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April 30, 2014

The Search for Ali

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Ali was an enigmatic figure. Not much is known about his early life. Alfred Wallace said he was 15 when he hired him on as a cook, but he was notoriously wrong about how old people were. He stayed with Wallace for eight years travelling throughout the archipelago.


We do know that he graduated from cooking to general handyman to stuffing and fixing the many birds and insects, preparing them for travel to England. It was 1855 and the intrepid Wallace was to stay in the area for eight years. Ali remained with him.


Wallace thought that he had returned to Ternate, a small island in the Indonesian archipelago and lived out his years there. He was recorded by Thomas Barbour in 1907 as having lived on Ternate with his wife and children. He would have been 67, ancient in that time and place.


The relationship between Wallace and Ali would have been colonial master and peon. Ali would have cooked for Wallace first and eaten later. He probably slept on the ground while the master retired in relative comfort.


As time went on, a fluid number of others probably became part of the group. There would by those who search for insects, people who captured birds and those would cook, taking Ali's place. The camp never remained stable as people came and went.


Finally, in 1862 Wallace bid Ali adieu and sailed away on the Emeru never to return to the Far East again. Off he went to England to peruse a long life of writing.


But what of Ali? What happened to him? The only thing we have in writing is that Wallace said he went back to Ternate. Thomas Barbour, a young rich person out of Harvard and a brilliant biologist, said he met him in 1907.


Ali (no last name) probably was part of the Meningkabau tribe of people from central Sumatra. The people are matriarchal. When a boy comes of age, he has to move into the surau or mosque where he learns to cook, sew and other tasks usually reserved for women. He then will go on an adventure lasting for years, maybe all his life.


It was here in Kuching where the Meningkabau became part of settlement known as Gersik. It was mixture of Java people and Sumatra ones, a cacophony of the Malay Archipelago. There are still remnants of the old Meningkabau homes here, although only the very ancient people remember the connection.


It would have been from this type of connection that Ali would have come. He could probably have been working for James Brooke and come highly recommended to Wallace as he visited Sarawak. Working for the Rajah, he would have learned to cook western food and, most importantly, to speak English. The knowledge of English, even a few rudimentary words, would have been a monumental help to the fledging naturalist, Wallace.


In any case, the two got together and the famous duo would set history.


...To be continued


…Life is good . . . . .


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