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

White Men in the Tropics (S562: 1899)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Printed in the 9 March 1899 issue of The Independent (New York). Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

    [[p. 667]] Can the tropics be permanently colonized by Europeans, and particularly by men of the Anglo-Saxon race? This is the question that now occupies much attention in view of the mad struggle among the chief European Governments for a share of all those parts of tropical Africa and Asia still held by inferior races. And the general opinion seems to be that there is something in the tropical climate inimical to Europeans, who cannot live and work there as the natives can, and who must, therefore, be content with a few years' residence, occupying the country solely as rulers, and as exploiters of native labor. Again and again the statement is made in the public press, and by writers of some authority, that "white men cannot live and work in the tropics;" and this dogma is made the foundation of theories as to our conduct toward the natives, and is often held to justify us in inducing or compelling them to work for us by methods which do not very much differ in their results from modified slavery. It therefore becomes important to ascertain whether this dogma is true or false; and on this question, having myself lived and worked for twelve years within ten degrees of the equator, in the Amazon valley and in the Malay Archipelago, I have formed a very definite opinion.

    A few preliminary remarks are needed to clear the ground. In the first place, we must clearly distinguish between the climate and the diseases of the tropics. Most people form their opinions from the effects of those tropical diseases which prevail in the cities and towns where Europeans most congregate, or of the climate in the very worst portions of the tropical regions. The great trading centers of tropical America, from Havana and Vera Cruz to Rio de Janeiro, owe their extreme unhealthiness to two main causes--the absence of all effective sanitary arrangements among the native population, and the fact that they were for several centuries emporiums of the slave trade. It is to this latter cause that Dr. C. Creighton, one of the greatest authorities on the history of epidemic diseases, traces the origin and persistence of the fatal yellow fever, which is only endemic in the slave trade area on the two sides of the Atlantic. The slave ships reached their destination in a state of indescribable filth, which year after year was poured out into the shallow water of the harbors, and soon formed a permanent constituent of the soil between high and low water marks. In the East there were no such slave ships and there is no yellow fever; but the overcrowding in all centers of population, and the neglect of sanitation, both by the natives and by their English rulers in India, who knowing better are most to blame, produces and propagates plague and other zymotic diseases. But these are in no way due to the tropical climate, since three centuries ago plague was as prevalent in the cities of England as it is now in those of India.

    Still more commonly associated with the tropics are the various forms of malarial fevers, but these also are in no sense due to the climate, but simply to ignorant dealing with the soil. My own experience has shown me that swamps and marshes near the equator are perfectly healthy so long as they are left nearly in a state of nature--that is, covered with a dense forest or other vegetation. It is when extensive marshy areas are cleared for cultivation, and for half the year are dried up by the tropical sun, that they become deadly. I have lived for months together in or close to tropical swamps, both in the Amazon valley, in Borneo and in the Moluccas, without a day's illness; but when living in open cultivated marshy districts I almost invariably had malarial fever, tho I believe the worst types of these fevers are due to unwholesome food. But here again, malaria was equally prevalent in England less than two centuries ago.

    If we take the great belt, about two thousand miles wide, extending from twelve to fifteen degrees north and south of the [[p. 668]] equator, we have an enormous area, by far the larger part of which is not only well adapted for European colonization in the true sense, that is, for permanent occupation by white men, but is also with proper sanitary precautions the most healthy and enjoyable part of the world, and that in which the laborer can obtain the maximum return with the minimum of toil. I formed this opinion in 1851 when returning down the Rio Negro and Amazon after four years' residence there, and my subsequent eight years' experience in the East has only confirmed it. I then wrote as follows:

    "It is a vulgar error, copied and repeated from one book to another, that in the tropics the luxuriance of the vegetation overpowers the efforts of man. Just the reverse is the case: Nature and climate are nowhere so favorable to the laborer, and I fearlessly assert that here (on the Rio Negro) the primeval forest can be converted into rich pasture or into cultivated fields, gardens and orchards, containing every variety of produce, with half the labor, and, what is of more importance, in less than half the time that would be required at home." Then, after giving some details as to the various crops that may be grown and the varieties of fruits, vegetables and animal food that can be easily had, I conclude thus:

    "Now I unhesitatingly affirm that two or three families, containing half a dozen working and industrious men and boys, and being able to bring a capital in goods of £50 ($250), might in three years find themselves in possession of all I have mentioned. Supposing them to become used to the mandiocca and maize bread, they would, with the exception of clothing, have no one necessary or luxury to purchase; they would be abundantly supplied with pork, beef and mutton, poultry, eggs, butter, milk and cheese, coffee and cocoa, molasses and sugar. Delicious fish, turtles and turtles' eggs and a great variety of game would furnish their table with constant variety, while vegetables would not be wanting, with fruits, both cultivated and wild, in superfluous abundance, and of a quality that we at home rarely obtain. Oranges and lemons, figs and grapes, melons and watermelons, jack fruit, custard apples, cashews, pineapples, etc., are among the commonest, while numerous palm and other forest fruits furnish delicious drinks and delicacies which every one soon gets very fond of. Both animal and vegetable oils can be procured for light and cooking. And then, having provided for the body, what lovely gardens and shady walks might be made! How easy to form natural orchid bowers and ferneries! What elegant avenues of palms might be planted! What lovely climbers abound to train over arbors or up the walls of the house!"

    But, it is objected, this cannot be done without hard work, and we know that "white men cannot live and work in the tropics." But I maintain that we know nothing of the kind. It is not the fact that white men cannot permanently live and work in the tropics. Work of some sort, there as here, is a condition of healthy life. But with a reasonable amount of work--and such is the beneficence of nature that little is needed--man can not only live permanently but most healthily and enjoyably in those portions of the tropics I am referring to, and probably, with special precautions, in every part. I will now give some of the facts bearing upon this question.

    My own experience assures me that I owe my long life and comparatively good health to my twelve years' residence in the uniform climate and pure air of the equatorial forests, altho I suffered frequently from fevers, and on one occasion was brought to the very point of death. I was a very delicate child, with weak lungs, and at the age of sixteen or seventeen suffered from serious ulcerations of the lungs, and was only saved by the application of Dr. Ramage's common-sense air-treatment, somewhat analogous to that now being introduced for consumption. When I came home in 1862, altho much weakened by other illness, my lungs were quite sound; and I distinctly trace my recovery to an open-air life in an equable, warm, pure atmosphere. My work as a collector of natural history specimens led to my being out of doors for six or seven hours during the heat of the day, and I found that I could take as much exercise without fatigue as I could at home.

    At Para, in 1848, I saw a striking case of [[p. 669]] how a white man can work in the tropics. A tall, gentlemanly young Scotchman, finding no suitable occupation, and seeing that good milk was scarce in the city, determined to turn milkman. He hired a hut and some sheds about half a mile away, surrounded by second-growth forest and coarse grassy fields, obtained three or four cows, and when I made his acquaintance had got his business in full swing, and his work was certainly rather heavy. He lived absolutely alone; all the fodder for his cows when in milk had to be cut with a scythe and carried to the sheds where they were kept; water had also to be brought to them and the sheds kept clean. Early in the morning the cows were milked, filling two large cans, when he immediately started for the city carrying them from a yoke across the shoulders in the orthodox manner and making his rounds to all the houses he served. Returning, he had to get his own breakfast. Then for several hours there was grass-cutting and attending to the cows, and getting his own dinner. Yet often in the early evening he was dressed and made calls, often at the very houses he had served with milk in the morning. Notwithstanding this hard work, with the thermometer from 80 to 90 degrees or upward every day, he was the picture of health and appeared to enjoy his life.

    It is a well-known fact that in Ceylon and India the men who enjoy the best health are the enthusiastic sportsmen who seize every opportunity of getting away from civilization, and who often submit to much privation and fatigue with benefit rather than injury to their health. Our soldiers, again, even in the unhealthy climate of India, most of which is really outside the tropics, have to do a good deal of work, and when marching against an enemy undergo much fatigue, and we do not hear that they are unequal to it on account of the heat. The same is even more clearly the case with our sailors, who do their regular work when stationed in the tropics, and do not suffer injury either from the climate or the work, if not exposed to infectious disease while on shore. The editor of the Ceylon Observer, commenting on my letter in the Daily Chronicle, adduces case after case of officers, planters, doctors, etc., who have lived from twenty-five up to fifty-eight years in Ceylon and have retained almost continuous good health. He also refers to Dutch families descended from settlers who came out from 150 to 200 years ago, and who have maintained average good health even in the hot country of the plains. In the Moluccas there are even more striking examples, many of the Dutch families having been continuously on the islands for 300 years, and they have still the fair complexions and robustness of form characteristic of their kinsfolk in Holland. The Government physician at Amboyna, a German, assured me also that the race is quite as prolific as in Europe, families of ten or a dozen children being not uncommon. The Dutch, however, live sensibly in the tropics, doing all their official work between the hours of 7 and 12 a.m., resting in the afternoon, and going out in the evening.

    But perhaps the most conclusive example is that of Queensland, the climate of which is completely tropical; yet white men work in every part of it. Whether as gold miners, sheep shearers, sugar workers or railway builders, there has never been any complaint that white men cannot work; while almost all the heavy mechanical work of the country, engineering of every kind, carpentering and all the various building trades, and the scores of varied industries of a civilized community are carried on by white workmen without any difficulty and with no special effect on their general health. This case really settles the question.

    The fact is that white men can live and work anywhere in the tropics, if they are obliged, and unless they are obliged they will not, as a rule, work even in the most temperate regions. Hence, wherever there are inferior races, the white men get these to work for them, and the kinds of work performed by these inferiors become infra dig. for the white man. This is the real reason why the myth, as to white men not being able to work in the tropics, has been spread abroad. It applies in most cases to agricultural work only, because natives can usually be got to do this kind of work, while that of the skilled mechanics has usually to be done by white men. And another reason is that it is only by getting cheap labor in quantity that fortunes can be made in most [[p. 670]] tropical countries. But when people come to recognize that the fortune-makers, whether by gold mining, speculating or any of the various forms of thinly-veiled slavery, are not by any means the happiest, the healthiest or the wisest men, whereas those who really work, under the best conditions, so as to receive the whole produce of their labor, may be both healthy and happy, will usually live longer and enjoy life more, and by working in association may obtain all the necessaries and comforts of existence--then the enormous advantage of living in the best parts of the tropics will become evident. For not only is nature so much more productive that equal amounts of produce may be obtained with half or perhaps a quarter of the labor required in northern lands, but the essentials of a happy and an easy life are so much fewer in number. Houses may be slighter and far less costly; clothing may be reduced to less than half what is required here; fuel is only wanted for cooking; while the enjoyability of the early morning hours is so great that everybody rises before the sun, and thus comparatively little artificial light is required. When all this is fully realized we may hope to see co-operative colonies established in many tropical lands, where families of the same grade of education and refinement may so live as really to enjoy the best that life can give them. Thus only, in my opinion, can the best use be made of the tropics.

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