Saturday, April 19, 2008

Why Sumatra?

A few years ago my New York friend Naomi introduced me to the delights of diving in Indonesia. On my first trip - to Raja Empat, yes I started at the top - we watched a fascinating video about a group of young men who followed in the footsteps of an explorer who had travelled Indonesia in the mid 1800s. The video was from the 1970s, and the conditions those young men endured were pretty primitive indeed. It appeared little had changed in the intervening 120 years.

The explorer was a British naturalist called Alfred Russell Wallace, who had travelled throughout the region for 8 years, travelling by boat and land from Singapore right through to Papua. By his own account he travelled 14,000 miles making 60-70 separate journeys. He observed both the people and the flora and fauna, describing both the massive biodiversity and the distinct differences between the islands in relation to the spread and distribution of certain mammals, birds and insects. He concluded that certain parts of Indonesia had been connected to Asia, and others to Australia, that some islands had been cutoff for longer than others, such that animals had evolved differently, and explained why some were only found on certain islands but not on others.

So what? you say, what's new? Well this was the mid 1800s, when a certain English naturalist called Charles Darwin had not yet published his great book "The Origin of Species". Some believe that Darwin may have borrowed some of Wallace's insights to inform his own research, as the two were indeed in correspondence with each other. I imagine the two sitting around at the Royal Geographical Society chewing the cud and discussing their findings over dinner and a glass of port, tossing theories around like two great colleagues of science. Wallace dedicates his book "The Malay Archipelago" to Darwin "not only as a token of personal esteem and friendship but also to express my deep admiration for his Genius and his Works". I do hope Darwin returned the favour!!

I'd never heard of Wallace, which I think is a real shame as I really do believe he deserves equal billing with Darwin. Naomi gave me his book to read, which is a rather dry scientific tome taking some perseverence to conquer. He was quite a man. Off he went into the jungles, with a smattering of knowledge of the local Malay language, employed local people to collect specimens, and wrote some pretty derogatory comments about quite alot of them. He did, of course, kill alot of animals, from orangutans through to birds of paradise, thousands of bugs and butterflies etc etc. My modern sensibilities railed at his innate racism and killing sprees, but over the course of the book you get to follow a journey with this fascinating man, where he questions the west's take on society and wonders whether the life of the simple Malay or Papuan villager is in fact the more sensible one. Next time I visit England, I intend to search out his collections which he donated to the British Museum.

Wallace only went to Eastern Sumatra, in the region of Palembang, where he saw many beautiful butterflies and Hornbill birds as well as rhinoceros and flying lemur. He missed seeing orangutan, because he didn't travel to the northwest "a part of the island entirely in the hands of native rulers". He got his fair share of them in Borneo though!!

What inspires me most about Wallace is his curiosity and eventual compassion, both for the natural surroundings and for the cultures he encountered. Not only did he document the flora and fauna, but he also documented words in 59 different languages throughout the archipelago, with the acute understanding that with increased trade with the west, language and culture would be lost. A man ahead of his time, I salute you Mr Wallace.

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