Ian Cowan of Turner, ACT, Australia recently sent me an interesting unpublished essay about the search for Wallace's famous house on the Indonesian island of Ternate - the house in which Wallace was living when he posted his essay describing his independent discovery of natural selection to Charles Darwin in 1858. Ian's essay follows:-

The National Museum of Australia is currently presenting the Darwin exhibition prepared by the American Museum of Natural History. Very enjoyable it is too. However, I was taken aback to see, in the fairly brief section about the Wallace connection, a photograph of what is stated to be “Wallace’s house” in Ternate. I am quite certain it is not the house Wallace occupied, and think it probable that “his” house no longer exists. Nevertheless “Wallace’s House” continues to be rediscovered from time to time. Each time it turns out to be a house I photographed in 1995, and which the person in charge of the Tourist Bureau in Kota Ternate,  Sam, assured me was the house Wallace occupied.

It was with disappointment that I concluded, after taking some measurements and comparing them with the floor plan Wallace provides in The Malay Archipelago, that Sam was mistaken. Not only were the dimensions inconsistent, but so also was the structure. I continued to search for the real Wallace house, with the aid of a growing band of assistants, including a teacher, a man from the local radio station, and two or three village elders. We were not successful, and the search was abandoned after a few days. During this period, somebody told me that the house I was first shown had originally been built for a member of the Sultan’s family. It did appear to me that the house, though very dilapidated, may once have been rather fine. Particularly striking was the row of eight masonry pillars supporting the roof of the front verandah. I feel sure Wallace would have made note of this had he lived there; after all he goes to the trouble of mentioning the “strong squared posts supporting the roof.” I found no such posts, incidentally.


Two views of the "Sultan's house" once thought to be the one Wallace lived in. 1995. Copyright Ian Cowan.

Though I was quite certain that the house Sam had shown me was not the house Wallace occupied it is a pity that I neglected to note down the measurements that would convince others of my conclusion. One can estimate from the number and spacing of the pillars that the length: width ratio of the verandah is about 7 whereas Wallace gives it as 4. But such observations are hardly sufficient to dissuade anyone bent on identifying the house as Wallace’s.

Fortunately in 1997 my observations about the so-called “Wallace House” were confirmed  by Tim Severin in The Spice Islands Voyage. In Search of Wallace (London: Little, Brown and Company). He remarks that, in the general area he identified as that in which Wallace’s house was situated, “there are only a dozen or so houses which retain the vernacular architecture Wallace describes. However, this has not discouraged the town authorities from designating one of the few remaining old houses as ’Wallace’s House’. It has almost the same floor plan, a well in the garden, and is of about the right vintage, with a picturesque tumbled-in thatched roof. But it is much too large and substantial, with outside colonnades, to have been Wallace’s rather more modest house, and its stone walls extend to the ceiling. In fact it has survived because it was once an over-spill residence for members of the Sultan’s family.” The sketch Severin provides shows that he is writing about the house I photographed.

John G. Wilson shows a photograph of the same house in his book The Forgotten Naturalist. In Search of Alfred Russel Wallace (Victoria: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2000). It had been identified by someone (Sam?) in the Tourist Department as Wallace’s House. Wilson remarks of it, “While the arrangement of the rooms was similar to that described by Wallace, it was a little large and too well constructed, with stone pillars in the front and too much stone altogether”. However, a year later an article  by Gerard Jacobs entitled "The survival of the fittest - Into the footsteps of Alfred Wallace" was published (to read it go to The opening sentence reads "Travelling in the footsteps of Alfred Russel Wallace through Indonesia, a country torn by civil strife and corruption, Gerard Jacobs discovers on the Moluccan island of Ternate the house where young Alfred Wallace formulated the theory of evolution and the priciple of 'the survival of the fittest'." This text is followed by yet another photograph of what I shall now call the “Sultan’s House”, showing that it had suffered greatly in the years since I was there. Evidently Sam had had no success at all in attracting funds.

Next I noticed in Wallace News,, the following item, dated 2005:

"Correspondent Alexander Davey reports that the house Wallace stayed in at Ternate apparently still exists, and that he is interested in receiving advice on possible ways to proceed in the direction of getting it restored/renovated into a Wallace museum facility."

I was delighted to get a very pleasant response from Davey to an enquiry by me in which he writes:

"I was living in Ternate a few years ago and thought that maybe I had found Wallace's house but having read the book by an author whose name I don't have with me at the moment (entitled 'In Wallace's Footsteps' or similar) where the author mentions the house I also saw and explains why it couldn't be Wallace's house I realised that it was not his house but a house of similar dimensions and period. I can't exactly remember but I believe that Wallace described the walls as being entirely non-stone whereas the house I saw is half stone...

Some locals including the Sultan describe this surviving house as the Wallace house but I think it is just wishful thinking on their part. When I left Ternate I think the local government was 'renovating' it to serve as a museum of some kind.

If this house were renovated authentically and sensitively I do think it would serve well as a Wallace museum. Considering his place in history, it is remarkable that so little is made of Ternate as the home or at least the North Moluccas as the home province of the Ternate Letter (which I understand was actually most likely written in Halmahera). There are some Dutch war cemeteries in Indonesia which are very well maintained by foreign-run foundations and this might be a good model for a Wallace museum, possibly working in collaboration with Indonesian academic institutions."


Thus it seems Davey has been drawn to the same conclusion as I through the observations of Severin or Wilson. But despite all this evidence, Wallace’s house has been resurrected yet again. The Alfred Russel Wallace Website,, recently reproduced “the following very interesting article”:

Ternate to build Wallace observatory

Andi Hajramurni and Tifa Asrianti,

The Jakarta Post, Makassar, South Sulawesi, Fri, 12/12/2008

To honor British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace's achievements in science, the municipality of Ternate, North Maluku, will build a monument and observatory in his name.

Ternate mayor Syamsir Andili said in Makassar on Thursday that his administration would reconstruct Wallace's former home into a monument. The house, where Wallace lived for four years, was still in its original condition and the owner had agreed to the plans. Ternate will also rename a street in their town municipality of Ternate, North Maluku, Jalan Alfred Russel Wallace.

“We also plan to build a one-hectare observatory that will exhibit plants and animals, the main focus of Wallace's studies. We will begin acquiring the land next year," he said at the opening of the four-day International Conference on Alfred Russel Wallace and the Wallacea in Makassar.

Elsewhere on the Website, George Beccaloni, its founder, remarks, “I would be very interested to know what evidence there is that this is the actual house that Wallace lived in whilst in Ternate since many people have tried to find it in the past and have failed.”

Just so. Many will be delighted (including Sam, Davey, and myself) if plans for a Wallace Museum in Ternate come to fruition. And yes indeed, the “Sultan’s House”, had it been taken care of, could have provided a felicitous site. But the notion that it (if it be the house the Mayor of Kota Ternate is referring to) was once inhabited by Wallace would provide a shaky foundation.

I sent Ian's essay to Prof. Sangkot Marzuki, President of the Indonesian Academy of Science and prime mover behind the conference on Wallace and Wallacea which took place  in Makassar in December 2008. He replied:

Thank you for sending me Ian Cowan's manuscript on Alfred Russel Wallace's house in Ternate.  I am very pleased indeed that the initiative of the Indonesian Academy of Sciences and The Wallacea Foundation (TWF)  to raise awareness of Alfred Russel Wallace's (AWR) role in the discovery of the theory of evolution, as a father of modern  biogeography, and in biological conservation has resulted in such a response in Indonesia and internationally.  The plan to restore the house in Ternate was conceived as part of a pre-conference on the "Letter from Ternate" in Ternate on the 3 December, which preceded the conference in Makassar on "Alfred Russel Wallace and the Wallacea" on 10-13 December 2008.  I was present at the pre-conference and a main signatory to the "Ternate Declaration" that, among other things, mentioned the restoration of AWR's house, the naming of its street as Jalan Alfred Russel Wallace, and the development of a biodiversity observatory.

The Jakarta Post, as quoted in Ian Cowan's article, is wrong.  I am very sure that the Mayor of Ternate, Syamsir Andili, would not have said that "The house, where Wallace lived for four years, was still in its original condition".  On the contrary, ARW's original  house is no longer there, but the location had been very carefully traced from AWR's description in The Malay Archipelago and an old map of Ternate of the period, and further deduced and confirmed by interviews with elderly people living in the neighborhood, who still have the memory of the original house.  A well that fits AWR's description in The Malay Archipelago is found at the back of the existing house.

The City of Ternate is currently building a monument in front of the house.  The future plan is to demolish the existing house, hopefully find the foundation of the original house (which will establish whether it fits the floor plan in The Malay Archipelago), and rebuild AWR's house following the floor plan and the description in The Malay Archipelago, as well as using similar houses still standing in Ternate as models.

It is this rebuild house which will be used to house an Alfred Russel Wallace and The Wallacea museum (as distinct from the Wallacea Biodiversity Observatory, which will be build elsewhere as a separate albeit related project).

The City of Ternate is in the process of purchasing the house, as well as clearing the surrounding land from several other houses. The Mayor of Ternate has invited TWF to be involved a major way in its various Wallace and Wallacea initiatives,  and one of our priorities early in 2009 is to visit Ternate again to discuss details.  Fortunately, it is much easier to reach Ternate today.  In addition to a daily Merpati filigt from Makassar, it is also possible to fly there in a small plane from Menado (which is recommended by the locals).  It is even possible to fly to Ternate directly from Jakarta, if you do not mind flying long distance (about three hours) with Batavia Air instead of Garuda.

The Wallace Memorial Fund certainly looks forward with great interest to future developments in Ternate. The Fund will of course, help in any way it can with establishing the museum to Wallace there.

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