‘I am Ali Wallace’, the Malay assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace: an excerpt

This is the only memory. The photo of Ali wearing European clothes was photographed in Singapore in 1862. Wallace Memorial Fund

To mark Wallacea Week, a series of public lectures and exhibition on the Wallacea region of Indonesia, The Conversation presents a series of analysis on biodiversity and history of science in Indonesia. This is the second article of the series.


The works of British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace in Southeast Asia in the 19th century cannot be separated from the role of a local resident. One of Wallace’s trusted assistants was Ali, a Malay teenager from Sarawak Borneo, or today Malaysia. Wallace described Ali, about 15 year old, as “attentive and clean, and could cook very well”.

Exploring the jungles, rivers and mountains, walking and boating for eight years, Wallace was helped by a team of guides, cooks, boat crew, porters and bird shooters and skinners.

Wallace’s expedition resulted in The Malay Archipelago, one of the classic tales from the history of science. Wallace and teams of assistants procured 125,660 natural history specimens between 1854 and 1862. The specimens include insects, birds, reptiles, mammals and shells from Singapore, Sarawak in Borneo, Bali, Lombok, Makassar in Sulawesi, Maluku Islands, Papua, Java and Sumatra.

The Wallace Line identifies zoological discontinuity between the western and eastern parts of Indonesia, then called the Malay Archipelago. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

His finding confirms Wallace as the scientist who discovered the natural selection theory. He created the Wallace Line, an imaginary boundary identifying zoological discontinuity between the western and eastern parts of the Malay Archipelago. In the western part, most fauna are from Asia, while those in the eastern part are from Asia and Australia.

Wallace’s Standard Wing (Semioptera wallacii), discovered by Ali. In John van Wyhe (2015), sourced from Gould (1869)

The surviving evidence reveals well over 100 men worked for Wallace during his voyage. More than 30 were paid collecting assistants.

Ali, later possibly known as Ali Wallace, was at first a cook and servant, and only gradually became a collecting assistant. Eventually he would become Wallace’s chief assistant or “head man”. Ali was clearly a particularly intelligent, likeable, trustworthy and competent young man.

Wallace wrote in his autobiography:

He [Ali] accompanied me through all my travels, sometimes alone, but more frequently with several others, and was then very useful in teaching them their duties, as he soon became well acquainted with my wants and habits.

Wallace normally left the shooting of birds to his assistants, including Ali, whereas he concentrated on insects. Ali made significant discoveries for Wallace. Wallace’s results during his expedition and his subsequent scientific writings would have been very much poorer were it not for the assistance of Ali.

Also in his autobiography, Wallace described Ali:

When I was at Sarawak in 1855 I engaged a Malay boy named Ali as a personal servant, and also to help me to learn the Malay language by the necessity of constant communication with him. He was attentive and clean, and could cook very well. He soon learnt to shoot birds, to skin them properly, and latterly even to put up the skins very neatly. Of course he was a good boatman, as are all Malays, and in all the difficulties or dangers of our journeys he was quite undisturbed and ready to do anything required of him.

Compare Wallace’s description of Ali with his impression of Charles Martin Allen, a teenage London lad he brought as collecting assistant. Wallace left England for the Malay Archipelago in March 1854 and arrived in Singapore on April 18 1854.

Allen assisted Wallace with collecting birds and insects in Singapore, Pulau Ubin and then at Malacca and Sarawak. Wallace and Allen returned by separate routes to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, in early December 1855. As Wallace’s letters make clear, he was exasperated with Alien’s carelessness, untidiness and failure to improve.

Ali, a shadowy figure

This article combines the surviving evidence (publications, journals, notebooks and letters and other sources) to bring Ali and his role in the expedition out of the shadows. I visited Ternate and searched in vain for old Muslim graves of the early 20th century. The creep of modern houses seems to have obliterated all traces of earlier graves.

In addition, Ali’s wages and itinerary are reconstructed for the first time in our research. Wallace clearly developed a stronger attachment for and trust in Ali than any of his other assistants. Yet Ali remains a shadowy and unknown character in the story of Wallace in the Malay Archipelago.

Several corrections to traditional accounts are emphasised; these include the fact that Ali was not always a collecting assistant, but at first a cook; Ali did not travel with Wallace for the rest of his voyage, but left him for an entire year; and Ali may have collected the majority of Wallace’s bird specimens.

From Sarawak to Singapore

Ali accompanied Wallace from December 1855 in Sarawak, Borneo, until February 1862 when Wallace returned to Britain from Singapore. From April 1854 to December 1855, Allen accompanied Wallace to Sarawak, including to a mining works at Si Munjon in March 1855 when they encountered orangutans.

On February 10 1856 Wallace departed forever from Sarawak. Charles Allen chose to stay behind and try to become a teacher at the Christian mission. Wallace wrote to his sister about the loss of Allen: “I must now try and teach a China boy to collect and pin insects.”

Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace Memorial Fund

Wallace took Ali with him to Singapore; they arrived on February 17 1856 and stayed for 96 days. In Singapore, Ali saw a live tiger. This was likely the tiger captured alive on Bukit Timah on May 10 and put on public display.

Their next voyage was from Singapore to the island of Lombok, stopping en route at Bali for two days. Besides Ali, Wallace brought another assistant, Manuel Fernandez, a Portuguese of Malacca accustomed to bird-skinning. They arrived in Lombok on June 17 1856.

The voyage continued to Makassar and Aru Islands. In Makassar, Ali was attacked by fever and Wallace presumably treated him with quinine. Ali had, by that time, become a pretty good bird skinner and his fever meant Wallace’s collection progressed slowly.

In Aru Islands, Ali got a colleague from Makassar, Baderoon, aged about 16, whom Wallaced described as “a pretty good boy but a desperate gambler”. Some time later Wallace scolded Baderoon for laziness. The young man lost his wages to gambling, got deeper into debt and left Wallace’s employ. When things went wrong or when a trustworthy person was needed, Wallace relied on Ali.

From Aru Islands, Wallace visited Maros to the north of Makassar. On November 19, 1857 Wallace and Ali departed Makassar on the Dutch mail steamer. They continued to Ternate in January 1858 and here he conceived of his version of evolution by natural selection and wrote up an essay on the topic, which he later sent to Charles Darwin. This essay spurred Darwin to act and the next year he wrote On the Origin of Species.

Their voyage continued to Manokwari (April 1858), Ternate (August 1858), Gilolo (Jailolo), Tidore, Kaioa (Kayoa) and Batchian (Bacan) (October 1958), Buru Island (May-July 1861) and later Ternate again (July 1861). During this period there were times Ali was not with Wallace.

They continued with the steamer to Manado and Makassar before arriving on Java for more inland collecting trips, first from Surabaya on July 16 1861, and in mid-September they arrived by steamer at the large Dutch capital of Batavia (Jakarta). Two months later they arrived in Sumatra via Bangka and continued by boat to Palembang and then arrived in Singapore on January 1862.

On parting, besides some money, Wallace gave him his two double-barrelled guns and the ammunition, “with a lot of surplus stores, tools, and sundries”. For the first time, Ali wore European clothes: suit jacket and bow tie. Ali’s picture with the clothes is stored in the Natural History Museum in London.

Where did Ali come from?

The ethnography of Sarawak peoples is very complex. It is not known exactly which group of people Ali came from. We cannot be sure that what Wallace meant by calling him “Malay” would be exactly the same as current usage.

To be called “Malay” by Wallace it is likely that Ali was from the groups of Muslims living in various small villages of houses on stilts along the Sarawak River. He may also have come from the village of Santubong where Wallace stayed in February 1855.

Ali was perhaps about 15 years old, dark, short of stature with black hair and brown eyes. He would have spoken the local dialect of Malay and was probably unable to read or write. Wallace never mentions that Ali spoke English. When another assistant, Jumaat, died in Dorey, Wallace mentioned that all of his men were Muslim, which included Ali.

One other known story about Ali is his marriage. In early 1859, Ali married a Ternate woman but she lived with her family, “and it made no difference in his accompanying me wherever I went till we reached Singapore on my way home”, wrote Wallace. After Ali left Wallace’s employ, he was reported to return to Ternate.

Ali the collector and his wages

From the total 125,600 specimens, how many did Ali and Wallace’s other assisting teams collect? It has recently been calculated that Charles Allen and his assistants collected about 40,000 of these.

Ali was not the sole hunter, but considering he worked for Wallace more than any of the others, about four years, and appears to have been particularly skilled and motivated, his collections must make up a large proportion. It is possible that his total may also be in the tens of thousands. However, we can only be certain that Ali collected birds, which are a much smaller portion of the total collection: 8,050.

Bird specimens collected by Wallace from Lombok, Malacca and Papua New Guinea. Dorset County Museum and Fred Edwards

In comparison, between 1860-1862, Allen and his team collected 1,985 birds. If Allen collected birds at about the same rate during his first phase of working for Wallace between April 1854 and January 1856, then we might speculate that Allen collected 2,900 of Wallace’s total of 8,050. Thus Ali probably collected many of the remaining 5,150 birds. There must also be many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bird skins in museums in the UK and Europe that were prepared by Ali.

How much did Ali actually earn working for Wallace? Clearly he did not just work for money. He was ambitious to get new birds and perhaps also took pride in his skill and cunning as a hunter. He entered actively into the spirit of the expedition.

Unfortunately, Ali’s wages are not given in Wallace’s surviving accounts. A few other servants’ wages are noted in Wallace’s records. An Ambonese Christian named Theodorus Matakena received 80 florins (another name for gulden) for eight months, or ten florins per month. Two unnamed shooters received nine florins per month.

If we assume that the period covered by the “Expenses of Galela & Moro voyage” accounts was about two months, then it appears that Ali’s wages were also ten florins per month. Assuming that Ali earned ten florins per month as a collector, and less as a servant and cook at first, he might have earned about 450 florins or £45 working for Wallace during his voyage. This does not include his final gifts and payments from Wallace in Singapore.

This is one possible interpretation of what Ali might have earned. It is important to emphasise how conjectural these figures must be given the paucity of evidence.

In the end, it is not only about money. Ali made a major contribution to Wallace’s scientific understanding of the Malay Archipelago, not just with ornithological discoveries like Wallace’s Standard Wing (Semioptera wallacii), but by his contributions of knowledge.

Ali remains a shadowy figure, but no doubt further research will bring more to light. Wallace could not have achieved what he did without his “faithful companion”, Ali.


This article is an edited excerpt of “I am Ali Wallace”: The Malay Asisstant of Alfred Russel Wallace by John van Wyhe and Gerrell M. Drawhorn in Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

This article was originally published in Indonesian