Anatomy of a Book: The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace

61iRycEsBTL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Now, during my whole twelve years’ collecting in the western and eastern tropics, I never enjoyed such advantages in this respect as at the Simunjon coalworks. (p.34)

From 1854 to 1862 Alfred Russel Wallace explored the Malay Archipelago.

The evidence on which this belief rests will be found in the latter part of Chapter II. of the Origin of Species… (p.108)

His work complements that of Charles Darwin. The two men independently researched flora and fauna to arrive at theories which we now know as evolution.

Two species of Semnopithecus were most plentiful – monkeys of a slender form, with very long tails. Not being much shot at they are rather bold… (p.120)

By modern standards some practices undertaken seem destructive, especially when Wallace complains of finding it difficult to kill and capture rare species, or offensive, such as the regular analysis of the native people.

…(the Dyaks) these people have passed beyond the first stage of savage life… (p.81)

As this is scientific analysis outlined in a diary of events and findings across twelve years, detail is paramount. It is not a narrative story, but it can be analysed as such to help identify what makes narratives a more enjoyable and social read.

Changing Status:

Wallace does not change during his journey. In fact he outlines moments where he bends his surroundings to fit his Englishman’s life style. The only change would be in the reader’s understanding of the world around them. That is for the reader of when the book was first published.

High Stakes:

There is little at risk. Wallace does hint at a need to capture animals to sell back to English collectors and museums, but this is not a feature.

Page Turner:

As there is no end goal identified, change or constant threat, and so there is no impetus to turn the page.

Believable Characters:

These are true events and Wallace outlines them – mostly dryly. Only infrequently does he compare actions such as this: Schoolboys on an unexpected holiday, Irishmen at a fair, or midshipmen on shore, would give but a faint idea of the exuberant animal enjoyment of these people. (p.371)


It is an interesting read for nostalgia. The text is sometimes old in style, but as these are recent events in history it is interesting to learn how even an advanced mind considered the world at the time, and how he dealt with the difficulties faced in the availability and ability of medicine, food and travel. It is also disconcerting to read how the concerns of the past mirror some of those of the present:

The fact that has led to these remarks is surely a striking one: that in one of the most remote corners of the earth savages can buy clothing cheaper than the people of the country where it is made; that the weaver’s child should shiver in the wintry wind, unable to purchase articles attainable by the wild natives of a tropical climate, where clothing is mere ornament or luxury, should make us pause ere we regard with unmixed admiration the system which has led to such a result… (p.425)

In a thickly-populated country like England… we are still in a state of barbarism. (p.531)

Remember, this was written in the late 1800s.


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