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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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WLO.JPGWallace Letters Online (WLO), an online archive giving everyone access to the correspondence of Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, is launched today by comedian and naturalist Bill Bailey at the Natural History Museum. Bailey will also be launching Wallace100, a programme of events to mark the centenary of Wallace’s death, by unveiling an impressive portrait of Wallace in the Museum’s iconic Central Hall, near the famous statue of Darwin.

 

WLO brings together all surviving letters to and from Wallace, both personal and scholarly, for the first time. His unpublished correspondence is scattered across the collections of more than 100 institutions worldwide so it has been very difficult for people to study, until now.

 

Highlights in WLO include the fascinating letters he wrote and received during his epic trip to the Malay Archipelago between 1854 and 1862, and his complete correspondence with Charles Darwin, which has never been published in full before. Online materials will also include other important documents, such as Wallace's notebooks from the Museum’s Wallace Family Archive.

 

Alfred Russel Wallace is considered by many to be one of the greatest scientists of all time. Not only did he independently discover natural selection, he also founded the science of evolutionary biogeography; the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals.

 

He made significant contributions to academic fields as diverse as anthropology and epidemiology, and was an intrepid traveller and avid collector of natural history specimens who sent back thousands of species new to science from South America and south-east Asia.

 

About 4,500 letters to and from Wallace are known to survive, with more than half of these held in the collections of the Natural History Museum (1,200) and the British Library (1,600). The Wallace Correspondence Project has so far digitised about 95 per cent of the letters, and is searching for others hidden away in libraries and private collections around the world. Wallace Letters Online is the Web interface to the Wallace Correspondence Project's electronic database of Wallace's letters.

 

Dr George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project and a curator here at the Museum says, ‘Collating, transcribing and making this material freely available online marks a huge advance in understanding this great man. It presents a wealth of new information for those interested in Wallace’s life, work and beliefs. I hope it will help build a new and more accurate picture of him, and help to bring him out of Darwin's shadow.'

 

More details and highlights of WLO

 

WLO aims to catalogue and provide images and transcripts of all known letters sent to or written by Wallace (including the original envelopes and any enclosures), plus selected letters between others which contain important information pertaining to Wallace (e.g. a letter from Charles Darwin to Thomas Huxley which discusses Wallace). WLO also includes a selection of other important manuscript documents and other items which are not letters e.g. Wallace's notebooks in the Museum's Wallace Family Archive.

 

Current coverage

 

WLO currently contains records of 4,151 letters, of which 2,026 were written by ARW, 1,856 were sent to ARW and 269 are third party letters which pertain to ARW. It also contains details of 26 other documents such as notebooks.

 

WLO currently contains about 95% of Wallace's known surviving correspondence, including all of Wallace's early (pre. 1863) correspondence, and all of the surviving letters he sent or received during his epic trip to the Malay Archipelago between March 1854 and April 1862. It also includes the complete surviving Darwin-Wallace correspondence in full for the first time. Previous published compilations of the Darwin-Wallace letters (i.e. Darwin (1893), Marchant (1916)) are incomplete and the published transcripts were often heavily edited and sometimes suffer from important omissions of text.

 

Highlights of WLO

 

Note: If you would like to find an item in WLO (e.g. WCP4766), go to the Search Page and type the item number minus the "WCP" prefix (e.g. 4766), into the "WCP Number" search box.

 

To see the database entry for each highlight listed below, click the WCP number.

 

 

A) Letters

 

There follows a selection of key letters relating to some of Wallace's greatest discoveries: evolution by natural selection; the Wallace Line; and warning colouration.

 

Early life (1823-1848)

 

WCP346: Wallace to Henry Walter Bates, 28 December 1845. Wallace discusses his views of the book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation - the work which convinced him of the reality of evolution and started him on his quest to discover the mechanism which drives it.  For more information about this letter see here.

 

WCP348: Wallace to Bates, 11 October 1847. This letter contains his famous statement "I begin to feel rather dissatisfied with a mere local collection - little is to be learnt by it. I sh[ould]d like to take some one family, to study thoroughly - principally with a view to the theory of the origin of species. By that means I am strongly of [the] opinion that some definite results might be arrived at." This was the prelude to Wallace suggesting to Bates that they go on a expedition to Brazil to collect birds, butterflies and beetles in order to try to discover what drives the evolution of new species. For more information see here.

 

Four year expedition to the Amazon Basin (1848-1852)

 

WCP349: Wallace to Richard Spruce, 19 September 1852. "On Friday the 6th of August...about 9 o’clock in the morning just after breakfast the Captain (who was the owner of the vessel) came into the cabin & said "I am afraid the ship’s on fire. Come & see what you think of it"". After four years in Brazil, Wallace sailed back to England taking with him the most valuable part of the collection of natural history specimens he had made whilst there. Twenty-six days into the voyage, in the mid-Atlantic, the ship caught fire and sank, taking his specimens down with it. Wallace and the crew took to the lifeboats and miraculously, were rescued 10 days later. This letter describes the sinking.

 

Eight year expedition to the Malay Archipelago (1854-1862)

 

WCP1703: Wallace to his agent Samuel Stevens, 21 August 1856. This letter is the first mention of Wallace's famous discovery of what was later named the Wallace Line - the invisible boundary between the animals of Asia and the Australian region. He says "The Birds have however interested me much more than the insects, they are proportionally much more numerous, and throw great light on the laws of Geographical distribution of Animals in the East. The Islands of Baly & Lombock for instance, though of nearly the same size, of the same soil aspect elevation & climate and within sight of each other, yet differ considerably in their productions, and in fact belong to two quite distinct Zoological provinces, of which they form the extreme limits. As an instance I may mention the Cockatoos, a group of birds confined to Australia & the Moluccas, but quite unknown in Java Borneo Sumatra & Malacca. One species however (Plyctolophus sulphureus) is abundant in Lombock but is unknown in Baly, the island of Lombock forming the extreme eastern limit of its range & that of the whole family. Many other species illustrate the same fact & I am preparing a short account of them for publication." For more information see here.

 

WCP1454: Wallace to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 6 October 1858. This is the only letter which survives of those surrounding Wallace's discovery of natural selection and the subsequent publication of the theory with Charles Darwin. The letter illustrates Wallace's good nature and demonstrates that he was more interested in discovering new ideas than reaping personal glory from publishing them. For more information about the events surrounding Darwin and Wallace's joint publication on natural selection see here.

 

Later life in England (1862-1913)

 

WCP609: Charles Darwin to Wallace, 23 February 1867. Darwin and Wallace became good friends. In this letter Darwin writes "On Monday evening I called on Bates & put a difficulty before him, which he could not answer, & as on some former similar occasion, his first suggestion was, "you had better ask Wallace". My difficulty is, why are caterpillars sometimes so beautifully & artistically coloured?" Darwin was puzzled because his theory of sexual selection (where females choose their mates based on how attractive they are) would not apply to caterpillars  since they are immature.

 

Wallace replied the next day (WCP4083) with the suggestion that since some caterpillars "...are protected by a disagreeable taste or odour, it would be a positive advantage to them never to be mistaken for any of the palatable catterpillars, because a slight wound such as would be caused by a peck of a bird’s bill almost always I believe kills a growing catterpillar. Any gaudy & conspicuous colour therefore, that would plainly distinguish them from the brown & green eatable catterpillars, would enable birds to recognise them easily as at a kind not fit for food, & thus they would escape seizure which is as bad as being eaten.

 

Thus the concept of warning or aposematic colouration in animals was born.

 

WCP575: The Secretary of The Royal Society to Wallace, 6 November 1890. Informing Wallace (with unintended irony) that "... the Royal Society have awarded to you the Darwin Medal for your Independent Origination of the Theory of the Origin of Species by Natural Selection."

 

WCP543: The King's Private Secretary to Wallace, 2 November 1908. Informs Wallace that he is to be awarded the Order of Merit by the King "...in recognition of the great services which you have rendered to science." The Order is awarded by the ruling Monarch and is the highest civilian honour of Great Britain. It has been described as "...quite possibly, the most prestigious honour one can receive on planet Earth." There are only 24 living individuals in the Order at any given time, not including honorary appointees.

 

WCP4244: Wallace to the Biology Students at the University of Colorado, 12 January 1912. In this charming letter, Wallace aged 89 tells the students how "The wonders of nature have been the delight and solace of...[his]...life." and how "...nature has afforded...[him]...an ever increasing rapture, and the attempt to solve some of her myriad problems an ever-growing sense of mystery and awe". He ends by saying "I sincerely wish you all some of the delight in the mere contemplation of nature’s mysteries and beauties which I have enjoyed, and still enjoy."

 

B) Other documents

 

WCP4756: Wallace's personal annotated copy of the famous scientific paper he co-authored with Charles Darwin in 1858, in which the theory of evolution by natural selection was proposed for the first time. For more information about this historically important item see here.

 

WCP4766 and WCP4767: Wallace's two scientifically important 'Species Register' notebooks from his trip to the Malay Archipelago, which meticulously detail the species and specimens of insects, birds and other animals he collected on numerous islands he visited.

 

WCP4779 and WCP4806: Two of Wallace's address books, which cover the period from c. 1864 to his death in 1913, i.e. most of his adult life. Contacts listed include Charles Darwin, Rajah James Brooke (ruler of Sarawak) and hundreds of other, many of whom were very famous at the time.

 

The earlier of the address books was used by him between c. 1864 and c. 1872,  both for listing addresses and for recording his investments in shares etc. The investment records occupy one end of the book and the addresses start from the other end. Also in this book are some interesting lists, such as a list of the people which Wallace sent copies of his book The Malay Archipelago to when it was first published, and a list of "Persons to whom Hampden has abused me" (John Hampden was a flat earth believer who persecuted Wallace for very many years).

 

The second address book has been 'opened from both ends' like the first - with address lists running from one end, and notes about garden plants starting at the other end. There are four separate lists of addresses in this book, each of which is arranged from A to Z, and between each and the next address list are various notes and lists, some of which are historically quite important.

 

WCP4791: Wallace's Last Will and Testament.

 

References

 

 

Darwin, F. (Ed.). 1893. Charles Darwin; His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter and in a Selected Series of His Published Letters. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 365 pp.

 

Marchant, J. (Ed.). 1916. Alfred Russel Wallace; Letters and Reminiscences. London & New York: Cassell and Co. 2 vols., 507 pp.