Prolific writer and historian Ian Burnet has authored numerous books about Indonesia, and has travelled expansively across the archipelago. With the recent release of his latest publication, Where Australia Collides with Asia, we decided to delve into what it is about the nation’s cultural and biological diversity that so fascinates Ian.
What is Where Australia Collides with Asia about? How did you come to write it?
Alfred Russel Wallace is one of my heroes. He left school at 14 and became interested in the natural world while working in the countryside as an assistant surveyor. He started collecting and pressing plants before he had any idea there was such a science as botany. He then educated himself through local libraries and the Mechanics Institutes that were being set up all over Britain.
He then decided he could make a living collecting natural history specimens (insects, butterflies, birds, animals) in the Amazon and sending them back for sale to collectors in England.
I always wanted to write a book about Wallace but had to find a way that was new and different to what had already been done. It was introducing the story of continental drift and where Australia collides with Asia that allowed me to do this.
What is the story behind the Wallace Line?
In 1856 Wallace arrived for a few days on the island of Bali. Here he saw all the same birds that he had seen in his previous three years of collecting specimens in Singapore, Malaya and Borneo. When he crossed from Bali to Lombok and further into the eastern archipelago, he never saw the same birds again, instead seeing Australian species such as cockatoos, honeyeaters, bush turkeys and birds of paradise.
The Wallace Line represents the biogeographic boundary between the fauna of Asia (elephants, tigers, and all kinds of placental mammals including primates) and the fauna of Australasia (marsupials and all the different birds mentioned above).
Wallace was one of the founders of the science of biogeography. He was the founder of the idea of continental drift, because 50 years before Alfred Wegener had introduced the concept of continental drift and 100 years before the science of plate tectonics, Wallace had already concluded that Australia had collided with Asia. He was also, along with Charles Darwin, the co-founder of the most important scientific breakthrough of the last few hundred years – the concept of evolution through natural selection.
Not bad for someone who was self-educated!
How does your book have to say about Indonesia?
The fact that all these discoveries took place in Indonesia is something for Indonesians to celebrate. It should increase awareness by Indonesians of Indonesia’s unique position in the natural world and the importance of conservation of its already threatened species.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I lived and worked in Indonesia for 15 years as a geologist and have visited Indonesia for work or travel almost every year for another 30 years. It was after I retired in 2004 that I started researching and writing books about the always fascinating history of Indonesia and its people (including Spice Islands, East Indies, Archipelago and Where Australia Collides with Asia).
How important is it for you to both explore personally and share with others the history of Australia’s interactions with Asia?
Indonesia, spread across seventeen thousand islands and stretching the same distance as from Perth to Wellington in New Zealand, is the most culturally diverse nation on the planet. All this is on our doorstep as Australians, but for varying reasons most of us remain unaware of how much there is to see and experience in Indonesia. My books, the tours across Java, and the sailing voyages around the eastern archipelago are my contribution to bringing the wonders of Indonesia to a wider world, especially those in Australia.
Where can we find out more information?
A big thanks to Ian Burnet for his time and passion for Indonesian biogeography and diversity.