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Letter from Singapore (S14a: 1854)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A narrative printed in the 16 December 1854 issue of The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Science, and Art. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S014A.htm

[[p. 1077]] Singapore, 26th September.

     In July last I left this town for Malacca, and spent more than two months there.

     Few places have populations so varied and distinct living together as are to be found in Malacca. The ubiquitous Chinese are perhaps the most numerous, keeping up their manners, customs, and language; the indigenous Malays are next in point of numbers, and their language is the 'Lingua franca' of the place. Next come the descendants of the Portuguese--a mixed, degraded, and degenerate race, but who still keep up the use of their mother tongue, though ruefully mutilated in grammar; and then there are the English rulers, and the descendants of the Dutch, who all speak English. The Portuguese spoken at Malacca is a useful philological phenomenon. The verbs have mostly lost their inflections, and one form does for all moods, tenses, numbers, and persons. En vai, nos vai, does for everything connected with going. Adjectives too have been deprived of their feminine and plural terminations, so that the language is reduced to a marvellous simplicity, and with the admixture of a few Malay words becomes rather puzzling to one who has heard only the pure Lusitanian.

     In costume these several peoples are as varied as in their speech. The English preserve the tight fitting coat, waistcoat, and trowsers, and the abominable hat and cravat; the Portuguese patronise a light jacket, or more frequently shirt and trowsers only; the Malays wear their national jacket and sarong, with loose drawers; while the Chinese never depart in the least from their national dress, which, indeed, it is impossible to improve for a tropical climate, whether as regards [[p. 1078]] comfort or appearance. The loosely hanging trowsers, and neat white half-shirt half-jacket, is exactly what a dress should be in this latitude.

     The town of Malacca is crowded along the side of the little river, and consists of narrow streets of small houses, some devoted to shops, others to the more fancifully ornamented dwellings of the Chinese. In the suburbs are the houses of the English, and other more civilized inhabitants, embedded in groves of cocoa nut, mangosteen, durian, rambutan, jack, mango, araca nut, and many other fruit trees, the never failing shade of whose varied and beautiful foliage is as agreeable as the fruits themselves, the merits of which I cannot but think have been far too highly rated. Some small hills near the town are entirely occupied as Chinese graveyards, many acres of ground being covered with large horseshoe shaped tombs of solid masonry, generally much and fantastically adorned with painting, gilding, and carving. Further in the interior are extensive marshy flats cultivated as paddy-fields, out of which low isolated hills rise like islands. Further on, again, these flats contract into narrow valleys, winding about amidst low undulations. It is along the sides of these that the Malay villages are situated, only distinguishable by the dense masses of palms and fruit trees in which their houses are buried. Every spot of ground which is not nor has been cultivated is covered with jungle.

     In Malacca, as in Singapore, the Chinese do everything. They build houses, they fetch wood and water, they cultivate vegetables, they clear the paddy by laboriously pounding it in a huge mortar, the stamper of which is worked by the feet, they work the tin mines of the interior, and the gold mines of Mount Ophir. They do everything but manage horses. A Chinese groom is an impossibility.

     My first excursion was to a place called Gading, thirteen miles from the town, where I had permission to reside in a house occupied by some Chinese Christians who are cultivating a gambir and pepper plantation. The house was a mere huge shed. I lived in it a fortnight, as, strange to relate, the Chinese (I trust because they were Christians) kept it clean. No people in the tropics really cultivate the soil as these do. They do not merely plant and reap. They dig, and trench, and level; they eradicate weeds and stumps; they keep the ground clean, and they manure; the process of manuring, indeed, was the only thing I objected to, as the tank was a large bucket kept standing for convenience in a corner of the house. The rage for liquid manure is such, that in the Chinese villages a bucket often stands near the door for public use. The pigs for the same reason are far better lodged than with us, having a floor of poles with a tank beneath, in which all the manure is collected.

     I found the men very quiet and civil, doing anything I required with great willingness. Their food consisted of rice, a little fish, and a few vegetables, with weak tea ad libitum. They, however, eat a great deal, and four times a day. The Malays, on the contrary, take only two meals.

     There were several tin mines in the village near us, employing many thousand Chinese. The ore is obtained from beds of a quartzose sand in the flat valley before mentioned. It exists in small black grains (an oxide?), and is separated by washing. This is done generally by hand, in large wooden basins, or sometimes by a stream of water in a large wooden trough. The smelting is done with charcoal, in rude clay furnaces, bound together with poles and rattan; the metal runs into a hole at the bottom, and is ladled into a mould, forming an ingot of about 50lbs. weight, and very pure.

     After a fortnight's residence one of my Portuguese servants was seized with fever, and I was obliged to return with him to Malacca, where the other was also taken ill, and then I caught the fever. I recovered by a liberal use of quinine, and went to another locality among the Malays, about whom, and of my visit to Mount Ophir, I will write in my next.

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