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. Continue reading