Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 14, 2019

The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace (1997), by Tim Severin

The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace is the June choice for our Indonesian bookgroup but I’m reading it early because it’s hard to source and we need to circulate the library copy as best we can.

It’s more than a travel book.  Tim Severin is an explorer who specialises in recreating historic voyages, and the list of his books at Wikipedia is impressive:

  • Tracking Marco Polo (1964) – Motorcycle ride from Venice to Central Asia along the Silk Road
  • Explorers of the Mississippi (1968)
  • The Golden Antilles (1970)
  • The African Adventure (1973)
  • Vanishing Primitive Man (1973)
  • The Oriental Adventure: Explorers of the East (1976)
  • The Brendan Voyage (1978) – Sailing a leather currach from Ireland to Newfoundland
  • The Sindbad Voyage (1983) – Sailing an Arab dhow from Muscat, Oman to China
  • The Jason Voyage: The Quest for the Golden Fleece (1986) – Sailing from Greece to Georgia
  • The Ulysses Voyage (1987) – Sailing from Troy to Ithaca
  • Crusader (1989) – Riding a heavy horse from Belgium to the Middle East
  • In Search of Genghis Khan (1991)
  • The China Voyage (1994) – Across the Pacific Ocean (almost) on a bamboo raft named Hsu-Fu
  • The Spice Islands Voyage (1997)
  • In Search of Moby-Dick (1999)
  • Seeking Robinson Crusoe (aka In Search of Robinson Crusoe) (2002)

Lest you think that these adventures were merely Boys Own Adventures, here’s a snippet from The Spice Islands Voyage that suggests otherwise:

This was the other, darker side to the apparent tropical paradise of palm trees, green forests and sandy beaches through which we were sailing, and where Wallace had soldiered on for six years of field work.  During the Spice Islands voyage all of us suffered at one time or another from chills and low-grade fevers, even though we had modern medicines and, in Joe, our own doctor on board.  In Banda a small insect bite on my leg turned septic in six hours and puffed up as if I had been bitten by a venomous insect.  I felt giddy and unwell as if I had severe flu, and was dosed with antibiotics.  Leonard developed blotches on his face, and Joe was tormented by rashes all over his body. Even Yanis with his iron constitution and india-rubber physique could sometimes be seen curled up miserably underneath a scrap of sailcloth, shivering and with his eyes dull with fever.  Julia was by far the most vulnerable.  In the twelve months during which she assisted the project, she contracted one bout of typhoid and had dengue fever twice. (p.129)

The ‘Wallace’ referred to in this excerpt, is Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, and biologist who is famous for two things: conceiving the theory of evolution independently of Darwin (which prompted Darwin to stir his stumps and publish The Origin of Species instead of dithering about); and identifying in 1859 the line separating the fauna of the Indo-Malayan and the Austro-Malayan regions in the Indonesian archipelago.  Asian birds, bats and mammals are west of the line, and unique Australasian fauna are only found east of the line.  As you can see from the diagram the science has developed since Thomas Huxley named this line after Wallace, because we now know more about ancient sea levels and the continental shelves, but Wallace’s observations were still an amazing achievement.

Darwin, Severin tells us, got the lion’s share of the credit for the theory of evolution, for as the years went by he was to make fewer and fewer references to his co-discoverer, instead referring to ‘my doctrines’ (as distinct from what he dismissed as Wallace’s excellent memoir).  So eventually everyone forgot that the theory of evolution was originally introduced to a small scientific gathering in Victorian London who would have thought of it as the Darwin-Wallace theory.   ‘Survival of the fittest’ indeed…

Wallace wasn’t, apparently, bitter about this.  Severin says he came back from south-east Asia and stepped into Darwin’s shadow, deliberately and courteously.  His book, The Malay Archipelago, was the monument he preferred… However in later years when Wallace was struggling to support a wife and family, Darwin was at least instrumental in Wallace receiving a pension in recognition of his work.  Later still, Wallace also received medals, honorary doctorates and an Order of Merit so at least among scientists, his pioneering ideas have been acknowledged.  Severin’s coverage of the intricacies of this controversy is excellent.


Severin begins The Spice Islands Voyage with an homage to Wallace which explains this Darwin controversy and goes on to discuss Wallace’s background.  The seventh son of a shabby genteel family, and a bookish, shy young man, Wallace had a father who managed to lose all their money and so the young man had to find his own way in the world.  His interest in geology and botany was sparked by his work as an assistant to his brother who was a freelance land surveyor, and he funded his travels by writing and (ironically given that he was one of the first to recognise conservation as an issue) through the sale of the exotic species he collected.  But he confounds the image of the Victorian explorer which is based largely on the African model.

He did not go forward, rifle in one hand, bible in the other, on the lookout for big game or souls to save.  Nor did he seek to map the source of great rivers or to climb the peaks of the highest mountains.


… even allowing for the differences between Africa and Asia, Wallace was still an explorer of a different style. He did not advance at the head of a long line of porters, one of them perhaps carrying a tin bath on his head.  Wallace worried more about his supply of pins to stick into insect specimens than about bath supplies.  He recruited only a handful of local helpers when he needed them, and his only regular companion was Ali, a Malay assistant whom he trained to shoot and skin birds or bet butterflies. (p.10)

Wallace’s observations of the people he met were shaped by his own experience of being ‘other’. Severin says that his writing shows that he saw things from the perspective of the local people, and he did not want to be feared as a foreign devil. However, I read this book conscious that I would be discussing it with Indonesian friends, and perhaps that made me sensitive to Severin’s own writing about the ‘other’:

We had scarcely dropped our rucksacks to the ground when two men emerged shyly from the forest behind us.  I had seen them in Labi Labi among the crowd of onlookers when we came ashore from our prahu.  The taller of the two had been hard to miss as he was a muscular, bare-chested man in black pantaloons, with a stern expression, who looked as if he was auditioning for a role as a pirate.  Now he hovered at the edge of the camp-site.  He had a wooden cage strapped to his back, and in one hand a hoop of bamboo with a wooden crosspiece.  It was a bird perch on which two bright red Chattering Lories were swinging and chirruping as their name would suggest.  His companion, hardly bigger than a 13-year-old child, had a dreamy smile and was wearing such a tattered pair of trousers and tee-shirt that he might not be wearing any clothes at all.  (p.203)

I interpret this description as a reminder of the widespread malnutrition that stunted growth in Indonesia under the Dutch, and the poverty of the clothing suggests near-destitution.  But there is no commentary about that, so it serves to convey the author’s negative perceptions and Severin thenceforth refers to the first man as ‘the pirate’.  I also noticed that when recording an official’s demand for money to cover expenses the sum of 100,000 rupiah is mentioned.  Most readers will not know that this is not a vast amount:  Severin merely notes that it’s about the equivalent of two weeks’ wages, which it might well be in a place of such poverty, but the traveller paying it is parting with only about $10AUD or £5GBP.  So it seems to me that Severin sometimes lets his disappointment with the state of conservation in Indonesia spill over into presenting the locals from a limited western point-of-view, and that his judgements might not accord with other post-colonial perspectives about this.

Wallace’s first expedition was to the Amazon with a fellow enthusiast called Henry Bates, but it ended badly when they split up to follow different interests.  Wallace asked his brother Herbert to join him but Herbert died of Yellow Fever, and Wallace lost all his specimens on the return journey when his ship caught fire.  It is Wallace’s second journey to the Malay archipelago (1854-1862) that Severin recreates, comparing what he found in the late 20th century (the year before the fall of the dictator Suharto) with how things were in the middle of the 19th century.  There is a fascinating chapter about the building of a replica boat, which Severin names the Alfred Wallace, and then he visits the same places as Wallace did.  Notably, Severin compares the contemporary state of affairs from a conservation point-of-view, and in general he disapproves.  In Wahai, he comments on the free-for-all logging industry and its wasteful destruction of century-old trees; and on Ambon and elsewhere, the poaching of endangered birds brought from Aru to open market for export to collectors.  There is also a chapter about exotic species being openly traded as gourmet delicacies, and the chapter about the wholesale destruction of turtle nests for their eggs is devastating.

Severin makes only slight acknowledgement that this trading, which is so disastrous for endangered species, is part of a word-wide trade in collectible species. He mentions Singaporean bird-dealers sending parrots to Pacific countries, and the American market for cockatoos.  But the trade is more global than that, China being a major culprit in the use of exotic endangered species for their so-called Chinese medicine, sometimes witlessly used by westerners so they are complicit in the illegal trade too.  Customs officials occasionally intercept smuggled birds at Australian airports, so there’s obviously a market here as well.  It would be surprising if there were no UK or European collectors IMO, but there is no mention of this.  The reality is that people don’t smuggle endangered species unless there is a valuable market for it.  Disrupting this global trade and supporting alternative development projects is what’s really needed, and IMO it’s not impoverished people in far-flung places or their cash-strapped governments who should be responsible for doing that.  OTOH this book performs a valuable role in raising awareness about what’s going on, and perhaps other writers are best placed to discuss solutions.

What I found interesting was Severin’s commentary about the abject failure of government decrees and international convenants and the indifferent Indonesian bureaucracy, contrasted with the conservation successes of an autocratic ruler who still retains power and influence derived from traditional adat.  Even when Severin finds a place where official environmental programs are successful, Severin dismisses the success stories as being told what he wants to hear so that NGO or government funding will continue.  I’m not sure what I think about this: adventurers tend to have negative views about rules and regulations which get in the way of whatever they want to do.  (Yes, I am thinking of a prominent Australian adventurer with a penchant for pronouncements about a ‘nanny state’).  Likewise, visitors to ‘exotic’ islands also tend to take a dim view of development, preferring the places they visit to be unspoilt by sagging electricity wires and dull buildings for commerce or government.  I’m more inclined to think that people are very pleased to get electricity and other elements of development… and I think it’s much too easy to blame impoverished people for doing whatever it takes to survive in a global economy where the old ways of sustainable living have been so badly disrupted.  The Indonesian government for all its flaws has done a better job of transitioning from colonialism than many other countries have, and there has been a marked improvement in the standard of living for its people.  I’d like to see it do better, of course, and dealing with corruption along with conservation issues would be somewhere at the top of my list of priorities (along with the elimination of poverty).  But I think we should hesitate to judge because the complexities of the situation can’t be identified from short in-country visits*, no matter how well-intentioned.  It would be very interesting to see a book about the current state of affairs written by an independent Indonesian journalist.

*In the Epilogue, Severin acknowledges that for every year that Wallace had been in the Moluccas, we had spent little more than a month.  And he also says that Concentrating on Wallace’s route, we ignored areas where other environmental protection programmes were in progress.  He reminds the reader that their impressions were only gathered from a tiny sliver of the rim of Indonesia.

Nevertheless, this book is enjoyable reading.  Severin accomplishes the role of sailor, historian, popular science writer, and traveller in a highly readable narrative that shines a light on the difficulties of protecting wildlife in remote places.  I’ll be interested to see what my book-group thinks about The Spice Islands Voyage!

BTW here is a National Geographic video of the Red Bird of Paradise, which Severin was so keen to see (and disappointed in that, largely because he went during the wrong season).

Image credits:

Alfred Russel Wallace: London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (active 1855-1922)First published in Borderland Magazine, April 1896, public domain, Wikipedia

The Wallace Line: By Altaileopard – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Author: Tim Severin
Title: The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace
Photographs by Joe Beynon and Paul Harris
Illustrations by Leonard Sheil
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co., UK, 1997, 267 pages
ISBN: 9780316881753, (hbk.)
Source: Port Phillip Library Servioce, St Kilda Branch

Availability: This edition seems to be out of print, but on the day I looked, Fishpond had a used copy: Spice Islands Voyage. However, Amazon has many of Severin’s titles, though I note that a reader at Goodreads was disappointed by the lack of maps and photos in the Kindle edition.


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. Thankyou. This was a really interesting, comprehensive review.


  3. Another great review and always relish hearing of those unsung heroes and heroines who have been overlooked. As a Scot am thinking with that moniker there has to be some of Wallace’s (Scotland’s well known martyr thanks to that Aussie Mel G) genes in the picture. And oh so different from Livingstone with his evangelism and mercantile ambitions. Oops maybe that is harsh. You do a fantastic job Lisa and I recommend you to many folk. So another thankyou.


    • Thanks, Fay… I think they’d be good genes to have. Wallace seems like such a nice man, self-made, driven by passionate curiosity but pursuing his quest honourably, and obviously highly intelligent. It doesn’t say in the book if he had children or not… it would be interesting to know!


  4. Interesting. I read the Brendan book years ago when I was researching medieval hagiography but hadn’t realised TS had written such a string of voyage recreated type books. Sad to hear about all that eco vandalism


    • It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I’ll certainly look out for more of his work when I’m at the library.


  5. Just his list of voyages seems a very white man’s POV – I’m not sure he’d try the Crusader one today, nor the Silk Road, though trucks often ran from the UK to Afghanistan when that was written.


    • Interesting you should say that, because it begs the question, where are all the tales of adventurers who were not ‘white guys’? We know that there were traders from the middle east hundreds of years ago, before the great age of exploration. We know the Chinese, and we know that the Hindu religion in Bali came from India. Where are the stories?


      • To some extent we as a white, Anglo society simply disregard heroes who are not our own colour, nationality, and often gender. I know the Chinese have similar stories and so do the Maoris and Polynesians. We are learning about women explorers. But are they now in the ‘explorer’ part of the school curriculum? do we discuss the racist connotations of the word ‘explorer’? How many teachers compare the amazing, unaided 1200 mile walk of the Rabbit-proof Fence girls with Burke and Wills’ caravan of goods and support staff?


        • Hmm, I’m not entirely sure that this is true *in this case* either in general or in particular. I think that even if they weren’t available in translation, scholars would know of other travellers’ tales even if they were written in Arabic or Chinese or whatever, just as we know about Scheherazade and The Thousand and one Nights. Historians would be only too pleased to access them as a source. IMO the Middle East, which is very proud of its primacy in mathematics during the Dark Ages, would surely be equally proud if there were ancient journals of epic voyages around the globe.
          There are references to the Hindu presence in Indonesia in the Ramayana, but they’re not travellers tales, and Wikipedia in what appears to be a comprehensive and scholarly coverage of evidence of these travels in the form of inscriptions and statuary and whatnot, makes no mention of a journal. I didn’t find any either when I was researching my book (which BTW includes references to Chinese travellers in Indonesia as long ago as 23AD and the Hindu and Buddhist who visited in the 6th century to pay homage to Indonesian kings). Again, we know about these things, but not from travellers’ tales. I’d be happy to be contradicted by anyone who knows about this, but until then I’m not going to assume that these stories were suppressed by racism.
          As to the issue of women explorers: the wiki I made for my students about explorers included a woman, but truth be told, she was only significant because she was a woman. The crew is not significant: it’s the leader of the expedition who plots the course and makes the decisions about where to go and why, and who records the observations and who reports back to whoever funded the expedition (usually also the leader, though not in the case of e.g. Darwin). The imperialist queens (Isabella 1 and Elizabeth 1 were significant to the history of exploration but a female crew member in disguise as a man is not, except to show that it could be done. Feminism IMO does not merit investing women of the past with significance unless they had it. It’s about changing things now so that opportunities are not denied.
          PS The Rabbit-proof fence film was a secondary school text when I was teaching, maybe it still is. And I think you’d find that the teaching of ‘exploration’ now is nothing like the triumphalist way it was taught when we were at school (and it would be nice if critics gave the profession some credit for this). I know that in Year 4 (because I used to teach it) the study of ‘Explorers’ included the major enquiry Q “What was the nature and consequence of contact between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and early traders, explorers and settlers?” – and that included hundreds of years of Macassan trading for sea cucumbers e.g. in the Northern Territory).
          If you take a look at the national curriculum for Year 9, for instance ( you will see that it covers “the making of the modern world from 1750 to 1918”; it requires the study of Asia in this period; one of the four key enquiry Qs is “What was the origin, development, significance and long-term impact of imperialism in this period?”; and even the content heading implies questioning: it’s called “A Better World?”
          Ok, off my soapbox!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Soapboxes are fun, and of course I know from my son and from reading you that the curriculum is changing (Lou was quite determined to teach Aboriginal heroes – I wonder what he is teaching now in Morocco. And soon, Malawi). I do disagree with you slightly in that I think white, men teachers like my father deliberately fostered ignorance of all but male, Anglo explorers. Interestingly both he and I studied Middle Eastern Thought and Culture but he in relation to religion and me, maths and astronomy. Oral cultures would inevitably render old travellers tales down to legend, but I’m guessing there must be written accounts of individual Chinese and Indian ‘explorers’. [Don’t feel obliged to reply. I’m just putting off commencing “Fatigue Management Assessment for online students”).


    • Of course your father had a limited view of things! With notable exceptions, that was how things were in his era. But anyone doing that now is ignoring the national curriculum, which has been in place for years…
      Fatigue Management?? Is that like those dopey online ‘courses’ that teachers had to do about asthma management; allergy management; workplace safety, etc etc etc. What a waste of time they were… I’d do them conscientiously and still not remember a word of them a day later. Nobody learns anything like that.


      • Dad was the dinosaur in charge of Primary Curriculum in the 1980s. Frightening!
        Unfortunately Fatigue Management is at the centre of drivers’ lives, we spend all our time calculating how to maximise driving time, and keeping records that don’t expose us to fines for inadvertent breaches. Anyway, I find courses intrinsically interesting and this one covers not just fatigue, but safe loading, breaking strain of straps and chains, coefficients of friction for different loads on different surfaces, load centre of gravity etc.; calculation of risk; implementation and ongoing management of systems; and legal liabilities along the ‘chain of responsibility’. Which is why I described it elsewhere as more rigorous than my RMIT M.Bus. And it’s aimed at drivers and ex-drivers (schedulers)!


  7. Bother, I replied to this and accidentally closed the page without sending it.
    Anyway, I’m glad you’re paying proper attention to fatigue management, whatever works for you:)


  8. […] The Spice Islands Voyage, in Search of Wallace, by Tim Severin […]


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