Collected by Alfred Russel Wallace
There are a few names in natural science collections that will cause immediate excitement – Darwin, Wallace, Scott and Bates are high on the list.
The story begins
It is not uncommon for me to receive phone calls where the conversation proceeds like this, ‘Hello, I’m calling because I found some pieces of taxidermy belonging to a relative while clearing out the attic before moving house. Would the museum like them?’ I ask for more information on what it is, how their relative came by them, and it sounds potentially interesting. Then the caller says, ‘I move house in two days so it needs to be gone by then’. So I scramble to rearrange my diary so I can see if it really is as interesting as it sounds.
This is how a collection of approximately 100 bird skins came to RAMM. Among the pretty but otherwise unremarkable specimens were a few with data saying when, where and who collected them – a sparrowhawk from Torquay in 1876, for example. Then, the last bird I pull from the box and peel back the newspaper wrapping takes me by complete surprise …
A familiar name – A. R. Wallace
The bird was small, black, rather grubby and scruffy round the edges. Unremarkable. It had a narrow, brown label attached to one leg. ‘Collected by A. R. Wallace 1861’. Surely, this couldn’t be THE A. R. Wallace? My heart was thumping. With help from colleagues I deciphered the rest of the label, ‘Calornis mysolensis G.R.G. Salawatte’. On the reverse, very faintly in pencil, ‘eyes dark brown’.
This species is known today as Aplonis mysolensis – the Moluccan starling. Salawati is one of the four major islands in the Raja Ampat Islands in West Papua.
Wallace’s Malay Archipelago
Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) was a British naturalist, geographer and explorer. His researches include warning colouration in animals and geographic distribution of species. Most significantly he co-discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection, but it is usually Charles Darwin who receives the credit.
Wallace spent eight years (1854 to 1862) travelling around the Malay Archipelago – an area including Indonesia, Singapore and New Guinea. He studied the animals that lived there but birds and beetles were his particular passion. During this time Wallace wrote to Charles Darwin. He outlined his ideas on evolution by natural selection. This letter drove Darwin to publish ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859. In 1869 Wallace published ‘The Malay Archipelago, the land of the orang-utan and the bird of paradise : a narrative of travel, with studies of man and nature’.
Wallace and Charles Allen
Charles Martin Allen travelled with Wallace from Britain as his assistant. He was 14 years old and the son of a carpenter. Initially Wallace was not complimentary of Allen’s abilities. He wrote in a letter to his mother in 1854 that Allen, ‘can now shoot pretty well & is so fond of it that I can hardly get him to do anything else. He will soon be very useful, if I can cure him of his incorrigible carelessness. At present I cannot trust him to do the smallest thing without watching that he does it properly’. Allen remained in Wallace’s employment for two years.
Later on, as Wallace’s health began to fail, he employed Allen again. They travelled separately to collect and in early 1861 Allen sailed from Ternate to Salawati, an island Wallace never visited. So it was Allen who collected the specimen at RAMM, not Wallace himself. Allen collected many of the most spectacular specimens Wallace describes in his book, including birds of paradise. His contribution is often overlooked.
I made enquiries at the Natural History Museum and the handwriting on the label for the species name appears to be Wallace’s (thank you to Dr Robert Prys-Jones). Maybe Wallace gave Allen a batch of labels and asked him to write the date and location? Maybe Wallace wrote the label when the specimens returned to the UK. There are many questions still to be answered.
The starling’s journey to RAMM
Periodically Wallace shipped specimens back to the UK. Some were for his personal collection. Others were sold to help fund his travels. Wallace said, ‘the main object of all my journeys was to obtain specimens of natural history, both for my private collection and to supply duplicates to museums and amateurs’.
The London natural history dealer Samuel Stevens handled all Wallace’s sales. In 1863 the scientific journal ‘The Ibis’ included an advert from Stevens for his remaining stock of Wallace’s birds. It listed 246 specimens from eight regions with prices ranging from three shillings to more than £1. Number 57 from New Guinea and the surrounding area is ‘Calorinis [sic] mysolensis. G.R. G. 6s. Moluccan Starling Aplonis mysolensis (G. R. Gray, 1862)’. A match to the RAMM specimen. It is therefore plausible that Stevens sold the specimen to an individual. Or it could be part of the collection Stevens sold to London Natural History dealer E. Gerrard & Sons.
The collection donated to RAMM was said to belong to Ipplepen taxidermist Charles Dacre Garside (1881–1981). Given the dates he did not buy the bird directly from Stevens in 1863. A number of other birds in the collection have early dates too. So did he buy the birds at auction? We many never know.
RAMM’s Moluccan starling is not a thing of beauty. But it is a piece in the jigsaw of history that led one of the world’s great naturalists to a theory that underpins modern science. It is a real treasure in RAMM’s collection.
Smith, C.H. et al (2019). An Alfred Russel Wallace Companion.
Van Whye, J. & Rookmaaker, K (2013). Alfred Russel Wallace Letters from the Malay Archipelago.