Dojinga - Birthplace of Wallace's Theory of Natural Selection

By George Beccaloni, February 2018

It is widely known that the theory of evolution by natural selection came to Wallace "in a sudden flash of insight" whilst in the midst of a feverish fit (probably malaria). Given that his ground-breaking essay on the subject (which was published together with some notes on the subject by Charles Darwin in August 1858) was signed "Ternate, February, 1858" most people understandably think he made the discovery whilst on Ternate island (Indonesia). However, the available evidence shows that his epiphany in fact occurred in a small, little-known village called Dojinga (Wallace knew it as Dodinga) situated directly east of Ternate on the large nearby island of Halmahera (which Wallace called Gilolo).

In his book of travels The Malay Archipelago, Wallace records that he arrived at Ternate on the 8th of January, 1858, but he didn't stay there long. He says in his book: "Soon after my first arrival in Ternate I went to the island of Gilolo, accompanied by two sons of Mr. Duivenboden, and by a young Chinaman, a brother of my landlord, who lent us the boat and crew." At first he travelled to the village of Sedingole [Sidangoli], but stayed there only two days as he found it to be a poor collecting locality. He then moved to Dodinga [Dojinga], describing his visit there in his book as follows:

"[Dodinga is] situated at the head of a deep bay exactly opposite Ternate, and a short distance up a little stream which penetrates a few miles inland. The village is a small one, and is completely shut in by low hills. 

As soon as I arrived, I applied to the head man of the village for a house to live in, but all were occupied, and there was much difficulty in finding one. In the meantime I unloaded my baggage on the beach and made some tea, and afterwards discovered a small hut which the owner was willing to vacate if I would pay him five guilders for a month's rent. As this was something less than the fee-simple value of the dwelling, I agreed to give it him for the privilege of immediate occupation, only stipulating that he was to make the roof water-tight. This he agreed to do, and came every day to talk and look at me; and when I each time insisted upon his immediately mending the roof according to contract, all the answer I could get was, 'Ea nanti,' (Yes, wait a little.) However, when I threatened to deduct a quarter guilder from the rent for every day it was not done, and a guilder extra if any of my things were wetted, he condescended to work for half an hour, which did all that was absolutely necessary.

On the top of a bank, of about a hundred feet ascent from the water, stands the very small but substantial fort erected by the Portuguese. Its battlements and turrets have long since been overthrown by earthquakes, by which its massive structure has also been rent; but it cannot well be thrown down, being a solid mass of stonework, forming a platform about ten feet high, and perhaps forty feet square. It is approached by narrow steps under an archway, and is now surmounted by a row of thatched hovels, in which live the small garrison, consisting of a Dutch corporal and four Javanese soldiers, the sole representatives of the Netherlands Government in the island….I got some very nice insects here, though, owing to illness most of the time, my collection was a small one…"

The last remark is significant - as, of course, natural selection occurred to him whilst he was ill.

Location of Dojinga (red marker)

In his book Natural Selection and Tropical Nature, Wallace tells the story of his epiphany:

"After writing the preceding paper [i.e. the “Sarawak Law”, published in 1855] the question of how changes of species could have been brought about was rarely out of my mind, but no satisfactory conclusion was reached till February 1858. At that time I was suffering from a rather severe attack of intermittent fever...and one day while lying on my bed during the cold fit, wrapped in blankets, though the thermometer was at 88º F., the problem again presented itself to me, and something led me to think of the ‘positive checks’ described by Malthus in his ‘Essay on Population,’ a work I had read several years before, and which had made a deep and permanent impression on my mind. These checks - war, disease, famine and the like - must, it occurred to me, act on animals as well as on man. Then I thought of the enormously rapid multiplication of animals, causing these checks to be much more effective in them than in the case of man; and while pondering vaguely on this fact there suddenly flashed upon me the idea of the survival of the fittest - that the individuals removed by these checks must be on the whole inferior to those that survived. In the two hours that elapsed before my ague fit was over I had thought out almost the whole of the theory, and in the same evening I sketched the draft of my paper, and in the two succeeding evenings wrote it out in full, and sent it by the next post to Mr. Darwin."

Wallace’s unpublished 'Malay Field Journal' in the Linnean Society of London (which he used as the source material for The Malay Archipelago) reveals he was on Halmahera during the whole of February 1858, only returning to Ternate on the 1st March. The relevant journal entries are as follows:

"After a fortnight in Ternate I determined to visit the island of Gilolo for a month & then return to prepare for a voyage to N. Guinea in one of Mr. Duivenbodens' vessels which was expected to leave about the middle of March…

On the 1st. of March I returned to Ternate to await the return of Mr. Durvenboden's schooner from Macassar in which I had decided to make a voyage to N. Guinea."

So given that he arrived on Ternate on the 8th January and spent about 14 days there, he must have departed for Halmahera on about the 23rd January, returning about a month later on the 1st March. And given that his essay is dated "February" he must have been in Dojinga when he drafted it. It is probable that he wrote “Ternate” on it when he posted it to Charles Darwin [probably on the 9th March when the Dutch mail steamer arrived in Ternate] simply because this was the island where he had his base, and because it was his postal address. It is of course possible that he wrote a neater version of his essay after he returned to his relatively comfortable house on Ternate.

A visit to Dojinga

I arranged to visit Dojinga with a group of clients during a Sea Trek cruise I led in January 2018, being to my knowledge only the third person especially interested in Wallace to have ever visited the village. We found the remains of the old fort that Wallace described on the hill above the village, though only one wall was partly visible. The local man who now owns the land which the fort is on said that four cannons were found there some years ago. Two (dated 1783) are now displayed outside the village hall (one is shown below) - the other two were apparently stolen. It is likely that these cannons are the only objects still in the village that Wallace probably saw - the house he stayed in having rotten away long ago.

Satellite picture of Dojinga village

Two views of the main part of Dojinga village

Wall of the old fort (to the right)

One of the cannons

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