Wallace's Ternate house

Ternate at sunset. Copyright George Beccaloni.

Ternate at sunset. Copyright George Beccaloni.

The “earthquake-tortured island of Ternate” (as Wallace called it in his book The Malay Archipelago) is a small island in Indonesia off the north-east coast of Sulawesi. It consists of a very large active volcano (Mount Gamalama, 1,715 m) which is only inhabited around the base and is forested all the way to the crater. Wallace made Ternate his base during the second half of his collecting expedition to the 'Malay Archipelago' and he rented a house there and lived in it on several occasions between early January 1858 and July 1861. It was whilst living there in early 1858 that he famously posted his essay on evolution by natural selection1 to Charles Darwin, and it is because of this that this Ternate house has become legendary.

In his book The Malay Archipelago Wallace writes the following about the house:

"On the morning of the 8th of January, 1858, I arrived at Ternate, the fourth of a row of fine conical volcanic islands which skirt the west coast of the large and almost unknown island of Gilolo [Halmahera]. The largest and most perfectly conical mountain is Tidore, which is over four thousand feet high--Ternate being very nearly the same height, but with a more rounded and irregular summit. The town of Ternate is concealed from view till we enter between the two islands, when it is discovered stretching along the shore at the very base of the mountain. Its situation is fine, and there are grand views on every side. Close opposite is the rugged promontory and beautiful volcanic cone of Tidore; to the east is the long mountainous coast of Gilolo, terminated towards the north by a group of three lofty volcanic peaks, while immediately behind the town rises the huge mountain, sloping easily at first, and covered with thick groves of fruit trees, but soon becoming steeper, and furrowed with deep gullies. Almost to the summit, whence issue perpetually faint wreaths of smoke, it is clothed with vegetation, and looks calm and beautiful, although beneath are hidden fires which occasionally burst forth in lava-streams, but more frequently make their existence known by the earthquakes which have many times devastated the town.

I brought letters of introduction to Mr. Duivenboden, a native of Ternate, of an ancient Dutch family, but who was educated in England, and speaks our language perfectly. He was a very rich man, owned half the town, possessed many ships, and above a hundred slaves. He was, moreover, well educated, and fond of literature and science--a phenomenon in these regions. He was generally known as the king of Ternate, from his large property and great influence with the native Rajahs and their subjects. Through his assistance I obtained a house, rather ruinous, but well adapted to my purpose, being close to the town, yet with a free outlet to the country and the mountain. A few needful repairs were soon made, some bamboo furniture and other necessaries obtained, and, after a visit to the Resident and police magistrate, I found myself an inhabitant of the earthquake-tortured island of Ternate, and able to look about me and lay down the plan of my campaign for the ensuing year. I retained this house for three years, as I found it very convenient to have a place to return to after my voyages to the various islands of the Moluccas and New Guinea, where I could pack my collections, recruit my health, and make preparations for future journeys…


 Floor plan of the Ternate house from The Malay Archipelago. Measurements are in feet.

A description of my house (the plan of which is here shown) will enable the reader to understand a very common mode of building in these islands. There is of course only one floor. The walls are of stone up to three feet high; on this are strong squared posts supporting the roof, everywhere except in the verandah filled in with the leaf-stems of the sago palm, fitted neatly in wooden framing. The floor is of stucco, and the ceilings are like the walls. The house is forty feet square, consists of four rooms, a hall, and two verandahs, and is surrounded by a wilderness of fruit-trees. A deep well supplied me with pure cold water--a great luxury in this climate. Five minutes’ walk down the road brought me to the market and the beach, while in the opposite direction there were no more European houses between me and the mountain. In this house I spent many happy days. Returning to it after a three or four months’ absence in some uncivilized region, I enjoyed the unwonted luxuries of milk and fresh bread, and regular supplies of fish and eggs, meat and vegetables, which were often sorely needed to restore my health and energy. I had ample space and convenience for unpacking, sorting, and arranging my treasures, and I had delightful walks in the suburbs of the town, or up the lower slopes of the mountain, when I desired a little exercise, or had time for collecting...

Just below my house is the fort, built by the Portuguese, below which is an open space to the beach, and beyond this the native town extends for about a mile to the north-east. About the centre of it is the palace of the Sultan, now a large untidy, half-ruinous building of stone."

The key information which might enable the general location of the house to be identified is as follows:

1) There was an old fort between the house and the market and beach.
2) The fort was directly below the house.
3) The market and beach were five minutes walk away.
4) The Sultan's palace was about half a mile to the north-east of the house.

The house itself might be identifiable by having the structure and floor plan that Wallace described, and the fact that there was a deep well in the garden (whether behind or to one side of the house he doesn't say). However, Wallace himself seems to suggest that the construction of the house was normal for that region, and its floor plan may not be unusual either.  Also many houses probably had wells, so the presence of a well in the garden might not help identify the house.

The location of the house

Two candidates have been argued by some to be Wallace's house (see map below). One is owned by the Sultan of Ternate and/or his family (see blog posts HERE , HERE and HERE), but it is nowhere near a fort and is much too close to the palace. The other is owned by a Chinese family, but it is also too far from a fort2 the front garden is too large, and it is probably too far from the palace and the beach.

The house owned by the Chinese family. Copyright George Beccaloni.

The house owned by the Chinese family. Copyright George Beccaloni.

The only location which agrees with points 1-4 above is shown on the map below. This area is on the opposite side of the road to Fort Oranje3 and the fort is below it (note that houses on the other three sides of the fort would be below the fort walls). The market and beach is 5 minutes walk away [I timed it in 2012] and the Sultan's palace is exactly half a mile to the north. Wallace says the palace was to the north-east, but it is actually slightly to the north-west. Since the only fort near the palace to the south is Fort Oranje, Wallace must have made an error.

Below is the earliest map of Ternate town that I could find. Under it is a recent satellite image of the same area. Comparing the two we can see that land has been reclaimed on the coast - so the beach is slightly further away from the fort than it was in Wallace's time. Although Wallace does not say exactly where the market was located, it is now sited on the opposite side of the fort to where Wallace almost certainly lived. Since the location of markets tends not to change over time, I would argue that it was probably in the same general area when Wallace lived there as it is today (it would be interesting to check this, however). Interestingly, Wallace's landlord was Chinese4, and de Clercq's map shows that his house was sited to the west of the Chinese cemetery ("Chineesche begraafplaats"), therefore probably in the Chinese quarter of town. This adds yet more evidence to the argument that the location of the house suggested here is the correct one.

Detail of map of Ternate showing location of Fort Oranje from de Clercq (1890).


Satellite image of Ternate taken in 2010. From Google Earth.

Close-up of the area around the fort.

Unfortunately, there are no old houses on the western side of the road which runs past the western edge of the fort, so it is likely that Wallace's house is no more...

Note: there is a short video about my quest to find the house on the following page: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/community/wallace100/blog/2012/08/19/ternate-the-search-for-wallaces-house


1. Although Wallace’s essay was marked as having being written on Ternate in February 1858, this cannot have been the case since Wallace’s unpublished Malay Field Journal in the Linnean Society of London shows that he was on Gilolo [Halmahera] during the whole of February, only returning to the neighbouring island of Ternate on 1 March. It is probable that he wrote “Ternate” on the essay simply because this was the island where he had his base, and because it was his postal address. Alternatively, he got the month wrong and should have written “March” instead of “February.” However, this would have been a curious error to make as he wrote a letter to Frederick Bates which he dated 2nd March 1858 (original in The Natural History Museum, London, catalogue number WP1/3/42). Why he never corrected either the date or the place of his discovery in his published accounts of this event is odd. For more details about Wallace's discovery of natural selection see http://wallacefund.info/en/biography-wallace

2. The family who live there have argued (see http://batu-bacan.com/2012/12/) that there was an old Portuguese fort on the opposite side of the road to their house , but that it was torn down for building material or was destroyed in WWII. However, if we examine de Clercq's map of 1890 (see above), there is no fort shown in that location, so the existence of a fort there is questionable.

3. "Benteng Oranje" (which has also been called Fort Oranje, Fort Orange or Castle Orange) is the only fort in the correct area of town. All the other forts south of the palace are a considerable distance away at the southern end of the island (see http://www.spiceislandsforts.com/the-clove-twins-ternate/). Fort Oranje is, however, a Dutch fort - not Portuguese as Wallace stated. However, in the revised 1894 edition of Wallace's book Australasia it says that the fort was reputed to have been built on "the foundations of an old Portuguese structure".

4. Wallace writes on page 11 of volume 2 of The Malay Archipelago "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."


De Clercq, F. S. A. 1890. Bijdragen tot de kennis der residentie Ternate. Leiden: Brill.

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