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D'Albertis' "New Guinea"1 (S332: 1880)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A review of L. M. D'Albertis' New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw, printed in two parts in the Nature issues of 16 December and 23 December 1880. The original printing contained seven illustrations, omitted here. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S332.htm

     [[p. 152]] Of the few travellers who have attempted to explore the great island of New Guinea, Signor D'Albertis must undoubtedly be considered the chief, since he alone has made extensive and repeated journeys both in the north-western and the south-eastern parts of the island, and has thus been able to examine and compare some of the most distinct tribes or races which inhabit the country. The narrative of his travels has therefore been looked for with some interest, for though several of his journeys have been more or less fully described in newspapers and magazines, it was felt that much must remain to be told, and that so energetic a traveller would probably be able to throw some fuller light on the hitherto doubtful affinities and relations of the Papuan races.

     Leaving Genoa in November, 1871, in company with the well-known traveller and botanist Dr. Beccari, and making short excursions in Java and the Moluccas, our travellers hired a small schooner at Amboyna in March, 1872, to take them to Outanata, on the south coast of New Guinea; and after some delays at Goram seeking a pilot and interpreter, on April 9 D'Albertis records in his journal: "A memorable day! At last I tread the mysterious land. At last, leaping on shore this morning, I exclaimed, 'We are in New Guinea!'"

     Finding no safe or convenient place to stay at on the south coast, they proceeded to Salwati and fixed their abode for some time at Sorong, a small island close to the north-western extremity of the main land of Papua. From this point they made excursions into the interior, and D'Albertis resided some time at the inland village of Ramoi, where he was near dying of dropsy and fever. They then went in a native vessel to Dorey Harbour, where they arrived in August, and settled themselves at Andai Village, where a German missionary resides. Here they had a house built, which was their headquarters till November, and D'Albertis succeeded in spending some weeks at Hatam, a village on Mount Arfak, about 3500 feet above the sea, and in the midst of the forests inhabited by the finest and rarest of the birds of paradise. On the very day after his arrival here he shot both the shielded and the six-shafted paradise-birds (Lophorina atra and Parotia sexpennis), two species which had certainly never before been seen alive or freshly killed by any European; and before he left this spot he obtained many other rare species, besides an altogether new and beautiful kind, which has been named Drepanornis albertisii.

     Constant attacks of fever and dropsy, however, reduced him to such a state of weakness that it was absolutely necessary to seek a change of climate, and returning to [[p. 153]] Amboyna he was taken by an Italian man-of-war to Sydney making some stay at the Aru Islands and South-Eastern New Guinea on the way. Thence he went home by way of the Sandwich Islands, San Francisco, and New York, reaching Europe in April, 1874, and thus terminating his first voyage to the far east.

     When leaving Dorey in the end of 1872 he had determined to return to the north coast and to penetrate further into its forest-clad mountains, but the subsequent journeys of Dr. Mayer, of which he heard at Sydney, and Dr. Beccari's intention to return to the same district, induced him to turn his attention to the south, where he had obtained from the natives the skin of a new bird of paradise, and where the lofty ranges of Mount Yule and Mount Stanley offered the prospect of an equally rich and still less known exploring ground. Accordingly, in December 1874, he reached Somerset (Cape York) by way of Singapore, with the intention of settling at Yule Island, which he had before fixed upon as convenient head-quarters for the exploration of Southern New Guinea. After some difficulty and delay he reached the island on March 17, and finding the natives friendly obtained permission to occupy some land and build a house. Here he stayed till November, having with him a young Italian, two Cingalese, and five Polynesians; making large collections of natural history, exploring the island and the shores of the mainland, but being quite unsuccessful in his attempts to reach even the foot of the great mountains of the interior.

     This completes the first volume, which contains by far the most interesting matter both to the naturalist and to the general reader. The second volume is devoted to a detailed journal of three successive voyages up the Fly River, the first in the missionary steamer Ellangowan, the two others in a small steam-launch, the Neva, lent him by the Governor of New South Wales. On the second and most successful of these voyages D'Albertis penetrated to the very centre of the great southern mass of New Guinea, reaching the hilly country, but not the great central range of mountains, of which a few glimpses were obtained at a considerable distance.

     The first impression produced by the careful perusal of these volumes is, that Signor D'Albertis has all the best qualities of an explorer--enthusiasm, boldness, and resource, a deep love of nature, great humanity, and an amount of sympathy with savages which enables him to read their motives and appreciate the good qualities which they possess. To the character of a scientific traveller he makes no claim, and those who expect to find any sound generalisations from the results of his observations will in all probability be disappointed. Let us, however, by a few examples and illustrative passages, enable our author to speak for himself.

     While residing at the village of Ramoi he became prostrated by fever, and was besides almost starving, for the natives would sell him nothing neither would they carry his baggage to enable him to return to Sorong. Determining however not to die there without an effort, he sent for some of the chiefs to speak to him, and then grasping his loaded revolver assured them that unless they gave him men at once to assist him to leave the place not one of them should quit his hut alive. The plan succeeded. One was allowed to go and fetch the men, the others remaining as hostages, and the revolver never left his hand till his baggage was all on board the canoe. A little later when the travellers were on their way to Dorey, the native crew were very insolent, and boasted that when they reached their own country they would kill all the white men. D'Albertis, hearing this, asked the man if he dared to repeat it, and on his doing so suddenly seized him by the throat and pitched him overboard. He was, of course, on board again in a moment, and instantly seized a bamboo to attack our travellers, but they exhibited their revolvers, and so cowed the whole crew that they became quiet and submissive for the rest of the voyage. An admirable portrait of one of these Dorey Papuans (Fanduri) is given, and the present writer can almost believe that he recognises in it one of his own acquaintances at Dorey in 1858.

     More amusing was the way in which Signor D'Albertis made use of the aneroid on his journey to Hatam. His porters, who had agreed to take him there for a fixed payment, stopped at a village to rest; and on being told to go on, said, "This is Hatam; pay us our wages." He knew however, both by the distance and elevation, that they were deceiving him, and told them so, but they again said, "This is Hatam; pay us. How do you know that this is not Hatam?" He then took his aneroid out of his pocket, and laying his finger on a point of the scale, said, "Here is Hatam; this thing tells me where it is;" and then explained that when they got higher up the mountain the index would move, and when they reached Hatam it would come to the point he had marked. This astonished them greatly, but they would not believe it without proof. So he let one of them carry it himself to the top of a small hill near, when they saw that the index had moved, and on coming down that it moved back again. This quite satisfied them. They acknowledged that the white man knew where he was going, and could not be deceived, so they at once said, "Let us rest to-day; tomorrow we will go to Hatam." Of course every man and woman in the village wanted to see the little thing that told the stranger where lay the most remote villages of the forest; and thus the traveller's influence was increased, and perhaps his personal safety secured.

     In his second journey he provided himself with dynamite and rockets, which were very effectual in frightening the savages and giving him moral power over them. At Yule Island he was on excellent terms with the natives, on whom he conferred many benefits. Yet during his absence on an exploration his house was entered and a large quantity of goods stolen. In recovering these and firmly establishing his power and influence he showed great ingenuity. Calling the chiefs and other natives [[p. 154]] together--who all pretended great regret at his loss, though the robbery must have been effected with their connivance--he told them that he was determined to have his property back, and that if it was not brought in twenty-four hours he would fire at every native who came within range of his house, which fortunately commanded a great extent of native paths, as well as the narrow strait between the island and the main land. He then made his preparations for a desperate defence in case he was attacked, loaded some Orsini shells and mined the paths leading to his house, so that with a long match he could blow them up without exposing himself. At the end of the twenty-four hours, nothing having been brought, he commenced operations by exploding five dynamite cartridges, which made a roar like that of a cannonade, the echoes resounding for several seconds. He then let off rockets in the direction of the native houses, and illuminated his own house with Bengal fire. All this caused terrible consternation; and the next morning the chief arrived with five men, bringing a considerable portion of the stolen goods, and trembling with fear to such an extent that some of them could not articulate a word. He insisted however that the rest of the goods should be brought back; and the next day, to show that he was in earnest, fired at the chief himself, as he was passing at a distance of 300 yards, being careful not to hurt, but only to frighten him. A canoe was also turned back by a bullet striking a rock close by it. The effect of this was seen next morning in another visit from the chief, with five complete suits of clothes, axes, knives, beads, and other stolen articles. Much more, however, remained, and D'Albertis took the opportunity of impressing them thoroughly with his power. He first asked them to try to pierce a strong piece of zinc with their spears, which were blunted by the attempt, while he riddled it through and through with shot from his gun. He also sent bullets into the trunk of a small tree a hundred yards distant, showing that a man could not escape him. They had been seated on a large stone near his house, which he had mined. He now called them away, and having secretly lighted the match, told them to look at the stone. A tremendous explosion soon came, and the stone disappeared. The natives were too frightened to move, and begged him to have pity on them, promising to restore everything. A great hole was seen where the stone had stood, while some of its fragments were found a long way off. For twelve days more he kept up a state of siege, turning back all travellers and many canoes by rifle-balls in front of them, but never hurting any one. Then another large instalment of his goods was brought, leaving little of importance, and ultimately he recovered almost everything. During the whole of this time he never hurt a single person or did any damage to their property, but succeeded in getting back his own by impressing them with his, to them, superhuman power. The result was that after eight months' residence he parted from these people on the best of terms. They all embraced him, and most of them shed tears, while their last words were: "Maria rau! Maria rau!" "Return, Maria! Return, Maria!"--that being his second name, by which they had found it most easy to call him.

     As a fearless capturer of snakes Signor D'Albertis rivals, if he does not surpass, the celebrated Waterton; indeed he seems to like them rather than otherwise. At Yule Island the natives had found a large snake under a tree, and all ran away from it, crying out, and this is his account of what happened:--

     "At last I went to the natives and tried to ascertain [[p. 155]] the cause of their conduct, and they made me understand why they had fled. I then returned to see the snake myself, which in fact I did, although two-thirds of its length were hidden in a hole in the earth. His size was such that I concluded he could not be poisonous, and I at once grasped him by the tail. While dragging him out of his lair with my two hands I was prepared to flatten his neck close to his head with one foot the moment he emerged, so that he should not have the power of turning or moving. My plan succeeded perfectly, and while the snake's head was imprisoned under my foot I grasped his body with my hands, and, as though I had vanquished a terrible monster, turned towards the natives with an air of triumph. They, struck with terror, had looked on at the scene from a safe distance. I must confess that the snake offered little resistance, although it writhed and twisted itself round my arm, squeezing it so tightly as to stop the circulation, and make my hand black. I remained however in possession of its neck, and soon secured it firmly to a long thick stick I had brought with me. I then gave the reptile to my men to carry home." This serpent was thirteen feet long, whereas the one Waterton caught single-handed was but ten feet, though it might have been equally powerful. This snake was kept alive and became quite tame, and when the natives saw D'Albertis kiss its head and let it coil round his legs they howled with amazement and admiration. Six weeks after the capture he writes:--"My snake continues to do well; it has twice cast its skin, is well-behaved and tame, and does not attempt to escape, even when I put it in the sun outside the house; and when I go to bring it in, it comes to me of its own accord. It never attempts to bite, even when I caress or tease it. While I am working I often hold it on my knees, where it remains for hours; sometimes it raises its head, and licks my face with its forked tongue. It is a true friend and companion to me. When the natives bother me it is useful in putting them to flight, for they are much afraid of it; it is quite sufficient for me to let my snake loose to make them fly at full speed." He kept this serpent for nearly six months, and latterly another of the same species with it, till at last both escaped, and he mourns their loss as of dear friends, adding, "for I loved them and they loved me, and we had passed a long time together."

     The furthest village on the mainland visited by D'Albertis was Epa, where he lived five days, and of which he gives a very pleasing account. It is about 1500 feet above the sea, but a very short distance from the coast. The village is surrounded by a strong double stockade, and the people appear to be good specimens of the superior Mahori-Papuan race. By the aid of these people it would probably not have been difficult to penetrate to the mountains of the interior, but our traveller was drawn away by the opportunity of exploring the Fly River, and has left the exploration of this grand mountain range with its rich natural treasures for some future exploration or some other explorer. Having thus sketched the outline of Signor D'Albertis' eastern voyages and indicated his main characteristics as a traveller and an author, let us see what he has to tell us about the people among whom he travelled. (To be continued.)

[[p. 175]] II.2

     The various accounts of the natives given throughout these volumes leave an impression of vagueness that is very unsatisfactory. The mixture of races in various parts of New Guinea is no doubt great, but we cannot help thinking that there is a well-marked Papuan type, and that its head-quarters are in this great island. Signor D'Albertis seems to attach too much importance to minor peculiarities. He continually mentions small differences in the features, the hair, the form of the skull, or the stature, as implying a radical difference of race, forgetting that such differences are found among every people and in every country, and that on this principle we might establish a dozen different "races" in Europe. Taking the term Papuan in a broad sense as including all the dark-skinned woolly or crisp-haired tribes of the Western Pacific, it seems clear that New Guinea is very largely peopled by this race, and that its north-western peninsulas contain the most typical examples of it. In the south-east however another race is found which may be described as yellow-skinned and smooth-haired, and these are clearly Polynesians or "Mahori," that is of the same race as the natives of Samoa and New Zealand. In the Fly River and adjacent country both these occur, as well as a mixed race, which D'Albertis seems to think is destined to supplant them. He describes these races as follows:--

     "The two varieties to which I allude may be defined thus: the yellow, and the black. The term yellow does not exactly express the first, nor does black the second, and those adjectives must be used comparatively only. The characteristics of the yellow variety are as follows:--hair curling or smooth--neither crisp nor woolly, black and shining, often almost of a chestnut hue; forehead large and flat; temples little, if at all depressed; eye orbits scarcely, if at all, prominent; cheek-bones rather high; round chin and round face; large brown eyes, with eye-balls of a bluish-white; the nose often aquiline, never flattened, and generally small; lips moderately full; and brachycephalous and round skull. These people are not prognathous. In colour they vary from brown to very light brownish yellow. In stature they are not generally inferior to the black race, and their forms are fuller and rounder.

     "The black variety is distinguished by a narrow and retreating forehead, compressed temples, strongly-marked orbital arches, prominent cheek-bones, aquiline nose, pointed and narrow chin, long face, decidedly prognathous, an oblong skull. The eyes are small, either black or brown, the eyeball bloodshot or yellowish, and the men are tall and generally thin. The preponderating type exhibits every gradation that can result from these two varieties.

     "We may therefore conclude that the present inhabitants of Hall Bay (opposite Yule Island) are a mixture of two races, one dark-skinned and crisp-haired, the other with lighter skin and smooth hair; and this is all that can be said from our present knowledge."

     The light race--which we may call Papuan Mahoris--are far more civilised than the dark Papuans. D'Albertis says of them:--

     "The most perfect harmony seems to reign in families, and rare indeed are cases of quarrel among members of one household. They live in communities, sometimes of more than a thousand inhabitants, in well-built villages, [[p. 176]] worthy to be called small towns, both for their order and cleanliness. They are under the rule of the chiefs or landowners. The chief is looked upon as father of the family. He is called Pacao, and his servant or subject is called Irine. From all I could learn, slavery does not exist, and the sale of human beings is unknown." After describing their daily avocations, amusements, dress, implements, and ornaments (a group of which are figured), he goes on: "Their natural disposition is gentle and placid. They like to spend their time in talking and games, in which men and women take an equal share. Playful and free of speech, they nevertheless do not transgress the bounds of modesty, either in word or deed. Women and children are included in every conversation, and often take part in public discussions, which are usually held in the evening. Women are always respected, and in some villages they enjoy a certain supremacy, although the government of the house belongs to the husband. Labour may be said to be fairly divided between the two sexes, and they are accustomed to work from their earliest childhood. . . . The material for civilisation is in them, but will the change make them better? Will they be the happier for it? This is a difficult problem, and one which cannot be solved until the experiment has been made. For my part I do not doubt that these, more readily than any other savages whom I know, would answer to the call of a civilised nation which, stretching out a paternal hand, would lead them towards our civilisation! To insure success, however, they should be treated as friends, not as slaves; they should be cherished, not destroyed."

     Unfortunately our attempts at civilising savages have as yet in every case failed. Are we still, notwithstanding all our wretched failures, to go on in the old way, and allow these interesting and now happy people to be first ruined morally by the teaching of the dregs of our Australian and Pacific traders, and then physically deteriorated by the forced introduction of a form of civilisation utterly unsuited to them? Cannot either philanthropy, or religion, or Government protect these people from all such external influences as have been proved to be unsuited to their condition and stage of development, while aiding them to work out for themselves an indigenous civilisation? Here is perhaps the last chance we have to preserve one remnant of the better class of savages from being crushed under the Juggernaut car of our high-pressure civilisation and mad struggle for wealth.

     The inhabitants of the lower part of the Fly River appear to be mostly dark Papuans, while further in the interior a mixed race was met with. Among the curious articles found in this part of the country were numbers of stone clubs, carved into various star-like shapes and forming terrific weapons in close combat. Stone axes are also largely used, closely resembling in form the neolithic celts of Europe.

     Maino, chief of Moatta, a village at the mouth of the Fly, was a great friend of D'Albertis', and accompanied him on one of his voyages up the river. An elaborate study, both physical and mental, was made of this savage, and forms one of the best and most valuable passages in the book. A few extracts will show its character. After describing his person, our author goes on:--

     "The above is a sketch of the animal Maino. I will now try to draw his portrait as a man, according to the moral sense of that definition. The opinion I have formed of him as a reasonable being is favourable. It is not however necessary to examine him very closely with European lenses, remembering that he is what we call a savage. He has sufficient intelligence for his position, and probably he is not capable of more. . . . He is friendly to the white man because he fears him, and because he knows he can gain by him. He is proud, and takes offence easily, without however showing that he is irritated; only once during two months and a half did he display any anger. He is generally silent, and seems meditative. Sometimes he is lively and will laugh, but his laugh appears studied and forced, not natural or spontaneous. He is cruel rather from instinct than from education, and in a way that we Europeans can perhaps neither understand nor appreciate justly. His cruelty raises him in his own estimation and in that of his dependents--in the eyes of his friends and of his enemies. He considers men and women, if they are strangers to him, good for nothing but to have their heads cut off. Up to the present time his victims number thirty-three. A warrior who bravely attacked him, or a woman sleeping in the forest would be to him exactly the same thing. He would see in each a trophy, a victory; and what he would esteem would be their skulls. He likes to see blood, and it is with marked satisfaction he describes the modus operandi in cutting off a head, the instruments used in the operation, and the method of surprising an enemy by treachery, even if a woman or a child. . . . He is tender and affectionate towards his own family, and to his sons at least his temper may be said to be mild. . . . Maino is remarkably selfish. He would willingly let others die of hunger if to relieve them he would have to sacrifice some delicacy intended for himself. I experienced this during the voyage. . . . Notwithstanding certain traits which might make him appear a bad man in the eyes of [[p. 177]] Europeans, I can testify that Maino is a good fellow, and was a good comrade to us all. His rank and his age prevented his being useful except as a pilot, but in that capacity he was most valuable."

     Turning to the lighter race, one of the most interesting and novel facts we find recorded of them is their most ingenious mode of cultivation. Fields were observed in Yule Island so well and evenly tilled that they appeared as if they had been ploughed, but it was afterwards ascertained that all had been done by manual labour.

     "The natives form gangs of eight or ten men, each man holding in either hand a very hard wooden pole, sharpened to a point, over six feet long and from an inch to an inch and a half thick. These men stand in a row, and at a given signal plant their rods in the ground, repeating the operation several times until they have penetrated to the required depth, which is generally about a foot. This done, they bear down on the other end of the poles, making them act as levers, and thus loosen a long piece of ground, ten to thirteen yards long, and from a foot to a foot and a half wide; then by alternate heaving up and bearing down, the large mass of earth is upturned, and as they take care to preserve the same measurements and distances, regularity like that of the action of a plough is produced."

     On his way home, fresh from New Guinea, Signor D'Albertis suffered partial shipwreck in the Red Sea, and met a number of Somauli men and their families, and was much struck by their resemblance to Papuans. He says: "Who will believe that in these people I seemed to be renewing my acquaintance with the natives of New Guinea, especially those of Torres Straits! Such is the impression they made upon me. I observed the true negro type, which differs from them in several respects; but if several of these natives were transported to New Guinea they might be mistaken for aborigines of that country; those with the receding forehead, aquiline nose, and moderately thick lips--who have curly but not woolly hair. They belong to the type I called Arab when speaking of Moatta and Tawan--the type which, although not predominating, I have often found in New Guinea, and I discover them to-day on the shores of Ras Afun." Our traveller had two true Jamaica negroes with him in New Guinea, and these also closely resembled other types of Papuans, although there were certain minute characteristics of skin and hair by which they could be distinguished. Taken as a whole, and speaking broadly, the Papuan and African races would appear to belong to the same great type of mankind.

     Our readers will now perceive that, as the journal of an enterprising and observant traveller, Signor D'Albertis' work is one of considerable merit. It is written in a simple unaffected style, and bears internal evidence of accuracy and absence of exaggeration, while it no less clearly shows that in all the best qualities of a traveller its writer has rarely been surpassed.

     Living among some of the wildest of savages he overcame them by kindness, courage, and by exciting in them a dread of his vast powers of destruction and command over the forces of nature; and he never took away human life except when attacked by overwhelming forces--when the vessel committed to his charge as well as the lives of its crew were in imminent danger on the Fly River, and even then he beat back his enemies while doing them the smallest possible injury.

     Turning now from the general character of the book and of its author, and considering it as an expensive and [[p. 178]] somewhat pretentious work brought out by an English publisher, we feel bound to state that it is full of grave defects. This is due probably to the incompetence of the editor, or the total absence of any such necessary functionary; for the original was written in Italian, and we cannot believe that the author himself corrected or supervised the proofs. In the first place a considerable number of the illustrations seem to be thrown in at random, and are not referred to at all in the text. Such are the portraits at pp. 59, 140, and 151 in vol. i. Ornaments and implements from the Fly River are figured in the first instead of in the second volume. A cut of thirty-four separate articles (at vol. i. p. 416), though all numbered, has no reference to the numbers; while at vol. ii. p. 136, four elaborate spears or ornamental staves are described as "Baratus," which are said in the text to be "pieces of armour for war," and to be "worked in very hard stone"!

     The misprints and misspellings are excessively numerous. At p. 4 we read of "temples excavated in the deserted roads" in Java. At p. 49 the traveller goes to the "source of the river" instead of to its mouth; and at p. 222 we have "stone nails" instead, probably, of stone clubs. The names of places and of plants and animals are rarely spelt correctly, and are often spelt differently in adjacent pages. The Italian mode of spelling scientific names has not been altered, and they are often almost unintelligible to an English reader, as Oloturia for Holotkuria, Stafilinus for Staphylinus, and Cicas for Cycas. Orankaya (a village chief) is sometimes spelt Orankay and sometimes Oranhay. Waigiou is spelt Waigen, and immediately afterwards Waigeu. Battanta is spelt Battauta, and Daudai is spelt Dandai. At the end of the book four vocabularies of native languages are given, but as if to make these of as little use as possible, they consist of four different sets of words, all differently arranged, and none in alphabetical order; so that any comparison with each other or with vocabularies given elsewhere is practically impossible without the preliminary labour of rearranging them. Add to this that there is no index to the book and that the only map given is a poor and imperfect one, and it will be seen that the merits of Signor D'Albertis' work have not been enhanced by the manner in which it is presented to the reader.

     The illustrations on the whole are good, the coloured plate of birds of paradise being excellent. But far too many skulls are figured, since these are of no possible interest to the general reader, while, as we have no guarantee for their accuracy, or that they are all figured on exactly the same scale, they will have little value for the man of science.

     From the notices scattered through these volumes Signor D'Albertis appears to have made very large collections in natural history, especially of birds, reptiles, and insects. It is to be hoped that complete series of these have been kept together, and that, in conjunction with those collected by Dr. Beccari, they will be made the subject of some important works. The birds are being carefully elaborated by Prof. Salvadori; but the reptiles and the insects would probably throw even more light on the zoological relations and past history of this wonderful island.

Notes Appearing in the Original Work

     1. "New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw." By L. M. D'Albertis, Officer of the Order of the Crown of Italy, &c., &c. In two volumes. (London; Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1880.) [[on p. 152]]

     2. "New Guinea: What I Did and What I Saw." By L. M. D'Albertis, Officer of the Order of the Crown of Italy, &c., &c. In two volumes. (London; Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1880.) [[on p. 175]]

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