Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Problem of the Tropics (S554a: 1898)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor published on page three of The Daily Chronicle issue of 2 November 1898. To link directly to this page connect with:

     Sir,--In the interesting article on Mr. Kidd's book, "The Control of the Tropics," in "The Daily Chronicle" of last Monday, there is a pervading assumption--I presume made also by Mr. Kidd--that white men cannot live and work there. Your reviewer makes this statement three times, as if it were an absolute fact, undisputed and indisputable, and it is probably this assumption which has made it so difficult for Mr. Kidd to give any satisfactory solution of the "Problem of the Tropics." As one who has lived (and worked) for twelve years in the tropics, perhaps you will allow me space to discuss this interesting question.

     No great problem can be solved if we begin by assuming data which are erroneous, and I maintain that the assumption as to white men not being able to live and work in the tropics, in good health and in full enjoyment of existence, is not only untrue, but is the very opposite to the truth. It is because white men, as a rule, do not work enough in the open air in the tropics that they so often suffer in health, and for anyone who lives rationally as to food and clothing, and who conforms in his dwelling and surroundings to ordinary sanitary laws, a fair amount of bodily exertion is, there as much as here, one of the conditions of perfect health, and to those who thus live I affirm that the tropics, as a whole, are more conducive to good health than the temperate regions. A large body of facts go to prove this contention, and I will briefly enumerate them.

     First, I may say that I owe to my twelve years' residence in the tropics the comparatively good health I now enjoy. When about seventeen I nearly died of lung-disease, but breathing the pure, warm air of the equatorial zone for twelve years completely restored them, so that, ten years after my return home, a physician informed me that my lungs were perfectly sound, and that, in fact, I had the chest of an athlete. Is it not also a well-known fact that, in India, the men who suffer least from the climate are the enthusiastic sportsmen, who seize every opportunity of getting away from civilisation, and who often submit to privations and fatigue with benefit rather than injury to their health. But, turning to a better illustration, do not the rank and file of our European soldiers work, and work pretty hard, too, in every part of India, especially on a campaign, and has it been ever alleged that they "cannot live and work" there, or that they suffer in health from the mere fact of working? On the other hand, the class that does no outdoor work at all in India, and which has fewest outdoor occupations and amusements--the women of the ruling classes--are those who suffer most from the climate. But more striking still is the object lesson we have just had in the Soudan campaign, where English soldiers and officers have been continuously working and fighting for two or three years in one of the hottest and most trying parts of the tropics, and with certainly not more illness than in similar campaigns in temperate climates.

     Again, turn to our sailors. In our numerous warships stationed in the tropics, is it found that our sailors cannot work? and, as a matter of fact, have they not always done their regular work just as well in tropical as in temperate climates? And it has never been proved that there is any deterioration in their health due to this work alone, and not to other conditions. Perhaps an even more striking case is that of our Australian miners, who have now for many years been working in the tropics in Queensland and North-West Australia. How is it that these men, by thousands, actually do work in the tropics, and we do not find it stated that they do much less work than in the more temperate parts of the same country, or that they suffer permanently in their health from so working?

     Then, again, as to there being anything injurious to white men who are permanently settled in the tropics, all the evidence is favorable. In the Moluccas there are many Dutch families who have been there for two or three hundred years, and who are not only perfectly healthy and prolific, but who retain the fair complexions of their European ancestors. In many of our West Indian islands there are, I believe, Creole families of pure English blood, and there are considerable populations of pure Spanish blood in various parts of South America.

     It is only when we come to agricultural labor that we find white men refuse to work, and the demand is made for a supply of native colored laborers, and the reason for this is not difficult to see. Agricultural labor among us has always been considered the lowest class of labor, as it is the worst paid, though, as Mr. Ryder Haggard has recently told us, it is really skilled labor of a very pronounced kind. It is also work in which there is no great excitement, and no chance of getting wealth, except when practised on a large scale with a full supply of very cheap labor. But there is, really, no occupation so full of interest, so enjoyable, so health-giving as agriculture to him who practises it for himself; and in the tropics nature is so productive and lavish that five or six hours' work a day would give a larger return than double the amount in our own country.

     The more favorable portions of the tropics, extending about 15deg. on each side of the equator, afford, I believe, the most healthy and the most enjoyable abodes for man, where with the least labor he can obtain the greatest amount of the necessaries, the comforts, and the luxuries of life, and can at the same time develop and cultivate his higher nature. But to do this he must go there not with the object of making a fortune and coming home to live in luxurious idleness, but as a true settler, determined to make his home there. And he must not go with the intention of hiring native labor--a more or less modified form of slavery--but determined to work with his hands as well as with his head. This can be best done--can only be successfully done--by some form of co-operative colonies, of which the Ruskin Colony in Tennessee is perhaps the best type. There, associated labor loses all its terrors, while all the members being approximately equal in education and refinement, there is ample scope for healthy and varied social enjoyments. Such a colony established in some healthy part of the tropics, guided by adequate experience, and with a moderate capital to start with, would soon attain to a condition of social and economic prosperity that could hardly be reached elsewhere. The economies of such a colony as will be shown by the fact that at Ruskin the whole cost of three good meals a day is less than a dollar a month a head. And in a tropical colony of sufficient size, when once fully established, every necessary of civilised life could be produced, such as sugar, coffee, cocoa, &c., while the cost of houses and clothing would be a minimum.

     Here then is a clear and definite solution of the "problem of the tropics." They must be gradually occupied by white men in co-operative association to establish permanent homes, which, surrounding by the glories of tropical vegetation, may in time become something like the legendary paradise.

--Yours, &c.,
Alfred R. Wallace.

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