Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon

By John Hemming

Thames & Hudson. 368 pp. $34.95

Shortly after breakfast on Aug. 6, 1852, Capt. John Turner of the brig Helen, which was then in the middle of the Atlantic after departing from Belem, Brazil, and heading for London, descended to the cabin of one of his passengers and issued a rather understated invitation: “I’m afraid the ship’s on fire; come and see what you think of it.”

The passenger was Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the three heroes of John Hemming’s new book, “Naturalists in Paradise,” and one of the greatest field biologists of all time. When the fire broke out, however, Wallace was an unemployed and relatively unknown bird and bug collector sailing back to his native England with an enormous collection of specimens he had gathered during a four-year stay in the Amazon rain forest and which he hoped to sell upon his return home.

‘Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon’ by John Hemming (Thames & Hudson)

Wallace had set sail for the Amazon four years earlier with his friend Henry Walter Bates. Both were woefully unprepared. Neither spoke Portuguese or Spanish, nor had either spent any appreciable time outside England. Further, unlike Charles Darwin, who had graduated from Cambridge and studied in the medical school at Edinburgh, Scotland, prior to his famous voyage in the Beagle, neither Wallace nor Bates had received any advanced education: Wallace had some training in surveying, while Bates was employed in the family hosiery business. Wallace and Bates traveled and collected together in Brazil, then went their separate ways after several months. Bates stayed on when Wallace departed, and he and his collections survived and made it to England intact seven years after the sinking of the Helen.

Wallace had collected thousands of specimens — birds, insects, palms, mammals — many of which had never been seen by the outside world, and most of which perished with the ship. He not only visited much of the Brazilian Amazon but also ventured far enough north to enter Venezuela and far enough west to reach the Colombian border. He traveled far beyond where any European scientist had reached, studying Indians and their languages and customs, pre-Columbian rock art, geography, geology, flora, and fauna. In addition to the sinking of his ship, he survived encounters with poisonous snakes, a gunshot wound, persistent hunger, torrential rains, stifling humidity (a major impediment to drying and storing scientific specimens), poverty, insect bites (50 wasp stings in one instance), near-mishaps with man-eating black caimans, and repeated and crippling bouts of malaria. And more painful was the death of his beloved younger brother Herbert, whom Alfred had persuaded to sail to Brazil, where he perished of yellow fever.

Wallace lived through not only the fire onboard the Helen but also two near-shipwrecks on his way back to England. Such torments probably would have led the average obsessive naturalist to forever swear off tropical travails and — especially — travel by ship. Yet after publishing several important papers and two books about his work in the Amazon, written mostly from memory during just 18 months in England, Wallace set sail for the distant and little-known Malay Archipelago. There he spent eight years and changed the world. Lying in a hammock in the Maluku Islands, in the depths of a malarial fever, he had an extraordinary insight: that as species struggle for existence, the fittest survive, a process that would become known as natural selection. He scribbled his thoughts in a letter to Charles Darwin, who had been developing the same concept, and their papers were published together in 1858 in what is considered the founding document of the science of evolutionary biology.

Much of Wallace’s thinking had been shaped by the work of and his interaction with his friend Bates. While the range of Wallace’s research interest was quite broad, Bates focused almost solely on insects. Like Wallace, he was an autodidact, as higher education was neither very available nor very affordable then for middle-class youth. By concentrating so closely on one group of organisms, Bates was able to observe phenomena that supported Wallace’s theory — for example, how the coloration of unpalatable butterflies is mimicked by more tasty species, a process now known as Batesian mimicry.

A third member of this triumvirate was botanist Richard Spruce, a Yorkshireman who arrived in Brazil a year after Bates and Wallace and who eventually traveled all the way north into Venezuela and west into Ecuador. All in all, Spruce lived 14 years in South America, spending some of his time with Bates and Wallace but traveling mostly on his own. He made the first scientific description of the then-legendary hallucinogen ayahuasca and played a vital role in the collection of cinchona trees — whose bark was the source of the antimalarial quinine — and their shipment to the Asian corners of the British empire. The success of the ensuing cinchona plantations made quinine available to much of the world and, in so doing, saved millions of lives.

The author of this most intriguing “triography” of Bates, Spruce and Wallace is the person best qualified to write it: John Hemming, former director of the Royal Geographical Society. He has previously written more than 10 books on South America, several of which are regarded as classics, but — much more important — has probably traversed more of the Brazilian Amazon in the 20th century than any other Englishman. He has traveled in his subjects’ footsteps in some of the Amazon’s most exceedingly remote locales, such as the bizarre Casiquiare Canal in southernmost Venezuela, visited separately by Spruce and Wallace. Hemming’s first-hand knowledge gives his new book special precision and a gratifying immediacy.

Another unanticipated benefit is the care the author has taken to provide modern scientific names for the plants and animals discussed in the story, greatly enriching the experience for the reader. When Bates, Spruce and Wallace were collecting in South America, many of these species were unknown to the outside world, meaning they had no scientific names, no English names, and even sometimes no Portuguese or Spanish names. Thanks to Hemming’s diligent identification efforts, a reader can type the modern scientific names provided in “Naturalists in Paradise” into a search engine and almost immediately gaze upon photos of the twining jacitara palm (Desmoncus polyacanthos), the curl-crested toucan (Pteroglossus beauharnaesii) or the ueramimbe umbrella bird (Cephalopterus ornatus) with an ease that these explorers could not have imagined but would undoubtedly have envied.

Perhaps Hemming’s crowning achievement is the full integration of the stories of Bates, Spruce and Wallace. Wallace has been the focus of numerous books, while few narratives have concentrated on the great scientific contributions by Bates or Spruce. Hemming makes a very clear and compelling case that the other two’s friendship, partnership, conversations, correspondence and research amply influenced Wallace’s thinking and his great theory.

“Naturalists in Paradise” is illustrated to provide the reader with a strong sense of place: Hemming’s narratives commingle with drawings by Spruce and paintings by Wallace as well as both 19th-century and recent photographs to evoke the forest, the Indians, the villages, the plants, the animals and the explorers themselves. This reviewer’s lone quibble with this wonderful book is the cover: The color scheme is violet and pink, providing scant indication of the green treasures awaiting the reader within.