Alfred Russel Wallace was an amazing character: naturalist, scientist, passionate traveller, and luckily for us, writer. His extensive travels in Southeast Asia -- 60 separate journeys (before planes!) -- led him to devising the theory of evolution. He did so either before or at the least contemporaneously with Darwin, to whom he had written with his original ideas. (Wallace always deferred to his more well-regarded peer — and was a pall-bearer at his funeral).
Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago, written over 1845-1846, falls into the category of old books you might assume are fusty and dull but are actually highly readable and fascinating, jam-packed with obscure facts and entertaining anecdotes. Wallace’s love of the region shines through irrepressibly as he chronicles his travels and collections of specimens across what is today’s Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Wallace was an unusual Western traveller for his time, travelling light rather than with an entourage of helpers and accoutrements. He was “a great traveller and nowadays would more likely be seen at a hostel or homestay than in a hotel”, according to an introduction of one edition. And while much of what Wallace writes has disappeared — you won’t stumble over any rhinos these days — much is still there. Read it as an alternative travel guide, and seek out some of what he saw. They don’t make travel memoirs like they used to, either.
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