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A wonderful and unique map, showing the routes of Wallace and Darwin's journeys and explaining how both men came to discover evolution by natural selection, has just been published by Operation Wallacea in association with the Wallace Memorial Fund. An image of the map is shown below and a larger version is attached as a PDF file (see the link at the bottom of this post).

 

The map is being distributed free of charge as a high quality A2 size (42 x 59.4 cm; 16.54 x 23.39 inches) poster to all secondary schools in the UK as well as a further 10,000 schools worldwide - a GREAT way of increasing awareness of Wallace.

 

An Indonesian language version of the poster will probably also be produced for distribution to schools in Indonesia. If you would like a physical copy of the English version of the poster at cost price then please email rachael.forster@opwall.com. The price is £1 plus postage and packing.

 

I will also have a limited number of copies to give away at Science Uncovered on Friday 27 September between 17.30 and 18.30. Please come and find me at the Evolution Station in the Museum's Central Hall. Come early to avoid disappointment!

 

 

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The map comparing Darwin's and Wallace's travels, which led to them independently formulating their theory of evolution by natural selection.

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This month’s letter of the month was written from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

 

"I am afraid the ship’s on fire."

 

These fateful words were uttered by the Captain of the Brig Helen on 6 August 1852, which was sailing from South America to London, as a fire broke out in the ship’s hold. The dramatic events of the fire and subsequent rescue of the ship’s crew and passengers are recorded in a letter from Wallace, who had spent the previous four years travelling through the Amazon, to his friend Richard Spruce (1817-1893).

 

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WCP349: Page one of the eight page letter to Spuce detailing the sinking.

 

The letter was written from the Brig Jordeson on 19 September 1852, the vessel that saved the stricken survivors after they had endured ten harrowing days and nights in a small row boat, 200 miles from the nearest land, with water seeping into the boat from numerous holes. Wallace describes how he was “scorched by the sun, [his] hands nose and ears being completely skinned, and [was] drenched every day by the seas and spray”. They finally anchored ship at Deal, Kent, on 1st October with Wallace rejoicing to Spruce

 

“Oh! Glorious day! Here we are on shore at Deal where the ship is at anchor. Such a dinner! Oh! Beef steaks and damson tart, a paradise for hungry sinners.”

 

The joy at being back on dry land in England is clear to see, made even more poignant by the terrible storms they had to endure in the English Channel the night before they anchored; storms, in which “many vessels were lost”.  

 

Wallace’s journey to the Amazon began in Leicester in 1844 when he met budding young amateur naturalist Henry Walter Bates (1825-1892), after Wallace accepted a job at the Collegiate School there. Wallace moved to Neath, Wales in 1845, but kept in regular contact with Bates, and it was this friendship that first stirred in Wallace an interest in entomology.

 

A seed was sown in Wallace’s mind after reading William Henry Edwards' book A Voyage up the River Amazon, and early in 1848 he began making plans with Bates for their own voyage to South America. This idea came to fruition as the two young, eager friends set sail from Liverpool on 26 April 1848 bound for Pará (Belém).   

 

For Wallace the aim of their Amazon trip was two-fold. Firstly, they were to go and collect specimens of birds, insects and other animals not only for their private collections, but also to sell to collectors and museums across Europe. Secondly, Wallace went with the aim of attempting to discover the mechanism of evolution. Having read the controversial Vestiges of Natural History of Creation by Robert Chambers in 1845, he became convinced of the reality of evolution, which was then known by the term of transmutation. Indeed, in a letter to Bates in 1847, he asserted that he sought to “take one family, to study thoroughly- principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species”.  

 

Wallace and Bates parted company whilst there to focus on different areas, with Wallace travelling around the Amazon basin and Rio Negro. It was here he made beautifully intricate drawings of fish species he found on the Rio Negro, and also used his land surveying skills to create a wonderfully detailed map of the Rio Negro; so detailed and accurate that it became the standard map of the river for many years. You can see this map for yourself at the museum, as it forms part of the Wallace Discovery Trail.

 

Wallace decided to leave the Amazon in 1852 after becoming quite poorly. He sadly lost his brother, Edward, in June 1851 to yellow fever, after Edward had joined Wallace and Bates earlier on the expedition. Wallace boarded the Brig Helen on 12 July, sailing for 26 days before disaster struck.

 

Wallace describes very candidly in his letter to Spruce the frantic moments after the discovery of the fire and the realisation that they would need to abandon ship. He managed to run back to his cabin and collect some items together in a small tin box. He tells Spruce he felt “foolish” in saving his watch and money. However, once aboard the life-boat his regrets at not having “saved some new shoes, cloth coat and trousers” are clear to see.

 

Tragically, Wallace lost all of his natural history specimens, so painstakingly collected over the previous two years; the specimens he collected during the first two years having been successfully posted back to his agent, and he recounts this tragedy to Spruce in the letter:

 

“My collections however were in the hold and were irrevocably lost. And now I begin to think, that almost all the reward of my four years of privation and danger were lost. What I had hitherto sent home had little more than paid my expenses and what I had in the “Helen” I calculated would realise near £500 [around £30,000 in today’s money]. But even all this might have gone with little regret had not far the richest part of my own private collection gone also. All my private collection of insects and birds since I left Pará was with me, and contained hundreds of new and beautiful species which would have rendered (I had fondly hoped) my cabinet, as far regards American species, one of the finest in Europe”

 

A few gems from this trip, however, do survive, and are preserved by us here at the Museum, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and The Linnean Society. When in his cabin, frantically trying to fit as much as he could in his tin box, Wallace scooped up the drawings he had made of the fishes of the Rio Negro and of Amazonian palms. The Library’s Special Collections now hold the four volumes of fish drawings, with the palm drawings held by the Linnean. The specimens of palms collected, which are now housed in Kew’s Herbarium, were sent back during the first two years of the expedition.

 

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One of Wallace's fish drawings that we hold here at the Museum

 

At the end of his letter to Spruce, written from London on 8 October, Wallace muses about his next trip. He mentions the Andes or the Philippines as possible destinations for his next collecting expedition.

 

However, as we know, in 1854, Wallace headed out to explore the islands of the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), spending eight years there.

 

This letter of the month highlights the real danger faced by those who travelled to far flung corners of the world in the hope of advancing our understanding of the natural world, in sometimes dangerous and harsh conditions. It’s hard not to feel for Wallace having lost the fruits of his hard fought labour.

 

However, every story has a silver lining and Wallace’s Malay Archipelago trip certainly must have helped heal the wounds of the lost Amazon collections. The result of eight years hard work in south-east Asia was an unrivalled collection of 110,000 insects, 7,500 shells, 8,050 bird skins, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, including well over a thousand species new to science. His book The Malay Archipelago, first published in 1869, is the most celebrated travel book of that region and has not been out of print since it was first published.

 

We're still tweeting about Wallace in this anniversary year and check back next month when I will be writing about another of my favourite letters.

 

Later this month on the 27 September we will be getting out a few Wallace treasures from the Library to showcase at the free to attend Science Uncovered. It promises to be an exciting night and you can see the Wallace treasures along with other items from the Library's amazing collections by booking a free Treasure's of the Library tour.

 

-Caroline-

Wallace Correspondence Project

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This month’s selected letter in my 'Letter of the Month' series was written by Wallace to his mother, Mary, from Java on 20 July 1861, just as his Malay Archipelago adventure was coming to an end. The opening sentence reveals his plans:

 

“I am as you will see now commencing my retreat westwards I have left the wild and savage Moluccas & New Guinea for Java the garden of the East & probably without any exception the finest island in the world.”

 

WCP375_L375_1.jpg

WCP375: Wallace's letter home to his mother

 

Although coming at the end of his journey, this letter affords a great insight into the life of a travelling naturalist. He rejoices in the fact that travelling in Java and then onwards to Singapore will be a much more pleasant affair than where he has been travelling as good infrastructure made his job much easier.

 

“Good roads regular posting stages & regular inns & lodging houses all over the interior” make for a happy naturalist.

 

Wallace goes on to write he...

 

“...shall no more be obliged to carry about with me that miscellaneous lot of household furniture, -- bed, blankets, pots kettles and frying pan, -- plates, dishes & wash basin, coffee pots & coffee, tea sugar & butter, -- salt, pickles, rice, bread and wine -- pepper & curry powder, & half a hundred more odds & ends the constant looking after [of] which, packing and repacking, calculating & contriving, -- have been the standing plague of my life for the last 7 years. You will better understand this when I tell you that I have made in that time about 80 movements averaging one a month, at every one of which all of these articles have had to be rearranged & repacked by myself according to the length of the trip, besides a constant personal supervision to prevent waste or destruction of stores in places where it is impossible to supply them.”

 

Simply reading the list of everything he was required to take with him on his travels makes you appreciate what he achieved on those islands all the more but coupled with the fact he had to carry all this every time he moved on (about once a month) and also carry all specimens he collected with him, makes his feat extraordinary. He did have helpers at times which would have proved enormously useful but I really think the sheer scale of his endeavour comes to light in his letter home.

 

Just a few months earlier in March 1861 Wallace had written to his brother-in-law Thomas Sims about his travels and how the lure of home was growing ever bigger:

 

“I assure you I now feel at times very great longings for the peace & quiet of home, -- very much weariness of this troublesome wearisome wandering life. I have lost some of that elasticity & freshness which made the overcoming of difficulties a pleasure, & the country & people are now too familiar to me to retain any of the charms of novelty, which gild over so much that is really monotonous & disagreeable….. I think I may promise if no accidents happen to come back to dear & beautiful England in the summer of next year.”

 

And that he did, returning home to England by summer 1862, travel weary but eager to begin the next chapter in his life.

 

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_Malay Archipelago.jpg

The Malay Archipelago - Wallace travelled the length and breadth of this Archipelago over eight years.

 

One other anecdote caught my eye in the letter home to Thomas. He was responding to a letter Thomas had written which evidently mentioned Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which you might infer from Wallace’s reply, he had been none too positive about:

 

“Now for Mr Darwin’s book. You quite misunderstand both Mr D’s statement in the preface & his sentiments. I have of course been in correspondence with him since I first sent him my little essay.* His conduct has been most liberal & disnterested. I think any one who reads the Linn[ean] Soc[iety] papers & his book will see it. I do back him up in his whole round of conclusions & look upon him as the Newton of Natural History”

 

*Yet, another outstanding example of Wallace’s modesty! The "little essay" he refers to here is his famous 1858 essay "On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection".

 

NaturalHistoryMuseum_PictureLibrary_Darwin.jpg

Darwin - the Newton of Natural History? Wallace certainly thought so!

 

Wallace actively wrote home to his mother and sister during his travels and we have seven surviving letters written to his mother during the eight years travelling the archipelago and 11 to his sister and brother-in-law, Fanny and Thomas. All of them can be read on Wallace Letters Online.

 

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Wallace, his mother Mary and sister Fanny

© Wallace Memorial Fund & G. W. Beccaloni

 

 

 

You can follow in Wallace’s footsteps and explore his Amazon and Malay Archipelago expeditions in the museum’s Wallace Discovery Trail which was launched at the beginning of July and runs until November. You can find out more information about the Trail and download a map here.

 

Check back next month, when I'll delve once again into the correspondence and write about another letter that has caught my eye.

 

Caroline

-Wallace Correspondence Project-

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Wallace Letters Online (the electronic archive of Wallace's correspondence) has just received its first major update since its launch on 24 January this year. A total of 297 new transcripts, 320 letters (178 of them published versions) and 17 manuscript items have been added, including one of Wallace's notebooks (WCP5223), a scientifically important note about weevil (beetle) specimens he collected in the Malay Archipelago (WCP5114), and some 'newly discovered' pencil sketches that Wallace made in Brazil (WCP5099, WCP5100, WCP5101, WCP5102).

 

The latter are the most exciting additions since they are some of the few possessions which Wallace managed to rescue from the smoke-filled cabin of his ship, before it burned and sank in the mid-Atlantic on his way back to England in 1852. All of the other sketches that he managed to save, apart from his fish drawings, are owned by the Linnean Society, so it's great that the Museum now has a few of its own. They were  loosely inserted into his personal first edition copy of his book Narrative of travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro and although I had noticed them there years ago, it was only recently that I realised that they were unknown to others, including the Museum's librarians!

 

One of them (WCP5102) was reproduced in his Amazon book as the illustration on plate 2 "Forms of Granite rocks". It is wonderful to be able to 'rediscover' treasures like these and make them available to Wallace scholars for the first time.

WCP5099_M5604_1.jpgWCP5099. Front reads: "First rocky point, in Rio Tocantins 50 miles above Bãiao.Sept 10", back reads: "Sketch no. 4. First rocky point in the Tocantins [River]"
WCP5100_M5605_1.jpgWCP5100. Back reads: "Sketch no. 5. Mr C's. Hous[e] in the Island of Mexicana"

WCP5101_M5606_1.jpg

WCP5101. Front reads: "Sugar and Rice Mill.", back reads: "Sketch no. 6. S. Jozé on the Capim River"

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WCP5102. No caption front or back, but the published version in his book is labeled: "Forms of Granite rocks"
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During the Wallace100 year, I will be selecting a letter every month to write about. This letter could be historically important, scientifically significant or just funny and interesting!

 

I thought I’d start the series by writing about two letters – a letter written to Wallace and his reply to it. Wallace received the letter very late on in his life, in 1912, and his response to it gives a great insight into his thoughts and feelings of his long and illustrious career.

 

Wallace was great friends with Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell, an American zoologist who, in 1912, was professor of systematic zoology and a lecturer at the University of Colorado, USA. Cockerell’s students sent Wallace a letter of appreciation and greeting’s card for his 89th birthday in January 1912 which was signed by 129 students. They wrote at the top the letter:

 

"To Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace:

We, the students in the General Biology Class at the University of Colorado, ardent admirers of your work on Evolution, send you respectful greetings on the occasion of your eighty-ninth birthday, wishing you health and happiness."

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Above: Letter to Wallace from Biology students at Colorado University
© Natural History Museum, London

 

Wallace wrote a reply to the students, enclosing it in a letter to Cockerell. He wrote to his friend that he was writing in response "to the very kind greetings of the members of your class of general Biology" and that they can have "no more capable and enthusiastic teacher".

 

In his letter to Cockerell’s students, dated 12 January 1912, Wallace gives a fascinating insight into his feelings of nature that he describes as the "solace of my life". He goes on to write "my first views of the grand forests of the Amazon; thence to the Malay Archipelago, where every fresh island with its marvellous novelties and beauties was an additional delight – nature has afforded me an ever increasing rapture". Wallace describes how his love of nature has not dwindled over the years but has in fact been cultivated in a different way through his "wild garden and greenhouse". Wallace’s letter to the Biology students is very touching and insightful and the students were extremely privileged indeed to receive such a letter.

 

You can read the letters for yourself here and here and can explore the many thousands more that are available on Wallace Letters Online.

 

Check back next month, when I’ll be delving into the Wallace correspondence again to write about another letter that caught my eye.