I’m now in the Malaysian state of Sabah some miles from the capital Kota Kinabalu, established as Jesselton long after Alfred Russel Wallace had left the region, on the Bornean coast. In preparation for this trip I decided to re-read Wallace’s Malay Archipelago, a marvelous book that captivated novelist Joseph Conrad. Walking along the beach this afternoon I reflected on something I hadn’t noticed in my first reading — Wallace’s skill as a navigator and sailor.
It shouldn’t be surprising; Wallace had lots of experience at sea, first traversing the Atlantic for his South American expedition from 1848 to 1852, and from 1854 to 1862 across the Pacific to the vast island chain that would make him one of the most noteworthy and beloved authors of travel narratives in the English language. Much of Wallace’s island-hopping throughout the Spice Islands amounted to little more than himself and a few hired locals in a rude prau trying to thread their way through coral reefs, shallow seas, and hostile winds. It’s doubtful that he would have survived long without knowing how to determine a navigable channel, tack into the wind, or interpret the meteorological signs of bad weather.
Looking out across the sea and along the coast of Borneo, I noted the angry waves and how large portions have forested areas growing right up to the ocean. For Wallace those forests beckoned with beetles, butterflies, and birds of all kinds but the watery highway to them was full of danger. To experience this adventure one must read Wallace’s detailed and at times dramatic account. It’s easy to see why Conrad kept a copy by his bedside stand.