By Tony Whitten, Regional Director, Asia-Pacific, Fauna & Flora International
Included in the Waigeo chapter of The Malay Archipelago is an engraving of a hut Wallace lived in whilst staying at Bessir (now Yenbesir) village while he was focusing on collecting the Red Bird of Paradise. During the first ‘In the Wake of Wallace’ cruise in January 2012, I paid a visit to this village to present a copy of the Indonesian-language edition of Wallace's book – Kepulauan Nusantara - to the Head of the village. I started to think how it might be possible to reconstruct the hut and during the following year I worked with the cruise owners and Rosita ‘Mona’ Tariola of Conservation International who occasionally visited the village in the context of a marine conservation programme.
We ensured that the reconstruction was as faithful as possible to the measurements in Wallace’s text and to the illustration, and by Christmas 2012 it was ready. On the following cruise shortly after this I took the first group of visitors to see it. The exact location of the original hut is in doubt, but we are told that the grandfather of the man on whose land the hut was built used to say that a European lived in the spot where the new hut stands.
Luckily we had someone (a former President of the Law Society) with us who is the same height as Wallace (6’ 1”) so we had the perfect means of imagining Wallace in and under his hut. The shape is slightly different from the illustration, but I checked the measurements and they are fine. The bindings, etc. are all done without nails and the walls are made from the leaf bases of palms as was traditionally done. The men who built it are quite proud that they now have an example of a house from former times. It is near the path to a Red Bird of Paradise viewing site so that tour groups can take in both during their visits and the owner may even let people stay in it for a consideration.
The photos show the hut and the builders. I have also included a view of Yenbesir, and also of Fruin, the village where Wallace stayed with the Chief before going across to Yenbesir.
This is Wallace's description of the hut:
"It was quite a dwarf's house, just eight feet square, raised on posts so that the floor was four and a half feet above the ground, and the highest part of the ridge only five feet above the flour. As I am six feet and an inch in my stockings, I looked at this with some dismay; but finding that the other houses were much further from water, were dreadfully dirty, and were crowded with people, I at once accepted the little one, and determined to make the best of it. At first I thought of taking out the floor, which would leave it high enough to walk in and out without stooping; but then there would not be room enough, so I left it just as it was, had it thoroughly cleaned out, and brought up my baggage.
The upper story I used for sleeping in, and for a store-room. In the lower part (which was quite open all round) I fixed up a small table, arranged my boxes, put up hanging-shelves, laid a mat on the ground with my wicker-chair upon it, hung up another mat on the windward side, and then found that, by bending double and carefully creeping in, I could sit on my chair with my head just clear of the ceiling. Here I lived pretty comfortably for six weeks, taking all my meals and doing all my work at my little table, to and from which I had to creep in a semi-horizontal position a dozen times a day; and, after a few severe knocks on the head by suddenly rising from my chair, learnt to accommodate myself to circumstances. We put up a little sloping cooking-but outside, and a bench on which my lads could skin their birds. At night I went up to my little loft, they spread their mats on the, floor below, and we none of us grumbled at our lodgings."