In Search of Wallace – Part 9: Celebes – Macassar

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Last week, after a break of several months, I resumed my efforts to retrace Alfred Russel Wallace’s footsteps in the Malay Archipelago, this time by visiting the area around Makassar in southern Sulawesi. (I’ll use the old spellings of Macassar and Celebes for the purpose of this post.)

Wallace reached Macassar in August 1856 on board the schooner Alma, brimming with optimism. He wrote:

I left Lombock on the 30th of August, and reached Macassar in three days. It was with great satisfaction that I stepped on a shore which I had been vainly trying to reach since February, and where I expected to meet with so much that was new and interesting.

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His first impressions of the town were positive:

Macassar was the first Dutch town I had visited, and I found it prettier and cleaner than any I had yet seen in the East. The Dutch have some admirable local regulations. All European houses must be kept well white-washed, and every person must, at four in the afternoon, water the road in front of his house. The streets are kept clear of refuse, and covered drains carry away all impurities into large open sewers, into which the tide is admitted at high-water and allowed to flow out when it has ebbed, carrying all the sewage with it into the sea.

Today Macassar is a city of around 1.5 million but in Wallace’s time it was a lot smaller:

The town consists chiefly of one long narrow street along the seaside, devoted to business, and principally occupied by the Dutch and Chinese merchants’ offices and warehouses, and the native shops or bazaars. This extends northwards for more than a mile, gradually merging into native houses often of a most miserable description, but made to have a neat appearance by being all built up exactly to the straight line of the street, and being generally backed by fruit trees. Parallel to this street run two short ones which form the old Dutch town, and are enclosed by gates. These consist of private houses, and at their southern end is the fort, the church, and a road at right angles to the beach, containing the houses of the Governor and of the principal officials. Beyond the fort, again along the beach, is another long street of native huts and many country-houses of the tradesmen and merchants.

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The fort, called Fort Rotterdam, still survives and is one of the town’s top tourist attractions. This, together with the church, the adjacent vicarage, and a handful of other colonial-era buildings are all that remain of the old Dutch town.

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There was no hotel in Macassar so Wallace stayed initially at the Dutch club, known as the Sociëteit De Harmonie, located close to the fort. The building still stands, though much altered in appearance, with a sign showing it has been used as an art centre.

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Wallace slept here.

Wallace’s initial optimism soon turned to disappointment and by September he was writing to a friend:

At length I am in Celebes! I have been here about three weeks, and as yet have not done much, except explored the nakedness of the land,–and it is indeed naked,–I have never seen a more uninteresting country than the neighbourhood of Macassar: for miles around there is nothing but flat land, which, for half the year, is covered with water, and the other half is an expanse of baked mud (its present state), with scarcely an apology for vegetation…. Insects, in fact, in all this district there are absolutely none.

Wallace wanted to widen his search:

Before I could move to any more promising district it was necessary to obtain permission from the Rajah of Goa, whose territories approach to within two miles of the town of Macassar. My friend Mr. Mesman kindly lent me a horse, and accompanied me on my visit to the Rajah, with whom he was great friends. We found his Majesty seated out of doors, watching the erection of a new house.

The Gowa Regency was abolished by the Dutch after Wallace’s visit but the area where Wallace and the Rajah may have met (Benteng Somba Opu) has been turned into a museum, with the remains of demolished fortress walls on display together with a number of replica traditional buildings from around Celebes.

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The Raja’s new house might have looked like this one.

Wallace didn’t think much of the local coffee:

Some wine was then brought us, and afterwards some detestable coffee and wretched sweetmeats, for it is a fact that I have never tasted good coffee where people grow it themselves.

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Nowadays the local coffee is quite drinkable. In fact the Gowa Regency has even inspired its own brand.

In the interior of southern Celebes the villagers were unused to seeing foreigners:

Not a single person in the village could speak more than a few words of Malay, and hardly any of the people appeared to have seen a European before. One most disagreeable result of this was that I excited terror alike in man and beast. Wherever I went, dogs barked, children screamed, women ran away, and men stared as though I were some strange and terrible cannibal or monster. …… If I came suddenly upon a well where women were drawing water or children bathing, a sudden flight was the certain result; which things occurring day after day, were very unpleasant to a person who does not like to be disliked, and who had never been accustomed to be treated as an ogre.

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The locals are more much accustomed to seeing foreigners nowadays. Instead of running away they ask to take selfies.

Wallace had much better luck in searching for species at Maros, which he visited during a second trip to Celebes from July – November 1857:

After much inquiry I determined to visit the district of Maros, about thirty miles north of Macassar.   ….    Passing over an elevated tract forming the shoulder of one of the hills, a picturesque scene lay before us. We looked down into a little valley almost entirely surrounded by mountains, rising abruptly in huge precipices, and forming a succession of knolls and peaks aid domes of the most varied and fantastic shapes.

This area is now a national park called Bantimurung.

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Bantimurung National Park. Wallace might have liked this treehouse.

The rare and beautiful Butterflies of Celebes were the chief object of my search, and I found many species altogether new to me, but they were generally so active and shy as to render their capture a matter of great difficulty.

They are not easy to photograph either, as this blurry picture shows. I must invest in a good camera and super-dooper lens one of these days.

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Here is one you missed Mr. Wallace. I’ll name it the Papilio Russel Bantimurung in your honour!

In these rocky forests dwell some of the finest butterflies in the world. Three species of Ornithoptera, measuring seven or eight inches across the wings, and beautifully marked with spots or masses of satiny yellow on a black ground, wheel through the thickets with a strong sailing flight. About the damp places are swarms of the beautiful blue-banded Papilios, miletus and telephus, the superb golden green P. macedon, and the rare little swallow-tail Papilio rhesus, of all of which, though very active, I succeeded in capturing fine series of specimens. I have rarely enjoyed myself more than during my residence here.

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There is a rather tatty butterfly museum inside the national park containing some fine butterfly and moth specimens caught locally and elsewhere in Indonesia. Wallace’s name appears under a number of the specimens for having provided the original descriptions.

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Wallace counted 250 species of butterfly at Bantimurung and dubbed the area the Kingdom of Butterflies. When a local university professor carried out a census in 2005 , only 125 species were identified. Given the number of stalls outside the national park selling butterflies I suppose we should be grateful there are any species left at all.

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Wallace is still remembered at Bantimurung. He even gets a prominent mention on the National Park’s official website.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 8: Bali & Lombok

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Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Arthur Russel Wallace’s eight year odyssey though the Malay Archipelago was his discovery of what came to be known as the Wallace Line, a boundary separating the faunal species of southeast Asia from those of Australia and New Guinea.

Wallace found this demarcation to be most abrupt when he travelled across the 35 kilometre wide Straits of Lombok between the islands of Bali and Lombok.

Although these neighbouring islands share similar terrain and climate Wallace was surprised by the differences in fish, bird and mammal life:

“Neither of these physical differences corresponds with the remarkable change in natural productions which occurs at the Straits of Lombock, separating the island of that name from Bali, and which is at once so large in amount and of so fundamental a character, as to form an important feature in the zoological geography of our globe.

During the few days which I stayed on the north coast of Bali on my way to Lombock, I saw several birds highly characteristic of Javan ornithology. Among these were the yellow-headed weaver (Ploceus hypoxantha), the black grasshopper thrush (Copsychus amoenus), the rosy barbet (Megalaema rosea), the Malay oriole (Oriolus horsfieldi), the Java ground starling (Sturnopastor jalla), and the Javanese three-toed woodpecker (Chrysonotus tiga). On crossing over to Lombock, separated from Bali by a strait less than twenty miles wide, I naturally expected to meet with some of these birds again; but during a stay there of three months I never saw one of them, but found a totally different set of species, most of which were utterly unknown not only in Java, but also in Borneo, Sumatra, and Malacca. For example, among the commonest birds in Lombock were white cockatoos and three species of Meliphagidae or honeysuckers, belonging to family groups which are entirely absent from the western or Indo-Malayan region of the Archipelago.”

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This Google Earth image is taken looking from west to east. Lombok is in the foreground with the spectacular crater lake of Mount Rinjani (3,726m) easily recognisable. Lombok’s main town of Mataram can be seen in the middle left. Beyond the Lombok Strait lies Bali with its volcano, Gunung Agung, on the top right. Bali’s capital Denpasar can be seen next to the search box.

Wallace did not climb Mount Rinjani. You can read about my trip of a few years ago here.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 7: East Java

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Continuing with my In Search Of Wallace series, last week I travelled to Surabaya in Indonesia to try to retrace Alfred Russel Wallace’s footsteps in East Java which he visited in the summer of 1861.

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In italics below are extracts from The Malay Archipelago in which he describes the area.

“The Dutch mail steamer brought me from Ternate to Sourabaya, the chief town and port in the eastern part of Java, and after a fortnight spent in packing up and sending off my last collections, I started on a short journey into the interior. Travelling in Java is very luxurious but very expensive, the only way being to hire or borrow a carriage, and then pay half a crown a mile for post-horses…”

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Mr Yudha, my driver for this trip. Oddly enough, I found travelling here expensive too. I had to rent a car with driver in order to visit all the places mentioned in Wallace’s book. Instead of half a crown, I paid Rupiah 1,155,000 for six hours rental which sounds a lot (USD 88) but is probably cheaper than Wallace’s cost in today’s equivalent value.

“As this kind of travelling world not suit my means, I determined on making only a short journey to the district at the foot of Mount Arjuna, where I was told there were extensive forests, and where I hoped to be able to make some good collections.”

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The extensive forests are mostly no more, replaced with paddy fields, housing and industrial estates. Gunung Arjuna is a dormant volcano (3,339m) connected by a saddle to its active neighbour, Gunung Welirang (3,156m).

“I stopped at Modjokerto, a small town about forty miles south of Sourabaya, and the nearest point on the high road to the district I wished to visit. I had a letter of introduction to Mr. Ball, an Englishman, long resident in Java and married to a Dutch lady; and he kindly invited me to stay with him until I could fix on a place to suit me. A Dutch Assistant Resident as well as a Regent or native Javanese prince lived here. The town was neat, and had a nice open grassy space like a village green, on which stood a magnificent fig-tree (allied to the Banyan of India, but more lofty), under whose shade a kind of market is continually held, and where the inhabitants meet together to lounge and chat.”

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Mojokerto today is still fairly neat though its narrow streets are clogged with cars and motorbikes.This colonial era house could perhaps have been home for the Dutch Assistant Resident, though not the same one that Wallace saw, since the date on the gable is 1912.
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This is probably the open grassy space that Wallace mentioned, now called Alun-Alun Mojokerto. The magnificent fig-tree has gone and is replaced with a monument bearing the text to Indonesia’s declaration of independence.

“The day after my arrival, Mr. Ball drove me over to the village of Modjo-agong. On our way we stayed to look at a fragment of the ruins of the ancient city of Modjo-pahit, consisting of two lofty brick masses, apparently the sides of a gateway.”

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Almost certainly, Wallace was referring to this famous gateway, known as Gapura Wringin Lawang and one of many Majapahit Empire archaeological remains in this area.

“The extreme perfection and beauty of the brickwork astonished me. The bricks are exceedingly fine and hard, with sharp angles and true surfaces. They are laid with great exactness, without visible mortar or cement, yet somehow fastened together so that the joints are hardly perceptible, and sometimes the two surfaces coalesce in a most incomprehensible manner. Such admirable brickwork I have never seen before or since. There was no sculpture here, but an abundance of bold projections and finely-worked mouldings.”

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This close up of a restored section of the gateway is an example of the fine brickwork which Wallace admired so much. Earthquakes and 155 years of exposure to the elements have taken their toll on the structure since Wallace’s day.

“Traces of buildings exist for many miles in every direction, and almost every road and pathway shows a foundation of brickwork beneath it–the paved roads of the old city.”

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Relief map at the museum with white markers showing the locations of Majapahit remains in the vicinity of Trowulan.

“It is much to be regretted that the Dutch Government does not take vigorous steps for the preservation of these ruins from the destroying agency of tropical vegetation; and for the collection of the fine sculptures which are everywhere scattered over the land.”

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There is now a museum (Majapahit Museum, Trowulan) where hundreds of statues, sculptures and other stone works are displayed. The museum was closed for renovation but an accommodating security guard allowed me to view the outdoor exhibits.

“In the house of the Waidono or district chief at Modjo- agong, I saw a beautiful figure carved in high relief out of a block of lava, and which had been found buried in the ground near the village. On my expressing a wish to obtain some such specimen, Mr. B. asked the chief for it, and much to my surprise he immediately gave it me. It represented the Hindu goddess Durga, called in Java, Lora Jonggrang (the exalted virgin).”

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According to The Alfred Russel Wallace Website this carving found its way into the Charterhouse School Museum in Godalming, Surrey, probably donated to the school by Wallace who live nearby. The carving was subsequently auctioned off by Charterhouse and somebody paid £2629 for it at Sotheby’s in 2002. Presumably it is now in private hands somewhere. If you would like your own deity sculpture there are a number of roadside studios close to Wringin Lawang where skilled craftsmen could probably knock you up a copy for a reasonable cost.

“The road to Wonosalem led through a magnificent forest in the depths of which we passed a fine ruin of what appeared to have been a royal tomb or mausoleum. It is formed entirely of stone, and elaborately carved. Near the base is a course of boldly projecting blocks, sculptured in high relief, with a series of scenes which are probably incidents in the life of the defunct. These are all beautifully executed, some of the figures of animals in particular, being easily recognisable and very accurate. The general design, as far as the ruined state of the upper part will permit of its being seen, is very good, effect being given by an immense number and variety of projecting or retreating courses of squared stones in place of mouldings. The size of this structure is about thirty feet square by twenty high, and as the traveller comes suddenly upon it on a small elevation by the roadside, overshadowed by gigantic trees, overrun with plants and creepers, and closely backed by the gloomy forest, he is struck by the solemnity and picturesque beauty of the scene, and is led to ponder on the strange law of progress, which looks so like retrogression, and which in so many distant parts of the world has exterminated or driven out a highly artistic and constructive race, to make room for one which, as far as we can judge, is very far its inferior.”

Here are some other historic sites which I visited in this area which Wallace may also have seen:

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Pendopo Agung (a recent construction but on an ancient sacred site).
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Bajang Ratu Temple.
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Candi Tikus.

“Wonosalem is situated about a thousand feet above the sea, but unfortunately it is at a distance from the forest, and is surrounded by coffee plantations, thickets of bamboo, and coarse grasses. It was too far to walk back daily to the forest, and in other directions I could find no collecting ground for insects. The place was, however, famous for peacocks, and my boy soon shot several of these magnificent birds, whose flesh we found to be tender, white, and delicate, and similar to that of a turkey.”

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“The Java peacock is a different species from that of India, the neck being covered with scale-like green feathers, and the crest of a different form; but the eyed train is equally large and equally beautiful.”

This is a view of modern day Wonosalem. Not likely to find many wild peacocks here these days.

“After a week at Wonosalem, I returned to the foot of the mountain, to a village named Djapannan, which was surrounded by several patches of forest, and seemed altogether pretty well spited to my pursuits. The chief of the village had prepared two small bamboo rooms on one side of his own courtyard to accommodate me, and seemed inclined to assist me as much as he could.”

This is how Japanan looks today. Wallace might well have stayed right here, in the Village Head’s Office, though of course the compound has been modernised since.

“The weather was exceedingly hot and dry, no rain having fallen for several months, and there was, in consequence, a great scarcity of insects, and especially of beetles. I therefore devoted myself chiefly to obtaining a good set of the birds, and succeeded in making a tolerable collection. I also obtained here a specimen of the rare green jungle-fowl (Gallus furcatus), whose back and neck are beautifully scaled with bronzy feathers, and whose smooth-edged oval comb is of a violet purple colour, changing to green at the base. It is also remarkable in possessing a single large wattle beneath its throat, brightly coloured in three patches of red, yellow, and blue.”

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Gallus Furcatus

“The common jungle-cock (Gallus bankiva) was also obtained here. It is almost exactly like a common game-cock, but the voice is different, being much shorter and more abrupt; hence its native name is Bekeko.”

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Gallus Bankiva

Six different kinds of woodpeckers and four kingfishers were found here, the fine hornbill, Buceros lunatus, more than four feet long, and the pretty little lorikeet, Loriculus pusillus, scarcely more than as many inches.

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Javan Rhinoceros Hornbill
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Javan Parakeet

“In a month’s collecting at Wonosalem and Djapannan I accumulated ninety-eight species of birds, but a most miserable lot of insects. I then determined to leave East Java and try the more moist and luxuriant districts at the western extremity of the island. “

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I don’t know if it was there during Wallace’s time, but, if it was, he could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had travelled on further to Malang where there is an extensive bird market selling many beautiful species such as rainbow lorikeets, oriental bay owls, canaries, Indonesian songbirds and this kingfisher.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 6: Peninjau, Borneo

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After spending 9 months at Simunjan (see last post), Alfred Russel Wallace made a shorter exploration of Bukit Peninjau, a small hill (1,646 feet high) some 20 km, as the bird flies, from Kuching town centre. He was initially accompanied by Sir James Brooke, the Rajah of Sarawak, whom he had met in Singapore and who maintained a small cottage on this hill. ‘Rajah’ was a grand job title, but Brooke had only been granted the role by the Sultan of Brunei some 14 years earlier and Sarawak was still in its rudimentary stage of development. As such, think of the cottage as more of a wooden shack than a palace. Wallace stayed at the cottage from 13–20 December 1855 and between 31 December 1855 and 19 January 1856.

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White Rajahs of Sarawak. James Brooke is the one of the left. He ruled from 1841 until his death in 1868. Two of his successors and descendants were Charles Johnson Brooke (1868 – 1917), right, and Charles Vyner Brooke (1917-1946), centre.

Wallace described the hill as follows:

“On reaching Sarawak early in December, I found there would not be an opportunity of returning to Singapore until the latter end of January. I therefore accepted Sir James Brooke’s invitation to spend a week with him and Mr. St. John at his cottage on Peninjauh. This is a very steep pyramidal mountain of crystalline basaltic rock, about a thousand feet high, and covered with luxuriant forest. There are three Dyak villages upon it, and on a little platform near the summit is the rude wooden lodge where the English Rajah was accustomed to go for relaxation and cool fresh air.”

Wallace would have approached the hill by river, disembarking at the jetty where the village of Siniawan now stands.

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The quaint village of Siniawan, with its single street of old wooden shophouses, holds a night market every weekend drawing tourists and locals from nearby Kuching. The wooden houses look old enough to have been around in Wallace’s time but are apparently only 60 or so years old.

Wallace continues:

“It is only twenty miles up the river, but the road up the mountain is a succession of ladders on the face of precipices, bamboo bridges over gullies and chasms, and slippery paths over rocks and tree-trunks and huge boulders as big as houses. A cool spring under an overhanging rock just below the cottage furnished us with refreshing baths and delicious drinking water, and the Dyaks brought us daily heaped-up baskets of Mangosteens and Lansats, two of the most delicious of the subacid tropical fruits.”

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Langsats are tasty fruit but will make your hands very sticky as I found out once while eating them in a cinema in Hong Kong.

Local government officials announced a few years back an intention to promote Bukit Peninjau  (also known as Bung Muan and Gunung Serumbu) as a tourist destination and at least the place is signposted.

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Sign pointing the way to Bukit Peninjau, the hill in the background, which is considered sacred to the Bidayuh community.

My trip to the hill was unfortunately a bit of a wash-out.

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The sky looked fairly bright as I approached the foot of the hill.

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But as soon as I parked my rental car the heavens opened and the hill disappeared behind the clouds.

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I took shelter under the eaves of the Tourist Information Centre. Here you are supposed to be able to hire a local guide for RM50 to take you up the Wallace Trail but the place was locked and there was nobody around. Visitors are advised not to go alone but having no other choice, I dropped my contribution into the donations box and set off up the hill once the rain had eased off somewhat.

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There is a map with estimated climb times. According to their estimates it should take nearly 4 hours to reach the peak.

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There were quite a lot of arrows pointing the way which was reassuring but the path itself was overgrown with dense foliage which I dislike (I would make a very poor Wallace being scared of snakes, spiders and other creepy crawlies!).

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Bamboo Bridge. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago.

Wallace was impressed with the versatile qualities of bamboo and the ingenious ways in which the local tribesmen put it to good use. In this chapter of The Malay Archipelago he wrote about bamboo bridges and I was pleased to see this example of one at Bukit Peninjau.

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The wooden hut here is similar to ones I have seen in Peninsular Malaysia used as watch houses to guard over valuable durian trees during the ripening season. It might perform the same purpose here.

He was also fascinated by ladders made by driving bamboo pegs into a tree trunk:

“I was exceedingly struck by the ingenuity of this mode of climbing, and the admirable manner in which the peculiar properties of the bamboo were made available. The ladder itself was perfectly safe, since if any one peg were loose or faulty, and gave way, the strain would be thrown on several others above and below it. I now understood the use of the line of bamboo pegs sticking in trees, which I had often seen, and wondered for what purpose they could have been put there.”

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I was amazed to see a similar ladder in almost the same location 160 years after Wallace’s time, the only difference being that they now use blue plastic twine to secure the pegs instead of strips of wood bark.

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By the time I reached Batu Tikopog, a rock with an unusually smooth cleft, the rain started to intensify with thunder and lightning in the air. I decided to abandon my trek to the peak since visibility would have been zero. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to see the site of Brooke’s cottage either. Nothing remains of the cottage now except an indistinct clearing in the jungle. Plans to rebuild the cottage were announced a few years ago but nothing yet seems to have happened. Perhaps I’ll revisit one day once the cottage has been rebuilt.

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My faithful Malay boy Ali. Source: Wallace Autobiography 1905 Vol.1

After Christmas in Kuching, Wallace returned to Bukit Peninjau, this time accompanied by his English assistant and a Malay servant.

“A few days afterwards I returned to the mountain with Charles and a Malay boy named Ali and stayed there three weeks for the purpose of making a collection of land-shells, butterflies and moths, ferns and orchids. On the hill itself ferns were tolerably plentiful, and I made a collection of about forty species. But what occupied me most was the great abundance of moths which on certain occasions I was able to capture. …during the whole of my eight years’ wanderings in the East I never found another spot where these insects were at all plentiful,…It thus appears that on twenty-six nights I collected 1,386 moths.”

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The hill is still teeming with insects. Most of Wallace’s moth collecting took place at night but even during the daytime this place has some of the noisiest bugs I’ve ever heard as this ten-second video attempts to show.

“When I returned to Singapore I took with me the Malay lad named Ali, who subsequently accompanied me all over the Archipelago. Charles Allen preferred staying at the Mission-house, and afterwards obtained employment in Sarawak and in Singapore, until he again joined me four years later at Amboyna in the Moluccas.”

Writing in his autobiography many years later, Wallace wrote about Ali:

When I was at Sarawak in 1855 I engaged a Malay boy named Ali as a personal servant, and also to help me to learn the Malay language by the necessity of constant communication with him. He was attentive and clean, and could cook very well. He soon learnt to shoot birds, to skin them properly, and latterly even to put up the skins very neatly. Of course he was a good boatman, as are all Malays, and in all the difficulties or dangers of our journeys he was quite undisturbed and ready to do anything required of him. He accompanied me through all my travels, sometimes alone, but more frequently with several others, and was then very useful in teaching them their duties, as he soon became well acquainted with my wants and habits.

He was less glowing about Charles Martin Allen who was just a teenager when Wallace took him to South East Asia as his collecting assistant. In his letters , Wallace complained about Allen’s carelessness and inability to learn.

Of all the Wallace trails I have visited so far this one is perhaps the most interesting and is fairly easy to access from Kuching. Pity about the weather though! Try to go on a dry day and see if you can get hold of a guide.

A map showing the location of Bukit Peninjau appears on my previous post about Wallace.

To read about another trip up Bukit Serumbu in Wallace’s footsteps, this one in 1912, see here.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 5: Simunjan, Borneo

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Alfred Russel Wallace spent 15 months in Borneo from November 1854 to January 1856. After exploring in the vicinity of Sarawak town (Kuching) he made a journey into ‘a part of the interior seldom visited by Europeans’.

This is how he described the area in The Malay Archipelago:

“In March 1865 I determined to go to the coalworks which were being opened near the Simunjon River, a small branch of the Sadong, a river east of Sarawak and between it and the Batang- Lupar. The Simunjon enters the Sadong River about twenty miles up. It is very narrow and very winding, and much overshadowed by the lofty forest, which sometimes almost meets over it. The whole country between it and the sea is a perfectly level forest-covered swamp, out of which rise a few isolated hills, at the foot of one of which the works are situated. On the slope of the hill near its foot a patch of forest had been cleared away, and several rule houses erected, in which were residing Mr. Coulson the engineer, and a number of Chinese workmen. I was at first kindly accommodated in Mr. Coulson’s house, but finding the spot very suitable for me and offering great facilities for collecting, I had a small house of two rooms and a verandah built for myself. Here I remained nearly nine months, and made an immense collection of insects.”

Click on the expand map symbol in the top right corner to view a larger map.

I thought I would have little chance of tracing this location based on such a scanty description but I found on the map the small town of Simunjan where the Simunjan River meets the Sadong River. A couple of miles from the town is the only hill for miles around which is today known as Gunung Ngeli (though it is more of a Bukit than a Gunung given its modest height).

Further internet searches revealed that this hill was once a coal mining area and this was indeed the place where Wallace spent nine months in 1865.

It is a 170km drive (each way) from Kuching and it took me about 3 hours to get there in my Perodua hire car. But the trip was worth it as Gunung Ngeli was, a few years back, converted into a recreational park with a trail and steps all the way to the top, so I was able to have a good look around.

I made this short video to show how Gunung Ngeli looks today.

Wallace stayed such a long time here because it was so rich in insect life. He adopted the practice of paying locals one cent for each insect brought to him and this yielded great results:

“I obtained from the Dyaks and the Chinamen many fine locusts and Phasmidae (stick insects) as well as numbers of handsome beetles.”

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Stick Insects On Display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

“When I arrived at the mines, on the 14th of March, I had collected in the four preceding months, 320 different kinds of beetles. In less than a fortnight I had doubled this number, an average of about 24 new species every day. On one day I collected 76 different kinds, of which 34 were new to me. By the end of April I had more than a thousand species, and they then went on increasing at a slower rate, so that I obtained altogether in Borneo about two thousand distinct kinds, of which all but about a hundred were collected at this place, and on scarcely more than a square mile of ground. The most numerous and most interesting groups of beetles were the Longicorns and Rhynchophora, both pre- eminently wood-feeders.”

REMARKABLE BEETLES FOUND AT SIMUNJON, BORNEO
Remarkable Beetles Found At Simunjon, Borneo. Image from The Malay Archipelago.
Coleoptera
Beetles in Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

“My collection of butterflies was not large; but I obtained some rare and very handsome insects, the most remarkable being the Ornithoptera Brookeana, one of the most elegant species known. This beautiful creature has very long and pointed wings, almost resembling a sphinx moth in shape. It is deep velvety black, with a curved band of spots of a brilliant metallic-green colour extending across the wings from tip to tip, each spot being shaped exactly like a small triangular feather, and having very much the effect of a row of the wing coverts of the Mexican trogon, laid upon black velvet. The only other marks are a broad neck-collar of vivid crimson, and a few delicate white touches on the outer margins of the hind wings. This species, which was then quite new and which I named after Sir James Brooke, was very rare. It was seen occasionally flying swiftly in the clearings, and now and then settling for an instant at puddles and muddy places, so that I only succeeded in capturing two or three specimens.”

Brookeana

It was while Wallace was at Gunung Ngeli that he hunted and killed more than a dozen orang-utans, which nowadays would be a despicable thing to do but in his era would have been the only way to study the species in detail and besides, he financed his trip by selling skins and specimens to museums and collectors.

FEMALE ORANG-UTAN copy
FEMALE ORANG-UTAN The Malay Archipelago

He describes these encounters in considerable detail. Here is one such excerpt:

“On the 12th of May I found another, which behaved in a very similar manner, howling and hooting with rage, and throwing down branches. I shot at it five times, and it remained dead on the top of the tree, supported in a fork in such a manner that it would evidently not fall. I therefore returned home, and luckily found some Dyaks, who came back with me, and climbed up the tree for the animal. This was the first full-grown specimen I had obtained; but it was a female, and not nearly so large or remarkable as the full-grown males. It was, however, 3 ft. 6 in. high, and its arms stretched out to a width of 6 ft. 6 in. I preserved the skin of this specimen in a cask of arrack, and prepared a perfect skeleton, which was afterwards purchased for the Derby Museum.”

I enquired with Derby Museum to see whether they still held any of Wallace’s specimens as I though it would be interesting to visit next time I am in UK. This  was their response:

“Derby Museums do not hold any orang-utan specimens collected by Alfred Russel Wallace. This is despite his book, ‘The Malay Archipelago’ (1869), clearly referring to material being killed and collected for Derby Museum. We now know these specimens are in the World Museum Liverpool which was then known as the Derby Museum, named after the main donor, the 13th Earl of Derby (resident of the nearby Knowsley Hall), whose bequeathed natural history collection formed the basis of their collections.”

Orangutan
Once stuffed and mounted at the museum, Wallace’s orang-utan skins might have looked something like this sorry specimen on display at Putrajaya National History Museum.

After my climb up and down Gunung Ngeli, which took about 90 minutes, I drove on to the small town of Simunjan. which was probably non-existent or just getting established in Wallace’s time. No old buildings survive as the town is situated on a bend in the river and is prone to erosion. The earliest structures were washed away and the present town of around 60 shophouses dates mainly from the 1960s.

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Simunjan Town Centre, May 2016

There are various theories as to how Simunjan got its name. The most plausible, and the one which Wallace might have found interesting, is that it was named after a bird called the Munjan as shown on this billboard.

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There was not a lot to see in the town but I had a light lunch and was warmly greeted by the friendly inhabitants.

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School kids playing in a beached boat at Simunjan.

Next Instalment: Bukit Peninjau

In Search Of Wallace – Part 4: Palembang, Sumatra

In-Search-Of-Wallace-Palembang

Alfred Russel Wallace visited Sumatra only once and stayed a relatively short time, from November 1861 to January 1862, which is perhaps surprising given that the island is massive (more than double the area of Great Britain) with, at that time, vast swathes of barely explored rain forest.

Wallace's Route from Batavia to Palembang

This is how he described his journey to Palembang:

“The mail steamer from Batavia to Singapore took me to Muntok (or as on English maps, “Minto”), the chief town and port of Banca. Here I stayed a day or two, until I could obtain a boat to take me across the straits, and all the river to Palembang.”

The tin mining island of Bangka was for a time annexed by the British and it was Stamford Raffles, in a blatant act of sycophancy, who renamed Muntok after his East India Company boss Lord Minto, Governor General of India. When the Dutch resumed control of Bangka the name Minto was quietly dropped.

On his voyage, Wallace would have passed by the island of Billiton (now Belitung), another former tin mining centre whose name lives on in the giant mining company BHP Billiton.

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The Musi River at Palembang.

“A good-sized open sailing-boat took me across to the mouth of the Palembang river where, at a fishing village, a rowing-boat was hired to take me up to Palembang–a distance of nearly a hundred miles by water.”

That’s a long way in a rowing boat!

palembang-map-1885
Map of Palembang in 1885.

“The city is a large one, extending for three or four miles along a fine curve of the river, which is as wide as the Thames at Greenwich. The stream is, however, much narrowed by the houses which project into it upon piles.”

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Palembang is a much bigger city now with an area of 142 square miles and a population of over 1.7 million. The Musi River is still the life blood of the city and its banks are lined with houses, mosques and shops on stilts.

“Palembang is built on a patch of elevated ground, a few miles in extent, on the north bank of the river. At a spot about three miles from the town this turns into a little hill, the top of which is held sacred by the natives, shaded by some fine trees,and inhabited by a colony of squirrels which have become half-tame.”

Bukit-Siguntang
Wallace may have been referring to Bukit Siguntang, an archaeological site and the highest point in the city (just 37 metres above sea level). Didn’t see any squirrels though.

Wallace found little to collect in the vicinity of Palembang and went further inland for 50 miles or more to the south west on the road towards Bencoolen. He spent time near the villages of Lorok, Moera-dua (Muara Dua), Lobo Raman (Lubuk Raman) in search of specimens.

I decided not to try to replicate Wallace’s journey to these villages since I thought it would be irksome for little reward. Instead I flew on to Bencoolen (Bengkulu) which I’ll write about in a later blog.  However you can read the account of someone who did make the journey to Lobo Raman in 2012 here:

http://wallacefund.info/visit-wallace-s-sumatran-collection-site-lobo-raman-june-2012

While staying in the interior Wallace found time to write a letter to Charles Darwin expressing his frustration with the poor collecting conditions:

Sumatra, 100 miles E. of Bencoolen

Here I have had to come 100 miles inland (by Palembang) and even here in the very centre of E. Sumatra the forest is only in patches and it is the height of the rains so I get nothing – a longicorn is a rarity and I suppose I shall not get as many species in 2 months as I have in 4 days in a good place. I am however getting some sweet little Lycaenidae (gossamer winged butterflies) which is the only thing that keeps my spirits up.

long- tailed parroquet
Long Tailed Parroquet. Source: Gould, John, 1804-1881

While in Lorok he obtained a parroquet:

“The only bird new to me which I obtained at Lorok was the fine long- tailed parroquet (Palaeornis longicauda)”

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These dried mounted Papilio Memnon butterflies at Putrajaya Natural History Museum appear to have lost their ashy blue markings.

“During a month’s collecting, I added only three or four new species to my list of birds.In butterflies I was rather more successful, obtaining several fine species quite new to me, and a considerable number of very rare and beautiful insects. The first is the handsome Papilio memnon, a splendid butterfly of a deep black colour, dotted over with lines and groups of scales of a clear ashy blue.”

Leaf Butterfly
Leaf Butterfly Kallima Paralekta. Photo: D. Gordon E Robertson

He was amazed by the leaf butterfly:

“In its position of repose it so closely resembled a dead leaf attached to a twig as almost certainly to deceive the eye even when gazing full upon it. I captured several specimens on the wing, and was able fully to understand the way in which this wonderful resemblance is produced.”

CHIEF'S HOUSE AND RICE SHED IN A SUMATRAN VILLAGE
CHIEF’S HOUSE AND RICE SHED IN A SUMATRAN VILLAGE. Illustration from The Malay Archipelago

Wallace described the decorative Sumatran village houses.

“The houses are raised about six feet on posts, the best being entirely built of planks, others of bamboo. The former are always more or less ornamented with carving and have high-pitched roofs and overhanging eaves. The gable ends and all the chief posts and beams are sometimes covered with exceedingly tasteful carved work, and this is still more the case in the district of Menangkabo, further west.”

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Minangkabau Style architecture at Bukit Tinggi, West Sumatra

I didn’t see any of this type of building in Palembang but here is one I photographed in Bukit Tinggi near Padang in 2013.

“In all these Sumatran villages I found considerable difficulty in getting anything to eat…. fruit was reduced to one of the poorest kinds of banana. The natives (during the wet season at least) live exclusively on rice. A pot of rice cooked very dry and eaten with salt and red peppers, twice a day, forms their entire food during a large part of the year.”

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Happily things have improved and there is a wide variety of fruits on sale nowadays, at least in Palembang. And there’s always Pizza Hut.
The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood's Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).
The Siamang. Engraving from J G Wood’s Illustrated Natural History (c 1850).

“A very curious ape, the Siamang, was also rather abundant. I purchased a small one, which had been caught by the natives and tied up so tightly as to hurt it. It was rather savage at first, and tried to bite; but when we had released it and given it two poles under the verandah to hang upon, securing it by a short cord, running along the pole with a ring so that it could move easily, it became more contented, and would swing itself about with great rapidity. It ate almost any kind of fruit and rice, and I was in hopes to have brought it to England, but it died just before I started. It took a dislike to me at first, which I tried to get over by feeding it constantly myself. One day, however, it bit me so sharply while giving it food, that I lost patience and gave it rather a severe beating, which I regretted afterwards, as from that time it disliked me more than ever.”

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In recent years here have been sightings of Siamangs on sale at Palembang’s main market Pasar 16 (sold illegally for meat/brains) but thankfully I did not see any.

“Another curious animal, which I had met with in Singapore and in Borneo, but which was more abundant here, is the Galeopithecus, or flying lemur. This creature has a broad membrane extending all around its body to the extremities of the toes, and to the point of the rather long tail. This enables it to pass obliquely through the air from one tree to another.”

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This stuffed Flying Lemur specimen is on display at Putrajaya Natural History Museum.

I would have to conclude that Palembang is not the best place to go in search of Wallace. There is little sense of him in this built-up city with few green spaces but there are a few tourist attractions in Palembang and I will write about these in my next post.

In Search Of Wallace – Part 3: Singapore

In-Search-Of-Wallace-Singapore

Singapore was Wallace’s first point of call on his Malay Archipelago odyssey and he returned there a number of times during the following eight years. Singapore was then, as now, a convenient base for travels within the region.

His short chapter on Singapore provides a colourful summary of the hustle and bustle of the bazaar and the waterfront and a description of the different races and their occupations. His various letters written upon arrival in Singapore give more details of his early days there:

“I landed at Singapore on the 20th of April [1854], after a 46 days’ passage from England without any incident out of the common.”

paddle Steamer Euxine
Paddle Steamer Euxine

He travelled as far as Alexandria on the P&O paddle steamer Euxine. From Suez he took the Bengal as far as Ceylon before transferring to a smaller paddle steamer, the Pottinger . He would have been relieved that the trip was without incident. On his previous ocean voyage returning from the Amazon in 1852 his ship caught fire and sank and he spent ten days in a lifeboat before being rescued.

“For a week I was obliged to remain in the town at an hotel, not finding it easy to obtain any residence or lodging in the country.”

HotelDeLEurope
Wallace probably stayed in this hotel. In a letter to his mother he complained that it was too expensive. Nothing has changed – Singapore hotels are still pricey.

It is thought that he stayed at the London Hotel, overlooking the Padang. Formerly the private residence of Edward Boustead, the London Hotel was renamed Hotel de l’Esperance and again in 1865 as Hotel de L’Europe. It was demolished in 1900 and a new Grand Hotel de l’Europe took its place.

Singapore-Heritage
L-R    St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Armenian Church, Caldwell House.

Few of the buildings that were around in Wallace’s time survive today but St. Andrew’s Cathedral (1861), the Armenian Church (1835) and Caldwell House (1841) are three Singapore landmarks that he might recognise.

“During this time I examined the suburbs, and soon came to the conclusion that it was impossible to do anything there in the way of insects, for the virgin forests have been entirely cleared away for four or five miles round (scarcely a tree being left).”

Singapore 1856
Singapore from Mount Wallich at Sunrise (1856) by Percy Carpenter

Only a few decades had passed since the founding of Singapore by Raffles but already Wallace could foresee that this was a city destined for rapid expansion.

“It is apparent that but few years can elapse before the whole island will be denuded of its indigenous vegetation, when its climate will no doubt be materially altered (probably for the worse), and countless tribes of interesting insects become extinct.”

Wasting no time, Wallace proceeded to Bukit Timah in the interior of the island to hunt for his specimens.

“In the interior of the island the Chinese cut down forest trees in the jungle, and saw them up into planks; they cultivate vegetables, which they bring to market; and they grow pepper and gambir, which form important articles of export. French Jesuits have established missions among these inland Chinese, which seem very successful. I lived for several weeks at a time with the missionary at Bukit-tima, about the centre of the island.”

StJosephsChurchBukitTimah
This is St Joseph’s as it looks today. This area is quite built up these days and the only trees nearby are those in the cemetery behind the church.

I visited the area last week. The mission house where he stayed is now known as St Joseph’s Church.

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This could be the actual mission house where Wallace stayed for six weeks.

In the entrance of St Joseph’s I found this old photo with the caption ‘St. Joseph Church during the 1800s.’

MauduitHeadstone
Headstone of Rev. Anatolius Mauduit.

Wallace’s host and friend at the mission house was the French parish priest Rev. Fr. Anatolius Mauduit and Wallace spoke highly of him in The Malay Archipelago. Mauduit’s tombstone used to be embedded in the aisle of the old St. Joseph’s church but, since the church’s demolition, it is now propped up rather indecorously on an embankment in the cemetery.

Longicorns (Cerambycidae)
Cerambycidae

“The mission-house at Bukit-tima was surrounded by several of these wood-topped hills, which were much frequented by woodcutters and sawyers, and offered me an excellent collecting ground for insects. In about two months I obtained no less than 700 species of beetles, a large proportion of which were quite new, and among them were 130 distinct kinds of the elegant Longicorns (Cerambycidae), so much esteemed by collectors. Almost all these were collected in one patch of jungle, not more than a square mile in extent, and in all my subsequent travels in the East I rarely if ever met with so productive a spot.”

Durian
Wallace described the taste of durian as ‘a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds’. Others have been less complimentary.

Singapore National Parks Board set up the Wallace Education Centre and a short 1km Wallace Trail in 2009 within the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, one of Singapore’s last remaining green spaces. A signboard on the trail tells how Wallace was fond of durians. This is something I have in common with the great man.

“The more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop.” – letter from Wallace to Sir William Jackson Hookay. 

WhoWasWallace

The Wallace Education Centre, which occupies a former dairy farm building, contains information about Wallace, including this photo of him taken in Singapore in 1862, just as he was about to return to UK for good. It was the only known photo of him during his whole Malay Archipelago trip. He looks remarkably well considering his eight years of privations and frequent bouts of fever.

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What would Wallace think of modern Singapore’s man-made super-trees and giant glass conservatories at the Gardens by the Bay complex?

How has Bukit Timah Nature Reserve changed since Wallace’s day? Well there are no tigers anymore, something which Wallace was most concerned about during his hours in the forest. Insect life too would have changed, since the logging and sawmill activity, which was such a good source of insects, is no more. But there are still reckoned to be 10,000 species of beetle here, more than enough to keep him busy for a few days.

Next Instalment: Palembang, Sumatra (in April).