to the UK and it had long been thought that Wallace had sent his letter and essay to Darwin on the March steamer.

 

The discovery of the Bates letter confuses matters because it quite clearly has 3 postage marks on it, indicating it began its journey aboard the steamer that left Ternate on 9th March 1858. There is a mark indicating its arrival in Singapore on 21st April 1858 and then London on 3rd June, and a final mark showing that it arrived at its destination, Leicester, the same day 3rd June.

 

Therefore if Wallace’s letter and essay to Darwin had been sent on the March steamer they would have reached Down House also on 3rd June or thereabouts (one would assume, especially as Down House is much closer to Southampton than Leicester). Therefore, conspiracy theorists have delighted in theorising that Darwin received the essay on 3rd June but said nothing about it to anyone until the 18th, which is when he wrote to Charles Lyell saying he had received it. This would have given him time to read over Wallace’s work and use it to amend his own.

 

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Page 4 of the letter to Bates, clearly showing the three postage marks of Singapore, London and Leicester

 

As unlikely as this seems, it has actually spurred four authors to write about it; McKinney (1972), Brackman (1980), Brooks (1984), and Davies (2008) and many more have questioned what really went on - did Darwin receive the letter two weeks before he said he did? Did he use Wallace’s essay to shape his own work?

 

Of course, this theorising wouldn’t even need to happen if we still had the letter Wallace sent to Darwin as it would no doubt have similar postage stamps to the Bates letter, charting the journey to its destination. However, we still don’t know where the letter is, or if it even survives, although the museum did launch an appeal in 2011 to try and trace this iconic piece of history.

 

Late in 2011, Dr. John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker sought to re-investigate this thorny issue in an article they published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society "A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace’ Ternate essay by Darwin in 1858" (2012, 105, pp. 249-252). They put forth an argument that in fact, the letter to Darwin was sent on the April steamer, not March. This is supported by evidence that Wallace’s letter (which he sent the essay) was a reply to Darwin’s letter of 22nd December 1857 (this is actually one of the few things known about the missing letter).

 

Davies (2008) undertook some detective work which indicated Wallace would have received this December letter from Darwin in March 1858, on the same steamer that he would have sent the letter to Bates on. As the steamer would not have stayed long at Ternate, there would  therefore be no way Wallace could  have written a reply and send it off to England on the 9th March steamer. Wallace’s later recollections of sending this letter to Darwin don’t allude to the month he sent it either, just that it was sent to him via the "next post".

 

Dr. van Wyhe and Rookmaaker chart the journey of the letter and essay via the various stops it would have made in its way back to England, finally reaching Southampton on 16th June 1858 at nine o’clock in the evening, travelling to London early on the 17th and finally reaching Down House on the 18th June.

 

So, this seemingly innocuous letter to Bates ended up causing quite a stir and I’m sure Wallace would have been quite amused at all the fuss! Conspiracy theories will always abound and there will always be people who prefer Darwin to Wallace and vice versa, but really if you strip all that away, what you have are two remarkable men, independently co-discovering a theory that was forever to change the way we see the world.

 

You can explore Wallace and Darwin’s relationship through their letters here. Check back next month when I’ll be writing about something else that’s caught my eye.

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Bill Bailey's two part TV series on Wallace is finally ready to be broadcast. It is called Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero and the first episode will be shown on BBC2 at 20.00 on 21 April, and episode 2 on 28 April. Nothing like this has ever been made about Wallace before and I am hoping that it will increase interest in his life and work considerably. I have seen an almost finished version and I think it is excellent. Bill's subtle and surreal humour works brilliantly to keep the viewer entertained, whilst not detracting from or trivialising the story. Bill's personal passion for the subject is obvious.

 

I was Series Consultant for the programme and my main jobs were to provide information about Wallace and to check all the facts to ensure that the script was as historically accurate as possible. Due to constraints such as not being able to film on all the islands that the Producers would have liked to, and the need to simplify the story for television, a few minor inaccuracies remain that should only be noticed by a few real Wallace geeks.

George & Coconut Crab.small.jpgMe admiring a nocturnal coconut crab (the world's largest terrestrial arthropod!) in Sulawesi.
Copyright: Jan Beccaloni.

 

In July last year I was lucky enough to spend 3 weeks working on the second programme with Bill and the BBC crew in Indonesia (Sulawesi, Ternate and Halmahera). I had an amazing time: I experienced the first earthquake of my life (scary), got up close and personal with black macaques (one even used my back as a trampoline when I bent over to photograph an insect!), was enthralled by gremlin-like tarsiers, impressed by colossal coconut crabs, and blown-away by Wallace's standardwing birds of paradise displaying only about 10 metres away from me. My wife Jan came out as well and we wrote a number of posts for this blog about our experiences, starting with this one.

 

More information about Bill Bailey's Jungle Hero, including some clips (two of which are footage which never made it in to the programme), can be seen on the BBC2 website. Put the dates in your calendar and tune in on the 21 Apr to see the first episode.

Bill&GeorgeInHalmahera.jpgMyself and Bill in the jungle in Halmahera island.
Photo by Jan Beccaloni. Copyright NHM.
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So far in this series of posts on the making of the Wallace statue, we've described the background to the project and introduced me as the sculptor, and shown the important first stages of preparation.

 

In this third entry in the series, things are beginning to take shape:

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The steel and wood armature that will support the plaster and clay of the sculpture.

 

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Steel rods are used to support the arms, and a number of screws are added to the central wooden board and the leg frames in order to give greater support for the light-weight materials that are added next.

 

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The rough shape of the body and limbs are 'blocked-out' using light-weight materials such as polystyrene foam and wood-wool (which is bound tightly to the armature using strong twine). It is onto these materials that the plaster and clay will be added.

 

More photos soon!

 

Anthony Smith

 

Read the earlier posts in this series: