The Malay Archipelago is a book by Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist which chronicles his scientific exploration, during the eight-year period 1854 to 1862, of the southern portion of the Malay Archipelago including Malaysia, Singapore, the islands of Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies, and the island of New Guinea. It was published in two volumes in 1869, delayed by Wallace’s ill health and the work needed to describe the many specimens he brought home. The book went through ten editions in the nineteenth century; it has been reprinted many times since and has been translated into at least eight languages.
The book describes each island that he visited in turn, giving a detailed account of its physical and human geography, its volcanoes, and the variety of animals and plants that he found and collected. At the same time, he describes his experiences, the difficulties of travel, and the help he received from the different peoples that he met. The preface notes that he traveled over 14,000 miles and collected 125,660 natural history specimens, mostly of insects though also thousands of molluscs, birds, mammals, and reptiles.
The work was illustrated with engravings, based on Wallace’s observations and collection, by the leading illustrators Thomas Baines, Walter Hood Fitch, John Gerrard Keulemans, E. W. Robinson, Joseph Wolf, and T. W. Wood.
The Malay Archipelago attracted many reviews, with interest from scientific, geographic, church and general periodicals. Reviewers noted and sometimes disagreed with various of his theories, especially the division of fauna and flora along what soon became known as the Wallace line, natural selection, and uniformitarianism. Nearly all agreed that he had provided an interesting and comprehensive account of the geography, natural history, and peoples of the archipelago, which was little known to their readers at the time, and that he had collected an astonishing number of specimens. The book is much cited and is Wallace’s most successful, both commercially and as a piece of literature.
Despite numerous modern reprints with appreciative introductions, this edition edited by John Van Wyhe is the first—and long overdue—annotated edition in English. This edition explains, updates and corrects the original text with a historical introduction and hundreds of explanatory notes. Wallace left hundreds of people, places, publications and species unidentified. He referred to most species only with the scientific name current at the time. Whenever available, the common names for species have been provided, and scientific names updated.
The content of the book has never been thoroughly analyzed and compared against other contemporary sources. It turns out that the original The Malay Archipelago contains many errors. This includes not just incorrect dates and place names but some of the most remarkable anecdotes; for example, the dramatic claim that tigers “kill on an average a Chinaman every day” in Singapore or that a Dutch Governor-General committed suicide by leaping from a waterfall on Celebes.
By correcting the text of The Malay Archipelago against Wallace’s letters and notebooks and other contemporary sources and by enriching it with modern identifications, this edition reveals Wallace’s work as never before.