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The Malay Archipelago
A. Travel Narrative
By Alfred Russel Wallace
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
IF we look at a globe or a map of the Eastern hemisphere, we shall perceive between Asia and Australia a number of large and small islands, forming a connected group distinct from those great masses of land, and having little connexion with either of them. Situated upon the Equator, and bathed by the tepid water of the great tropical oceans, this region enjoys a climate more uniformly hot and moist than almost any other part of the globe, and teems with natural productions which are elsewhere unknown. The richest of fruits and the most precious of spices are here indigenous. It produces the giant flowers of the Rafflesia, the great green-winged Ornithoptera (princes among the butterfly tribes), the man-like Orang-Utan, and the gorgeous Birds of Paradise. It is inhabited by a peculiar and interesting race of mankind—the Malay, found nowhere beyond the limits of this insular tract, which has hence been named the Malay Archipelago.
To the ordinary Englishman this is perhaps the least known part of the globe. Our possessions in it are few and scanty; scarcely any of our travellers go to explore it; and in many collections of maps it is almost ignored, being divided between Asia and the Pacific Islands. It thus happens that few persons realize that, as a whole, it is comparable with the primary divisions of the globe, and that some of its separate islands are larger than France or the Austrian empire. The traveller, however, soon acquires different ideas. He sails for days, or even for weeks, along the shores of one of these great islands, often so great that its inhabitants believe it to be a vast continent. He finds that voyages among these islands are commonly reckoned by weeks and months, and that their several inhabitants are often as little known to each other as are the native races of the northern to those of the southern continent of America. He soon comes to look upon this region as one apart from the rest of the world with its own races of men and its own aspects of nature; with its own ideas, feelings, customs, and modes of speech, and with a climate, vegetation, and animated life altogether peculiar to itself.
From many points of view these islands form one compact geographical whole, and as such they have always been treated by travellers and men of science; but a more careful and detailed study of them under various aspects, reveals the unexpected fact that they are divisible into two portions nearly equal in extent, which widely differ in their natural products, and really form parts of two of the primary divisions of the earth. I have been able to prove this in considerable detail by my observations on the natural history of the various parts of the Archipelago; and as in the description of my travels and residence in the several islands I shall have to refer continually to this view, and adduce facts in support of it, I have thought it advisable to commence with a general sketch of such of the main features of the Malayan region as will render the facts hereafter brought forward more interesting, and their bearing on the general question more easily understood. I proceed, therefore, to sketch the limits and extent of the Archipelago, and to point out the more striking features of its geology, physical geography, vegetation, and animal life.
Definition and Boundaries.—For reasons which depend mainly on the distribution of animal life, I consider the Malay Archipelago to include the Malay Peninsula as far as Tenasserim, and the Nicobar Islands on the west, the Philippines on the north, and the Solomon Islands beyond New Guinea, on the east. All the great islands included within these limits are connected together by innumerable smaller ones, so that no one of them seems to be distinctly separated from the rest. With but few exceptions, all enjoy an uniform and very similar climate, and are covered with a luxuriant forest vegetation. Whether we study their form and distribution on maps, or actually travel from island to island, our first impression will be that they form a connected whole, all the parts of which are intimately related to each other.
Extent of the Archipelago and Islands.—The Malay Archipelago extends for more than 4,000 miles in length from east to west, and is about 1,300 in breadth from north to south. It would stretch over an expanse equal to that of all Europe from the extreme west far into Central Asia, or would cover the widest parts of South America, and extend far beyond the land into the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It includes three islands larger than Great Britain; and in one of them, Borneo, the whole of the British Isles might be set down, and would be surrounded by a sea of forests. New Guinea, though less compact in shape, is probably larger than Borneo. Sumatra is about equal in extent to Great Britain; Java, Luzon, and Celebes are each about the size of Ireland. Eighteen more islands are, on the average, as large as Jamaica; more than a hundred are as large as the Isle of Wight; while the isles and islets of smaller size are innumerable.
The absolute extent of land in the Archipelago is not greater than that contained by Western Europe from Hungary to Spain; but, owing to the manner in which the land is broken up and divided, the variety of its productions is rather in proportion to the immense surface over which the islands are spread, than to the quantity of land which they contain.
Geological Contrasts.—One of the chief volcanic belts upon the globe passes through the Archipelago, and produces a striking contrast in the scenery of the volcanic and non-volcanic islands. A curving line marked out by scores of active and hundreds of extinct volcanoes, may be traced through the whole length of Sumatra and Java, and thence by the islands of Bali, Lombock, Sumbawa, Flores, the Serwatty Islands, Banda, Amboyna, Batchian, Makian, Tidore, Ternate, and Gilolo, to Morty Island. Here there is a slight but well-marked break, or shift, of about 200 miles to the westward, where the volcanic belt again begins, in North Celebes, and passes by Siau and Sanguir to the Philippine Islands, along the eastern side of which it continues, in a curving line, to their northern extremity. From the extreme eastern bend of this belt at Banda, we pass onwards for 1,000 miles over a non-volcanic district to the volcanoes observed by Dampier, in 1699, on the north-eastern coast of New Guinea, and can there trace another volcanic belt, through New Britain, New Ireland, and the Solomon Islands, to the eastern limits of the Archipelago.
In the whole region occupied by this vast line of volcanoes, and for a considerable breadth on each side of it, earthquakes are of continual recurrence, slight shocks being felt at intervals of every few weeks or months, while more severe ones, shaking down whole villages, and doing more or less injury to life and property, are sure to happen, in one part or another of this district, almost every year. In many of the islands the years of the great earthquakes form the chronological epochs or the native inhabitants, by the aid of which the ages of their children are remembered, and the dates of many important events are determined.
I can only briefly allude to the many fearful eruptions that have taken place in this region. In the amount of injury to life and property, and in the magnitude of their effects, they have not been surpassed by any upon record. Forty villages were destroyed by the eruption of Papandayang in Java,, in 1772 when the whole mountain was blown up by repeated explosions, and a large lake left in its place. By the great eruption of Tomboro in Sumbawa, in 1815,12,000 people were destroyed, and the ashes darkened the air and fell thickly upon the earth and sea for 300 miles round. Even quite recently, since I quitted the country, a mountain which had been quiescent for more than 200 years suddenly burst into activity. The island of Makian, one of the Moluccas, was rent open in 1646 by a violent eruption, which left a huge chasm on one side, extending into the heart of the mountain. When I last visited it, in 1860, it was clothed with vegetation to the summit, and contained twelve populous Malay villages. On the 29th of December, 1862, after 215 years of perfect inaction, it again suddenly burst forth, blowing up and completely altering the appearance of the mountain, destroying the greater part of the inhabitants, and sending forth such volumes of ashes as to darken the air at Ternate, forty miles off, and to almost entirely destroy the growing crops on that and the surrounding islands.
The island of Java contains more volcanoes, active and extinct, than any other known district of equal extent. They are about forty-five in number, and many of them exhibit most beautiful examples of the volcanic cone on a large scale, single or double, with entire or truncated summits, and averaging 10,000 feet high.
It is now well ascertained that almost all volcanoes have been slowly built up by the accumulation of matter—mud, ashes, and lava—ejected by themselves. The openings or craters, however, frequently shift their position; so that a country may be covered with a more or less irregular series of hills in chains and masses, only here and there rising into lofty cones, and yet the whole may be produced by true volcanic action. In this manner the greater part of Java has been formed. There has been some elevation, especially on the south coast, where extensive cliffs of coral limestone are found; and there may be a substratum of older stratified rocks; but still essentially Java is volcanic; and that noble and fertile island—the very garden of the East, and perhaps upon the whole the richest, the best cultivated, and the best governed tropical island in the world—owes its very existence to the same intense volcanic activity which still occasionally devastates its surface.
The great island of Sumatra exhibits in proportion to its extent a much smaller number of volcanoes, and a considerable portion of it has probably a non-volcanic origin.
To the eastward, the long string of islands from Java, passing by the north of Timor and away to Banda, are probably all due to volcanic action. Timor itself consists of ancient stratified rocks, but is said to have one volcano near its centre.
Going northward, Amboyna, a part of Bouru, and the west end of Ceram, the north part of Gilolo, and all the small islands around it, the northern extremity of Celebes, and the islands of Siau and Sanguir, are wholly volcanic. The Philippine Archipelago contains many active and extinct volcanoes, and has probably been reduced to its present fragmentary condition by subsidences attending on volcanic action.
All along this great line of volcanoes are to be found more or less palpable signs of upheaval and depression of land. The range of islands south of Sumatra, a part of the south coast of Java and of the islands east of it, the west and east end of Timor, portions of all the Moluccas, the Ké and Aru Islands, Waigiou, and the whole south and east of Gilolo, consist in a great measure of upraised coral-rock, exactly corresponding to that now forming in the adjacent seas. In many places I have observed the unaltered surfaces of the elevated reefs, with great masses of coral standing up in their natural position, and hundreds of shells so fresh-looking that it was hard to believe that they had been more than a few years out of the water; and, in fact, it is very probable that such changes have occurred within a few centuries.
The united lengths of these volcanic belts is about ninety degrees, or one-fourth of the entire circumference of the globe. Their width is about fifty miles; but, for a space of two hundred on each side of them, evidences of subterranean action are to be found in recently elevated coral-rock, or in barrier coral-reefs, indicating recent submergence. In the very centre or focus of the great curve of volcanoes is placed the large island of Borneo, in which no sign of recent volcanic action has yet been observed, and where earthquakes, so characteristic of the surrounding regions, are entirely unknown. The equally large island of New Guinea occupies another quiescent area, on which no sign of volcanic action has yet been discovered. With the exception of the eastern end of its northern peninsula, the large and curiously-shaped island of Celebes is also entirely free from volcanoes; and there is some reason to believe that the volcanic portion has once formed a separate island. The Malay Peninsula is also non-volcanic.
The first and most obvious division of the Archipelago would therefore be into quiescent and volcanic regions, and it might, perhaps, be expected that such a division would correspond to some differences in the character of the vegetation and the forms of life. This is the case, however, to a very limited extent; and we shall presently see that, although this development of subterranean fires is on so vast a scale,—has piled up chains of mountains ten or twelve thousand feet high—has broken up continents and raised up islands from the ocean,—yet it has all the character of a recent action, which has not yet succeeded in obliterating the traces of a more ancient distribution of land and water.
Contrasts of Vegetation.—Placed immediately upon the Equator and surrounded by extensive oceans, it is not surprising that the various islands of the Archipelago should be almost always clothed with a forest vegetation from the level of the sea to the summits of the loftiest mountains. This is the general rule. Sumatra, New Guinea, Borneo, the Philippines and the Moluccas, and the uncultivated parts of Java and Celebes, are all forest countries, except a few small and unimportant tracts, due perhaps, in some cases, to ancient cultivation or accidental fires. To this, however, there is one important exception in the island of Timor and all the smaller islands around it, in which there is absolutely no forest such as exists in the other islands, and this character extends in a lesser degree to Flores, Sumbawa, Lombock, and Bali.
In Timor the most common trees are Eucalypti of several species, so characteristic of Australia, with sandal-wood, acacia, and other sorts in less abundance. These are scattered over the country more or less thickly, but never so as to deserve the name of a forest. Coarse and scanty grasses grow beneath them on the more barren hills, and a luxuriant herbage in the moister localities. In the islands between Timor and Java there is often a more thickly wooded country, abounding in thorny and prickly trees. These seldom reach any great height, and during the force of the dry season they almost completely lose their leaves, allowing the ground beneath them to be parched up, and contrasting strongly with the damp, gloomy, ever-verdant forests of the other islands. This peculiar character, which extends in a less degree to the southern peninsula of Celebes and the east end of Java, is most probably owing to the proximity of Australia. The south-east monsoon, which lasts for about two-thirds of the year (from March to November), blowing over the northern parts of that country, produces a degree of heat and dryness which assimilates the vegetation and physical aspect of the adjacent islands to its own. A little further eastward in Timor-laut and the Ké Islands, a moister climate prevails, the south-east winds blowing from the Pacific through Torres Straits and over the damp forests of New Guinea, and as a consequence every rocky islet is clothed with verdure to its very summit. Further west again, as the same dry winds blow over a wider and wider extent of ocean, they have time to absorb fresh moisture, and we accordingly find the island of Java possessing a less and less arid climate, till in the extreme west near Batavia rain occurs more or less all the year round, and the mountains are everywhere clothed with forests of unexampled luxuriance.
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