Letters from the Malay Archipelago

Alfred Russel Wallace

Oxford University Press 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014 http://dannyreviews.com/
Letters from the Malay Archipelago brings together the eighty odd surviving letters written by and to Wallace during the eight years he spent collecting natural history specimens in island Southeast Asia, from 1854 to 1862. Van Wyhe and Rookmaaker have gone to some trouble to make the collection accessible to a broad audience, setting the letters within a narrative outline of Wallace's travels.

The result is still somewhat scattered, however. Only a small fraction of the letters to and from Wallace have survived, so sometimes we have just part of a longer exchange. And with a hugely diverse range of correspondents the letters span some very different domains.

Wallace's correspondence with his mother, brother, sister, and brother-in-law is largely concerned with domestic matters: where his mother should live, the fate of some bacon shipped from home — still edible after eight months in transit!? — his brother-in-law's photography business, and so forth. These letters offer some vignettes of Victorian life.

There are letters to and from Charles Darwin, addressing evolutionary theory and Wallace's response to the Linnean Society presentation and then to The Origin of Species. These will be the letters of most interest to the historian of science, though they are also available elsewhere. Another high profile correspondent was James Brooke, rajah of Sarawak.

Wallace made a living collecting, and there are many letters to Samuel Stevens, his agent, and to and from fellow collectors. These shed a fascinating light on the financial and practical aspects of the collecting business. There are letters to Henry Walter Bates and others which go into entomological and ornithological details probably of interest only to specialists, but which also reveal Wallace's thinking on biogeography, on the regional distribution of species. And on his way back to England Wallace brought with him two live birds of paradise, which are the subject of the last few letters.

Footnotes provide identifications of the people, books, and so forth mentioned in the letters. One major omission is a map: my knowledge of Indonesian geography is quite decent, but not up to visualising the route from Macassar to the Aru islands, or just where Waigeo is in relation to Ternate.

The biggest problem remains the sheer diversity of the material covered: entomology, evolutionary theory, Victorian social history, travel observations, ... I enjoyed this variety myself, but I think most people will be better off starting with Wallace's The Malay Archipelago and then coming to Letters from the Malay Archipelago for some glimpses behind the scenes. And historians of science will probably want to start with Wallace's other writings, or perhaps at Wallace Letters Online.

January 2014

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Related reviews:
- Alfred Russel Wallace - Infinite Tropics: An Alfred Russel Wallace Anthology
- books about Southeast Asia + Southeast Asian history
- more diaries + autobiography
- books about travel
- books published by Oxford University Press
%T Letters from the Malay Archipelago
%A Wallace, Alfred Russel
%E van Wyhe, John
%E Rookmaaker, Kees
%I Oxford University Press
%D 2013
%O hardcover, colour plates, index
%G ISBN-13 9780199683994
%P 319pp