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August 10, 2016

Simple Mispronunciation Ends Long Search

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The hunt for Ali Wallace is over. I finally found him. It took nine years of searching, but the search ended a few days ago. Who is he?


We begin with Alfred Wallace who came to Sarawak in 1854. While waiting for the monsoon season to end, he wrote a famous paper called the Sarawak Law. This axiom stated that a new species came from a like species. For example, new birds came from a species that was similar to – but different from – another bird. It was revolutionary at the time as genetics and DNA had yet to be invented.


Wallace was to travel throughout what is now Borneo and Indonesia for six years. He collected hundreds of thousands of insects and shipped them back to England to be sold to collectors much like stamps today. His travels have been well documented, and his book, The Malay Archipelago, was published in 1869 and has never gone out of print.


Ali was his sidekick and friend on this long journey. He is described in the book as hunter, cook, skinner, insect wrapper and one who performed many other tasks. Scholars have been trying to figure out who he was and where he came from. The only clue we have is that he came from someplace in Sarawak.


I began my search, off and on, some nine years ago when I had first come to Sarawak. I taught about Wallace in my science classes before then and was curious about him. I started in the kampungs (a group of houses which – in America – we would call them shacks united by a small mosque and a tiny store) across the river and knocked on about every door asking about Ali Wallace. Nothing.


While working on another project, we met the local witch doctor, called a Bomoh. He was big and heavy by Asian standards, rode a 90 cc motorbike and dressed in a red shirt and jeans. He also helps in setting up music and dance groups for visiting government officials.


He gave us oral history about the Malays in the 1500s to 1700s from his grandfather’s diaries and other useful information. He was a big help on my project. As an afterthought, we asked him about Ali Wallace and he said he never heard of him. We asked again and he said no. Then we showed him a picture from Suriani's phone, and he immediately recognized him as Ali Wall eesh. All this time I had been mispronouncing his name.


Ali bin (son of) Ja'luddin learned English from "Edward" one of the colonial masters. He was the younger brother of Osman, who fought for the white colonial master against the head hunters. Ali was also a warrior, but because of his extreme youth, he cooked and took care of the wounded. He learned jungle medicine from his father.


Alfred Wallace came into Sarawak and stayed with the white Rajah. He moved to Santubong and began work. Ali was friendly with Wallace because he knew he could earn more money with white people. He told Wallace about jungle medicine and how he could cook.


From what I have been able to gather, Osman fell out of favor with the white rajah. He changed the names of his kids to Chinese names. He had Ali take them to Kampung Jaie, about 37 miles from here. Ali found someone to take care of them and returned to Santubong to be hired by Wallace. He then went off with Wallace but returned frequently to check on his nephews. This is borne out by the Malay Archipelago. He married a Jaie girl from his kampong. He had two children. He later came back to the Kampung Jaie, where he was known as Ali Wall-esh.


There is a lot more research I have to do before I can publish this story and it will take time, as you can imagine. Scholars have all said he was Ternate (an Indonesian island about 4 hours by air from here) and died there. They are wrong.


You will probably read about this in some obscure science history journal or Southeast Asian publication. But, you read it here first.


...Life is good. . . . .


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