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The Spice Islands Voyage by Timothy Severin
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The Spice Islands Voyage (1997)

by Timothy Severin

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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.

To read the rest of my review please visit https://anzlitlovers.com/2019/04/14/the-spice-islands-voyage-in-search-of-wallac... ( )
  anzlitlovers | Apr 13, 2019 |
An excellent book! Severin does a wonderful job of molding and blending his voyage into a recapitulation of Wallace's time in Indonesia. There is also a chunk about Wallace that I never knew. Good stuff! ( )
  untraveller | Nov 3, 2016 |
Good tale of re-visiting Alfred Wallace's territory.
Read in Samoa June 2002 ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 26, 2015 |
There's no doubt that this is a worthy book. Alfred Wallace's journeys in what we now know as the Indonesian Archipelago deserve commemoration. Furthermore this is a telling account of the condition of the environment in those regions now, and a call to preserve the best parts of it for the future. Once again, Severin's story is built around the re-creation of a ship, in this case a traditional Indonesion prau, such as Wallace might have used in his travels in the 19th Century.

But in the end it took me nearly six months to finish this book, and even then I only managed that with difficulty. It's not that it is badly written, it just that it's, well, frankly, dull. All of the excitement of his previous sea-faring books is built around the notion that he is re-creating a voyage in a replica boat and there's every expectation that either he won't get where he's going, or sink (which amounts to the same thing). There was excitement, well at least interest, in how he came to have the boat constructed. But after that it was a processional journey around the islands of eastern Indonesia with numbing details of fauna and flora.

What he really had here was a film in the making, a beautiful documentary of sights and sounds, and this would have been the book to the film, and issued in quarto with many more pictures and drawings. If you had an interest in this part of the world this would be a 'must have' book, otherwise it is really one for the Severin fans, and even then something to be dipped into perhaps rather than read at a gallop. ( )
  nandadevi | Oct 25, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0349110409, Paperback)

Describing a journey among the Spice Islands of Indonesia aboard a traditional native sailing vessel, this is also an account of a quest to rediscover a remarkable Englishman, who changed the way we see the natural world. Alfred Russel Wallace was a joint-author of the theory of evolution by natural selection, yet today his name is overshadowed by Darwin's. A brilliant and intrepid naturalist, Wallace was the author of "The Malay Archipelago", one of the greatest of all travel books. It was used as a guide in 1996 when Tim Severin retraced his path through the Spice Islands, encountering red birds of paradise, sea turtles and other unusual flora and fauna, and observing rainforest destruction, the smuggling of rare species, and ancient systems of tribal rule.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:08 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In a replica of the boat that naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace himself sailed 140 years before him - a prahu, as these sleek Stone Age sailing vessels were called - and with Wallace's own book, The Malay Archipelago, as his guide, Severin embarks on a venture that takes him and his small crew through sparkling coral seas to remote shorelines where they encounter such exotic creatures as green turtles and Red Birds of Paradise, flying foxes and Bird-Winged Butterflies. Not only do they discover the unusual flora and fauna that Wallace had recorded in his travels but they also observe the smuggling of rare birds, the destruction of the rainforest, and the selling of endangered species for small fortunes as well as the survival of ancient rituals in tribal rule and the emergence of an environmental awareness among the Indonesian islanders.… (more)

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