Wednesday, December 1

Alfred Russel Wallace as a geographer


Map shows the Wallace Line.

THE old saying, ‘History is about chaps and geography is about maps’, is hardly true,

for when Wallace landed in Borneo in his quest to explore the natural history of the Malay Archipelago, there was hardly an accurate map of Borneo to be found anywhere in the world.

My first interest in Geography stemmed from my inheritance of my grandmother’s geography school textbooks that she used in the 1890s as a primary school teacher. These books, now 155 years old, saw Geography merely as a list of places with estimated populations and a lengthy but boring catalogue of the commodities that each country produced. Little was written about the landscapes, climate, vegetation and peoples of each country.

Wallace’s revelations

On June 8, 1863, Wallace presented his paper entitled ‘On the Physical Geography of the Malay Archipelago’ to a learned audience at the Royal Geographical Society in London. Remember that, by then, Wallace had already explored the Amazon Basin and later Sarawak and Indonesia, no doubt utilising the knowledge of landscapes from his earlier days as a land and estates surveyor. This was the year after he returned to England from his Malay Archipelago exploratory adventures and six years before his famous book was published.

In his opening speech, he set out to convince the assembled throng that, “No (other) part of the world can offer a greater number of our facts for our contemplation, or furnish us with more extensive and varied materials in almost every department of human knowledge” than the Malay Archipelago.

Today, 154 years later, this still rings true. Wallace maintained that this archipelago was truly continental in its extent and should be recognised as a ‘sixth continent’. To give an idea of the size of Borneo island to those who had never viewed it, he pointed out that it “would contain the whole of Great Britain and Ireland”.

Geological knowledge

He linked volcanic activity to earthquake frequency highlighting “a vast fiery girdle some 5,000 miles in length with 50 or so continually active volcanoes with hundreds more in a dormant

state”. He mentioned examples of crater lakes and the remains of the explosive volcanic vents in Java. “The great eruption of Toruboro, in Sumbawa, saw the loss of 12,000 lives and the ashes darkened the air, and fell thick upon the earth and sea for 300 miles around”.

Note that this was written 10 years before the great eruption of Krakatoa, east of Java, in 1873, which could be heard in northern Australia. It created a tsunami, and emitted so much volcanic gases into the upper atmosphere that the world’s climates were upset for several years. Wallace detailed volcanic activity on Java mentioning that this island “contains more volcanoes, active and extinct than any other known district of equal extent”.

His geological knowledge came to the fore as he distinguished between active, dormant and extinct volcanoes, and the reasons for the different shapes of volcanic cones. Wallace acknowledged the fact that there was no evidence of volcanic action for “the great mass of Borneo” but he had little or no knowledge of the earthquake activity, which rattled settlements even then in the Ranau and Kundasang areas of Mount Kinabalu.

He quoted evidence of land upheaval and depression with particular reference to “upraised coral-rock, exactly corresponding to that now forming in the adjacent seas”, especially on the island of Amboyna. His interest in mining is best illustrated in his indirect mention of the deposits at Labuan’s coalfield, which he determined as “of tertiary age” and was no doubt inherited from his early days in surveying the route of the planned railway line to transport coal from the mines in the Welsh valleys to Neath in South Wales.

Climatologist and biogeographer

Relating vegetation types to monsoonal rain patterns, Wallace focussed, in this lecture, mostly on tropical rainforest and kerangas areas. In particular, he mentioned “the larger half of Borneo as having a dry season from April to November, with the South East monsoon”. Indirectly he inferred the influence of the ‘Coriolis effect’ in deflecting winds to the right in the northern hemisphere by simply stating “the same wind (South East Trade) bends round Borneo, becoming the South West monsoon into the China Sea and bringing the rainy season to Northern Borneo”.

Wallace’s full explanation, based upon his natural history observations, revealed what is now called ‘The Wallace Line’, delineating those Indo- Malayan species of plants and animals from the Austra-Malayan varieties. This, he dramatically illustrated in a one paragraph summary,

“Nowhere does the ancient doctrine that the peculiar animal and vegetable productions of the various countries of the globe are directly dependent on the physical conditions of those countries

(such as climate, soil, elevation etc.,) meet with more direct and palpable contradiction. Borneo and New Guinea, as physically alike as two countries can be, are zoologically wide as the Poles are asunder; while Australia …. produces the quadrupeds and birds which are mostly allied to those … that are found in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea.”

He illustrated these differences by referring to the vegetation and animals of South America and Africa, which may have triggered Alfred Wegener’s theory, some 52 years later in 1911, of Continental Drift. He emphasised that it was “preceding geological change” that produced the patterns he had observed in the Malay Archipelago.

Early conservationist

Whilst a collector of various insect, animal and bird species, during his Malay Archipelago investigations, to despatch to British and European natural history museums, he concluded in his speech – perhaps in self-justification – an amazing foresighted final statement.

It reads thus, “Future ages will certainly look back upon us as people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth to be blind to higher considerations. They will consider us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had on our planet to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence

of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.”

How true these wise words from the 19th century are in our 21st century.

Wallace cried out for preservation and conservation to maintain the biodiversity of our planet and his thoughts are replicated by conservationists today.

He was, indeed, a superb physical geographer explaining, in understandable terms, his vast knowledge of geology, geomorphology, climatology, meteorology, pedology and biogeography with appropriate turns of phrase. Alfred Wallace was, without doubt, a scientist well before his time when, later other scientists developed his ideas yet further.

Certainly, as a physical geographer, he has given me much thought as to how I view what has subsequently happened around our world. His down to earth style of writing, perhaps embellished by his Victorian vocabulary, still inspires further scientific and geographical investigations and enquiry today.