- The Annotated Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace
First published in 1869, The Malay Archipelago is a classic work on Southeast Asian society, nature and imperialism. It is a memoir filled with the observations and thoughts of Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and describes his travels in Southeast Asia between 1854 and 1862. Within its pages are a number of interlocking texts—scientific treatise, travelogue and history filled with ethnographic observations and tales of flora and fauna—all of which make it appealing to not only scholars of a range of disciplines in Southeast Asia but also scientists throughout the world.
At its most basic The Malay Archipelago is a travelogue. Wallace arrived in the Melaka Strait in 1854 and proceeded to explore the islands of Southeast Asia, ranging from Sumatra to New Guinea, with a considerable amount of time spent in eastern Indonesia. In a crisp, clear writing style, Wallace described peoples, landscapes and nature with particularly exquisite chapters on birds of paradise and Singapore being personal favourites of mine. While these tales are fascinating, the reason the book remains an important piece of literature with a global impact is what occurred to Wallace intellectually while in Southeast Asia. During his journey, he took note of geographical distribution of animals throughout the archipelago. Wallace slowly came to a realization that led to the development of one of the most revolutionary ideas in history: a basic understanding of evolution through natural selection.
Readers of this journal, however, already know most of this information. After all, anyone with a passing interest in Wallace, Malaysia, nineteenth-century Southeast Asia, or natural history already owns the book. This leads to more pertinent questions with regard to any new ‘annotated’ edition. These questions include: has the editor added anything new to our understanding of the work, or Wallace?; and, should this version replace the one on your shelf?. The answers to these questions are ‘quite a bit’ and ‘yes’.
This edition of The Malay Archipelago is a product of the larger work of its editor, John van Wyhe, who has spent the past decade developing and operating the Wallace Online website (www.wallace-online.org). Any visitor to the website can peruse the entirety of the writings of the Victorian naturalist, from letters to notebooks to illustrations, something van Wyhe accomplished [End Page 183] earlier with the writings of Charles Darwin. With such a background, van Wyhe brings his wealth of knowledge about Wallace, and nineteenth-century natural history, to this edition. The result is not only the classic text, but also additional information that deepens our appreciation of the work.
Van Wyhe begins the hefty tome—it was originally a two-volume work—with a 43-page introduction, which outlines Wallace’s background and lays out the details surrounding his travels in Southeast Asia, as well as the publication and reception of The Malay Archipelago. He even provides a detailed itinerary of Wallace’s travels. This introduction and accompanying footnotes in the text are more than simply additional notes, however. Van Wyhe provides the context that an informed reader needs to better appreciate the work, thus enhancing our understanding of the journey and its ultimate impact on science, imperialism and society.
After this introduction, the remaining 700 pages of the book contain Wallace’s original text. Van Wyhe provides numerous footnotes that further supplement the text, particularly for a twenty-first-century audience. These notes include contextualization for nineteenth-century quotes, backgrounds of individuals mentioned in anecdotes and even the historic context of events described. These footnotes also provide the modern names of species of animals and plants mentioned in the text as well as their updated scientific names, many of which have been changed since Wallace observed them. The book ends with a bibliography to this edition, which allows the modern reader to explore other considerations of Wallace and his impact on science and society.
This new edition of The Malay Archipelago should replace the dusty volume on...