Wallace and his exoticization of Malay Archipelago

Reading Wallace’s writing got me thinking of his detailed description of the sights and observations in his travel to Borneo and Java and whether it is exoticized like Conrad’s writing. I think it is difficult to avoid writing in an ethnocentric way because Wallace got to know of and was attracted to the Malay archipelago by similar travel writings from Englishmen like Raffles. I guess, like any other modern travellers of today, the sights we observed and take note of are those measured through our lens of understanding and knowledge (like travel guides etc). He is obviously doing the very same thing, observing and measuring the accuracy of what he has saw with what he has read from his compatriots’ accounts. But, one thing that caught my attention is the similarity in the way in which he describes the Dyaks and other natives with that of the animal specimens he had collected.

If we look at the detailed description of the Dyaks that focuses largely on the superficial features like skin colour and unique bodily features that make the Dyaks stand out – “The Dyak … are characterized by a reddish-brown or yellowish-brown skin of various shades…by the rather small and broad nose…” (67). Similarly, his take on the exotic insects – “the superb Papilio arjuna, whose wings seem powdered with grains of golden green, condensed into bands and moon-shaped spots” (87). Obviously, there seems to be this urge for Wallace to categorize everyone and everything neatly. Furthermore, even though Wallace does not obliquely exoticize the natives like Conrad, his act of having a picture of a Javanese Chief (84) displayed, creates a juxtaposition with all the other exotic pictures of insects, plants etc., what does this suggest about how Wallace views his world?

One thought on “Wallace and his exoticization of Malay Archipelago