The Races of Man in the Malay Archipelago 11 August 2022 – Posted in: Book Excerpts

By: Alfred Russel Wallace

I propose to conclude this account of my Eastern travels, with a short statement of my views as to the races of man which inhabit the various parts of the Archipelago, their chief physical and mental characteristics, their affinities with each other and with surrounding tribes, their migrations, and their probable origin.

Two very strongly contrasted races inhabit the Archipelago—the Malays, occupying almost exclusively the larger western half of it, and the Papuans, whose head-quarters are New Guinea and several of the adjacent islands. Between these in locality, are found tribes who are also intermediate in their chief characteristics, and it is sometimes a nice point to determine whether they belong to one or the other race, or have been formed by a mixture of the two.

The Malay is undoubtedly the most important of these two races, as it is the one which is the most civilized, which has come most into contact with Europeans, and which alone has any place in history. What may be called the true Malay races, as distinguished from others who have merely a Malay element in their language, present a considerable uniformity of physical and mental characteristics, while there are very great differences of civilization and of language. They consist of four great, and a few minor semi-civilized tribes, and a number of others who may be termed savages. The Malays proper inhabit the Malay peninsula, and almost all the coast regions of Borneo and Sumatra. They all speak the Malay language, or dialects of it; they write in the Arabic character, and are Mohammedans in religion. The Javanese inhabit Java, part of Sumatra, Madura, Bali, and part of Lombock. They speak the Javanese and Kawi languages, which they write in a native character. They are now Mohammedans in Java, but Brahmins in Bali and Lombock. The Bugis are the inhabitants of the greater part of Celebes, and there seems to be an allied people in Sumbawa. They speak the Bugis and Macassar languages, with dialects, and have two different native characters in which they write these. They are all Mohammedans. The fourth great race is that of the Tagalas in the Philippine Islands, about whom, as I did not visit those islands, I shall say little. Many of them are now Christians, and speak Spanish as well as their native tongue, the Tagala. The Moluccan-Malays, who inhabit chiefly Ternate, Tidore, Batchian, and Amboyna, may be held to form a fifth division of semi-civilized Malays. They are all Mohammedans, but they speak a variety of curious languages, which seem compounded of Bugis and Javanese, with the languages of the savage tribes of the Moluccas.

The savage Malays are the Dyaks of Borneo; the Battaks and other wild tribes of Sumatra; the Jakuns of the Malay Peninsula; the aborigines of Northern Celebes, of the Sula Islands, and of part of Bouru.

The color of all these varied tribes is a light reddish brown, with more or less of an olive tinge, not varying in any important degree over an extent of country as large as all Southern Europe. The hair is equally constant, being invariably black and straight, and of a rather coarse texture, so that any lighter tint, or any wave or curl in it, is an almost certain proof of the admixture of some foreign blood. The face is nearly destitute of beard, and the breast and limbs are free from hair. The stature is tolerably equal, and is always considerably below that of the average European; the body is robust, the breast well developed, the feet small, thick, and short, the hands small and rather delicate. The face is a little broad, and inclined to be flat; the forehead is rather rounded, the brows low, the eyes black and very slightly oblique; the nose is rather small, not prominent, but straight and well-shaped, the apex a little rounded, the nostrils broad and slightly exposed; the cheek-bones are rather prominent, the mouth large, the lips broad and well cut, but not protruding, the chin round and well formed.

In this description there seems little to object to on the score of beauty, and yet on the whole the Malays are certainly not handsome. In youth, however, they are often very good-looking, and many of the boys and girls up to twelve or fifteen years of age are very pleasing, and some have countenances which are in their way almost perfect. I am inclined to think they lose much of their good looks by bad habits and irregular living. At a very early age they chew betel and tobacco almost incessantly; they suffer much want and exposure in their fishing and other excursions; their lives are often passed in alternate starvation and feasting, idleness and excessive labor,—and this naturally produces premature old old age and harshness of features.

In character the Malay is impassive. He exhibits a reserve, diffidence, and even bashfulness, which is in some degree attractive, and leads the observer to think that the ferocious and bloodthirsty character imputed to the race must be grossly exaggerated. He is not demonstrative. His feelings of surprise, admiration, or fear, are never openly manifested, and are probably not strongly felt. He is slow and deliberate in speech, and circuitous in introducing the subject he has come expressly to discuss. These are the main features of his moral nature, and exhibit themselves in every action of his life.

Children and women are timid, and scream and run at the unexpected sight of a European. In the company of men they are silent, and are generally quiet and obedient. When alone the Malay is taciturn; he neither talks nor sings to himself When several are paddling in a canoe, they occasionally chant a monotonous and plaintive song. He is cautious of giving offense to his equals. He does not quarrel easily about money matters; dislikes asking too frequently even for payment of his just debts, and will often give them up altogether rather than quarrel with his debtor. Practical joking is utterly repugnant to his disposition; for he is particularly sensitive to breaches of etiquette, or any interference with the personal liberty of himself or another. As an example, I may mention that I have often found it very difficult to get one Malay servant to waken another. He will call as loud as he can, but will hardly touch, much less shake his comrade. I have frequently had to waken a hard sleeper myself when on a land or sea journey.

The higher classes of Malays are exceedingly polite, and have all the quiet ease and dignity of the best-bred Europeans. Yet this is compatible with a reckless cruelty and contempt of human life, which is the dark side of their character. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that different persons give totally opposite accounts of them—one praising them for their soberness, civility, and good-nature; another abusing them for their deceit, treachery, and cruelty. The old traveller Nicolo Conti, writing in 1430, says: “The inhabitants of Java and Sumatra exceed every other people in cruelty. They regard killing a man as a mere jest; nor is any punishment allotted for such a deed. If any one purchase a new sword, and wish to try it, he will thrust it into the breast of the first person he meets. The passers-by examine the wound, and praise the skill of the person who inflicted it, if he thrust in the weapon direct.” Yet Drake says of the south of Java: “The people (as are their kings) are a very loving, true, and just-dealing people;” and Mr. Crawfurd says that the Javanese, whom he knew thoroughly, are “a peaceable, docile, sober, simple, and industrious people.” Barbosa, on the other hand, who saw them at Malacca about 1660, says: “They are a people of great ingenuity, very subtle in all their dealings; very malicious, great deceivers, seldom speaking the truth; prepared to do all manner of wickedness, and ready to sacrifice their lives.” The intellect of the Malay race seems rather deficient. They are incapable of any thing beyond the simplest combinations of ideas, and have little taste or energy for the acquirement of knowledge. Their civilization, such as it is, does not seem to be indigenous, as it is entirely confined to those nations who have been converted to the Mohammedan or Brahminical religions.

I will now give an equally brief sketch of the other great race of the Malay Archipelago, the Papuan.

The typical Papuan race is in many respects the very opposite of the Malay, and it has hitherto been very imperfectly described. The color of the body is a deep sooty-brown or black, sometimes approaching, but never quite equalling, the jet-black of some negro races. It varies in tint, however, more than that of the Malay, and is sometimes a dusky-brown. The hair is very peculiar, being harsh, dry, and frizzly, growing in little tufts or curls, which in youth are very short and compact, but afterward grow out to a considerable length, forming the compact frizzled mop which is the Papuans’ pride and glory. The face is adorned with a beard of the same frizzly nature as the hair of the head. The arms, legs, and breast are also more or less clothed with hair of a similar nature.

In stature the Papuan decidedly surpasses the Malay, and is perhaps equal, or even superior, to the average of Europeans. The legs are long and thin, and the hands and feet larger than in the Malays. The face is somewhat elongated, the forehead flattish, the brows very prominent; the nose is large, rather arched and high, the base thick, the nostrils broad, with the aperture hidden, owing to the tip of the nose being elongated; the mouth is large, the lips thick and protuberant. The face has thus an altogether more European aspect than in the Malay, owing to the large nose; and the peculiar form of this organ, with the more prominent brows and the character of the hair on the head, face, and body, enable us at a glance to distinguish the two races. I have observed that most of these characteristic features are as distinctly visible in children of ten or twelve years old as in adults, and the peculiar form of the nose is always shown in the figures which they carve for ornaments to their houses, or as charms to wear round their necks.

The moral characteristics of the Papuan appear to me to separate him as distinctly from the Malay as do his form and features. He is impulsive and demonstrative in speech and action. His emotions and passions express themselves in shouts and laughter, in yells and frantic leapings. Women and children take their share in every discussion, and seem little alarmed at the sight of strangers and Europeans.

Of the intellect of this race it is very difficult to judge, but I am inclined to rate it somewhat higher than that of the Malays, notwithstanding the fact that the Papuans have never yet made any advance toward civilization. It must be remembered, however, that for centuries the Malays have been influenced by Hindoo, Chinese, and Arabic immigration whereas the Papuan race has only been subjected to the very partial and local influence of Malay traders. The Papuan has much more vital energy, which would certainly greatly assist his intellectual development. Papuan slaves show no inferiority of intellect compared with Malays, but rather the contrary; and in the Moluccas they are often promoted to places of considerable trust. The Papuan has a greater feeling for art than the Malay. He decorates his canoe, his house, and almost every domestic utensil with elaborate carving, a habit which is rarely found among tribes of the Malay race.

In the affections and moral sentiments, on the other hand, the Papuans seem very deficient. In the treatment of their children they are often violent and cruel; whereas the Malays are almost invariably kind and gentle, hardly ever interfering at all with their children’s pursuits and amusements, and giving them perfect liberty at whatever age they wish to claim it. But these very peaceful relations between parents and children are no doubt, in a great measure, due to the listless and apathetic character of the race, which never leads the younger members into serious opposition to the elders; while the harsher discipline of the Papuans may be chiefly due to that greater vigor and energy of mind which always, sooner or later, leads to the rebellion of the weaker against the stronger—the people against their rulers, the slave against his master, or the child against its parent.

It appears, therefore, that, whether we consider their physical conformation, their moral characteristics, or their intellectual capacities, the Malay and Papuan races offer remarkable differences and striking contrasts. The Malay is of short stature, brown-skinned, straight-haired, beardless, and smooth-bodied. The Papuan is taller, is black-skinned, frizzly-haired, bearded, and hairy-bodied. The former is broad-faced, has a small nose, and flat eyebrows; the latter is long-faced, has a large and prominent nose, and projecting eyebrows. The Malay is bashful, cold, undemonstrative, and quiet; the Papuan is bold, impetuous, excitable, and noisy. The former is grave and seldom laughs; the latter is joyous and laughter-loving—the one conceals his emotions, the other displays them.

Having thus described in some detail the great physical, intellectual, and moral differences between the Malays and Papuans, we have to consider the inhabitants of the numerous islands which do not agree very closely with either of these races. The islands of Obi, Batchian, and the three southern peninsulas of Gilolo, possess no true indigenous population; but the northern peninsula is inhabited by a native race, the so-called Alfuros of Sahoe and Galela. These people are quite distinct from the Malays, and almost equally so from the Papuans. They are tall and well-made, with Papuan features, and curly hair; they are bearded and hairy-limbed, but quite as light in color as the Malays. They are an industrious and enterprising race, cultivating rice and vegetables, and indefatigable in their search after game, fish, tripang, pearls, and tortoise-shell.

In the great island of Ceram there is also an indigenous race very similar to that of Northern Gilolo. Bouru seems to contain two distinct races—a shorter, round-faced people, with a Malay physiognomy, who may probably have come from Celebes by way of the Sula Islands; and a taller, bearded race, resembling that of Ceram.

Far south of the Moluccas lies the island of Timor, inhabited by tribes much nearer to the true Papuan than those of the Moluccas.

The Timorese of the interior are dusky brown or blackish, with bushy, frizzled hair, and the long Papuan nose. They are of medium height, and rather slender figures. The universal dress is a long cloth twisted round the waist, the fringed ends of which hang below the knee. The people are said to be great thieves, and the tribes are always at war with each other, but they are not very courageous or bloodthirsty. The custom of “tabu,” called here “pomáli,” is very general, fruit trees, houses, crops, and property of all kinds being protected from depredation by this ceremony, the reverence for which is very great. A palm branch stuck across an open door, showing that the house is tabooed, is a more effectual guard against robbery than any amount of locks and bars. The houses in Timor are different from those of most of the other islands; they seem all roof, the thatch overhanging the low walls and reaching the ground, except where it is cut away for an entrance. In some parts of the west end of Timor, and on the little island of Seman, the houses more resemble those of the Hottentots, being egg-shaped, very small, and with a door only about three feet high. These are built on the ground, while those of the eastern districts are raised a few feet on posts. In their excitable disposition, loud voices, and fearless demeanor, the Timorese closely resemble the people of New Guinea.

In the islands west of Timor, as far as Flores and Sandalwood Island, a very similar race is found, which also extends eastward to Timor-laut, where the true Papuan race begins to appear. The small islands of Savu and Rotti, however, to the west of Timor, are very remarkable in possessing a different and, in some respects, peculiar race. These people are very handsome, with good features, resembling in many characteristics the race produced by the mixture of the Hindoo or Arab with the Malay. They are certainly distinct from the Timorese of Papuan races, and must be classed in the western rather than the eastern ethnological division of the Archipelago.

The whole of the great island of New Guinea, the Ké and Aru Islands, with Mysol, Salwatty, and Waigiou, are inhabited almost exclusively by the typical Papuans. I found no trace of any other tribes inhabiting the interior of New Guinea, but the coast people are in some places mixed with the browner races of the Moluccas. The same Papuan race seems to extend over the islands east of New Guinea as far as the Fijis.

There remain to be noticed the black woolly-haired races of the Philippines and the Malay peninsula, the former called “Negritos,” and the latter “Semangs.” I have never seen these people myself, but from the numerous accurate descriptions of them that have been published, I have had no difficulty in satisfying myself that they have little affinity or resemblance to the Papuans, with which they have been hitherto associated. In most important characters they differ more from the Papuan than they do from the Malay. They are dwarfs in stature, only averaging four feet six inches to four feet eight inches high, or eight inches less than the Malays; whereas the Papuans are decidedly taller than the Malays. The nose is invariably represented as small, flattened, or turned up at the apex, whereas the most universal character of the Papuan race is to have the nose prominent and large, with the apex produced downward, as it is invariably represented in their own rude idols. The hair of these dwarfish races agrees with that of the Papuans, but so it does with that of the negroes of Africa. The Negritos and Semangs agree very closely in physical characteristics with each other and with the Andaman Islanders, while they differ in a marked manner from every Papuan race.

A careful study of these varied races, comparing them with those of Eastern Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Australia, has led me to adopt a comparatively simple view as to their origin and affinities.

Physical Map of the Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, 1868

If we draw a line (see Physical Map), commencing to the east of the Philippine Islands, thence along the western coast of Gilolo, through the island of Bouru, and curving round the west end of Flores, then bending back by Sandalwood Island to take in Rotti, we shall divide the Archipelago into two portions, the races of which have strongly marked distinctive peculiarities. This line will separate the Malayan and all the Asiatic races, from the Papuans and all that inhabit the Pacific; and though along the line of junction intermigration and commixture have taken place, yet the division is on the whole almost as well defined and strongly contrasted, as is the corresponding zoological division of the Archipelago, into an Indo-Malayan and Austro-Malayan region.

I must briefly explain the reasons that have led me to consider this division of the Oceanic races to be a true and natural one. The Malayan race, as a whole, undoubtedly very closely resembles the East Asian populations, from Siam to Mandchouria. I was much struck with this, when in the island of Bali I saw Chinese traders who had adopted the costume of that country, and who could then hardly be distinguished from Malays; and, on the other hand, I have seen natives of Java who, as far as physiognomy wag concerned, would pass very well for Chinese. Then, again, we have the most typical of the Malayan tribes inhabiting a portion of the Asiatic continent itself, together with those great islands which, possessing the same species of large Mammalia with the adjacent parts of the continent, have in all probability formed a connected portion of Asia during the human period. The Negritos are, no doubt, quite a distinct race from the Malay; but yet, as some of them inhabit a portion of the continent, and others the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, they must be considered to have had in all probability, an Asiatic rather than a Polynesian origin.

Now, turning to the eastern parts of the Archipelago, I find, by comparing my own observations with those of the most trustworthy travellers and missionaries, that a race identical in all its chief features with the Papuan, is found in all the islands as far east as the Fijis; beyond this the brown Polynesian race, or some intermediate type, is spread everywhere over the Pacific. The descriptions of these latter often agree exactly with the characters of the brown indigenes of Gilolo and Ceram.

It is to be especially remarked that the brown and the black Polynesian races closely resemble each other. Their features are almost identical, so that portraits of a New Zealander or Otaheitan will often serve accurately to represent a Papuan or Timorese, the darker color and more frizzly hair of the latter being the only differences. They are both tall races. They agree in their love of art and the style of their decorations. They are energetic, demonstrative, joyous, and laughter-loving, and in all these particulars they differ widely from the Malay.

I believe, therefore, that the numerous intermediate forms that occur among the countless islands of the Pacific, are not merely the result of a mixture of these races, but are to some extent, truly intermediate or transitional; and that the brown and the black, the Papuan, the natives of Gilolo and Ceram, the Fijian, the inhabitants of the Sandwich Islands and those of New Zealand, are all varying forms of one great Oceanic or Polynesian race.

It is, however, quite possible, and perhaps probable, that the brown Polynesians were originally the produce of a mixture of Malays, or some lighter colored Mongol race with the dark Papuans; but if so, the intermingling took place at such a remote epoch, and has been so assisted by the continued influence of physical conditions and of natural selection, leading to the preservation of a special type suited to those conditions, that it has become a fixed and stable race with no signs of mongrelism, and showing such a decided preponderance of Papuan character, that it can best be classified as a modification of the Papuan type. The occurrence of a decided Malay element in the Polynesian languages, has evidently nothing to do with any such ancient physical connection. It is altogether a recent phenomenon, originating in the roaming habits of the chief Malay tribes; and this is proved by the fact that we find actual modern words of the Malay and Javanese languages in use in Polynesia, so little disguised by peculiarities of pronunciation as to be easily recognizable—not mere Malay roots only to be detected by the elaborate researches of the philologist, as would certainly have been the case had their troduction been as remote as the origin of a very distinct race—a race as different from the Malay in mental and moral, as it is in physical characters.

As bearing upon this question it is important to point out the harmony which exists between the line of separation of the human races of the Archipelago and that of the animal productions of the same country, which I have already so fully explained and illustrated. The dividing lines do not, it is true, exactly agree; but I think it is a remarkable fact, and something more than a mere coincidence, that they should traverse the same district and approach each other so closely as they do. If, however, I am right in my supposition that the region where the dividing line of the Indo-Malayan and Austro-Malayan regions of zoology can now be drawn, was formerly occupied by a much wider sea than at present, and if man existed on the earth at that period, we shall see good reason why the races inhabiting the Asiatic and Pacific areas should now meet and partially intermingle in the vicinity of that dividing line.

It has recently been maintained by Professor Huxley, that the Papuans are more closely allied to the negroes of Africa than to any other race. The resemblance both in physical and mental characteristics had often struck myself, but the diffculties in the way of accepting it as probable or possible, have hitherto prevented me from giving full weight to those resemblances. Geographical, zoological, and ethnological considerations render it almost certain, that if these two races ever had a common origin, it could only have been at a period far more remote than any which has yet been assigned to the antiquity of the human race. And even if their unity could be proved, it would in no way affect my argument for the close affinity of the Papuan and Polynesian races, and the radical distinctness of both from the Malay.

Polynesia is pre-eminently an area of subsidence, and its great, wide-spread groups of coral-reefs mark out the position of former continents and islands. The rich and varied, yet strangely isolated productions of Australia and New Guinea, also indicate an extensive continent where such specialized forms were developed. The races of men now inhabiting these countries are, therefore, most probably the descendants of the races which inhabited these continents and islands. This is the most simple and natural supposition to make. And if we find any signs of direct affinity between the inhabitants of any other part of the world and those of Polynesia, it by no means follows that the latter were derived from the former. For as, when a Pacific continent existed, the whole geography of the earth’s surface would probably be very different from what it now is, the present continents may not then have risen above the ocean, and, when they were formed at a subsequent epoch, may have derived some of their inhabitants from the Polynesian area itself. It is undoubtedly true that there are proofs of extensive migrations among the Pacific islands, which have led to community of language from the Sandwich group to New Zealand; but there are no proofs whatever of recent migration from any surrounding country to Polynesia, since there is no people to be found elsewhere sufficiently resembling the Polynesian race in their chief physical and mental characteristics.

If the past history of these varied races Is obscure and uncertain, the future is no less so. The true Polynesians, inhabiting the farthest isles of the Pacific, are no doubt doomed to an early extinction. But the more numerous Malay race seems well adapted to survive as the cultivator of the soil, even when its country and government have passed into the hands of Europeans. If the tide of colonization should be turned to New Guinea, there can be little doubt of the early extinction of the Papuan race. A warlike and energetic people, who will not submit to national slavery or to domestic servitude, must disappear before the white man as surely as do the wolf and the tiger.

I have now concluded my task. I have given, in more or less detail, a sketch of my eight years’ wanderings among the largest and the most luxuriant islands which adorn our earth’s surface. I have endeavored to convey my impressions of their scenery, their vegetation, their animal productions, and their human inhabitants. I have dwelt at some length on the varied and interesting problems they offer to the student of nature.

Parts of this essay are extracted from the book The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orang-Utan, and the Bird of Paradise. A Narrative of Travel, With Studies of Man and Nature in Chapter XL, page 584-596 (Harper and Brothers, 1869) by Alfred Russel Wallace.

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