Beat the British

While Alfred Russell Wallace was exploring the Malay Archipelago, the Dutch scientific community became nervous. During the eight years he spent studying the Malayan fauna, he and his assistants collected thousands of specimens, many of them yet to be described. Meanwhile, the European Natural History museums were investing large sums of money – and even their collectors’ lives –  to expand their collections with those precious exotic specimens, gathered during ambitious expeditions in the colonies. Science was the museums’ first goal, but not without a political agenda: a race to international prestige.

The curators at the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie (in Leiden, The Netherlands, now the Naturalis Biodiversity Center) were particularly concerned with beating their British colleagues to the best spots and specimens.  And this little piece of the history of natural history has had its repercussions for us, curators two centuries later trying to establish the type status of these particular specimens, and for the taxonomists working on those groups.

In 1861, RMNH curator Samuel C. Snellen van Vollenhoven finished a manuscript on  32 species of butterfly of the genus Adolias. Fourteen of these species were, according to him, new to science. Most of the specimens he worked on had been collected in the Dutch East Indies by members of the Natuurkundige Commissie, a group of young naturalists sent to the area with the specific purpose of collecting and documenting the flora and fauna of the region.

Snellen van Vollenhoven presented his manuscript to the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (KNAW) in March 1861 for its publication in their proceedings. In January 1862, however, he wrote a letter to the directors of the KNAW asking permission to retire the submission and present it to another Dutch journal, the Tijdschrift voor Entomologie.

The reason for this change of heart was no other than Alfred R. Wallace. British naturalists were describing new species of Adolias at a rapid tempo using the Wallace collection. Obviously, Snellen van Vollenhoven needed to publish his findings as soon as possible – that is, before the British did –  in order to ensure he was the author of the new species and that the types were deposited in The Netherlands. As the proceedings of the KNAW were not yet ready for publication, the Adolias article was first published in the summer of 1862 in the Tijdschrift voor Entomologie (in Dutch, with Latin descriptions, and three beautiful plates depicting the new species, available at BHL). As the author felt still obliged to the KNAW, he published in their Proceedings the Latin diagnostic descriptions, but without plates nor the Dutch text. Both publications appeared in 1862, which had created some confusion about the actual original publication of the types.



Four of Snellen van Vollenhoven’s new species of Adolias [Snellen van Vollenhoven, S.C., 1862. Bijdrage tot de kennis van het vlindergeslacht Adolias. Tijdschrift voor Entomologie 5: 181–207, pl. 10–12.] Digitized by the Smithsonian Libraries, available via Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Unfortunately, because Snellen van Vollenhoven was in such a hurry, he described new species based on one or a few specimens, sometimes only a female. Since these butterflies display sexual dimorphism (males and females look very different), his new species turned out to be either described before him, but then only using the males, or variations of other species, instead of new ones. After all his troubles, his name now figures after only 4 subspecies and 1 species of this particular group of butterflies.  [You can read more about this episode in the October issue of Lepidoptera Science (Gassó Miracle, M.E. & T. Yokochi, 2016. Type specimens of South East Asian Adoliadini (Lepidoptera: Nymphalidae) in the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands. Lepidoptera Science 67(2): 67-88)]

That would not be the only time Wallace made the Dutch naturalists hurry. Herman Schlegel, director of the RMNH between 1858 and 1884, was losing sleep. In a letter dated 21 February 1861, Schlegel instructed Heinrich Bernstein, a physician and naturalist working in Bogor (Java), to find out where exactly Wallace was collecting and, for country and for science, be there before him. Otherwise, Schlegel explained in another letter, the Leiden duplicates would have no value. But if he did succeed in beat Wallace to collect in places he had not visited, he could “damage the English market”.

Bernstein knew about Wallace’s whereabouts and read his publications, reporting to Schlegel that Wallace was, accompanied by “another English zoologist, Allan”, in Ternate but planned to return to Europe after that. If Wallace did indeed return, would then Allan proceed on his own? “I would very much prefer […] that these gentlemen were somewhere else than in our Colonies”.  Bernstein continued: “they limit the advance of your [Schlegel’s] discoveries, as well as the scientific and material worth of the objects”. [All letters deposited in the Naturalis archives, see also Agatha Gijzen’s thesis 1938,  ’s Rijks Museum van Natuurlijke Historie, 1820-1915 – in Dutch].

Wallace was also well informed of Bernstein’s travels and was just as determined to win the race. In a letter to Philip Lutley Sclater, in December 1860, he wrote:

The Dutch have just sent out a collector for the Leyden Museum to the Moluccas. He is now at Ternate, and goes to spend two years in Gilolo and Batchian, and then to N. Guinea. He will, of course (having four hunters constantly employed, and not being obliged to make his collecting pay expenses), do much more than I have been able to do; but I think I have got the cream of it all. His name is Bernstein. 

[Wyhe, J. van & K. Rookmaaker (eds.). 2013. Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters from the Malay Archipelago. OUP, p. 236]

Bernstein dreamed of visiting New Guinea – in pursue, partly and obviously, of birds of paradise – , but his plans were sadly never realized. After exploring Ternate, Halmahera, Jobi and other islands, he headed for New Guinea to die on Pulau Senapan, just a few kilometers across Bird’s Head Peninsula, in  April 1865.

Knowledge is power. The museums competed for a shining spot in the European scientific community and so, the pursue of a higher status for both scientist and institution, with a considerable dose of patriotism, ended up in competition and distrust. We know better now. Don’t we?


One of the thousands of specimens collected by Bernstein: Lambis lambis (Linnaeus, 1758), Waigeoe. Naturalis Biodiversity Center, ZMA.MOLL.45384 ZMA.MOLL.45384_01829615788. Available via Naturalis BioPortal.


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