Tom McLaughlin holds a Masters in Political Science and International Affairs and currently resides in Sarawak. Together with his wife, Suriani binti Sahari, they conducted an oral history and archival investigation of the enigmatic persona “Ali” in the classic text on Borneo’s natural history, Malay Archipelago by Alfred Wallace. This essay explores the oral history of Ali through a Kuching Bomoh, traces the verbal history through living relatives, examines the work of the American Dr. Thomas Barbor and provides additional evidence with a pantun. It concludes the Ali was from Sarawak and returned here after his journeys with Alfred Wallace.This is an abridge version of their findings and more can be discovered on his website,

In the Malay Archipelago, Alfred Wallace describes a relationship between him and a boy named Ali. Several Western  writers have attempted to explain where he came from and what happened to him. Piecing together both oral history and scholarly sources, my wife and I have finally found the answer to this quest. Through a seven year search and a dukun named Sapian bin Morani, the following narrative, translated from the Sarawak Malay, explains where Ali came from and what happened to him.

Sapian bin Morni is a dukun. In the Sarawak Malay world, a dukun uses herbs to treat disease. He uses  fragrance oils to help those who have marriage problem and  to make the couple fall in love again. Sapian bin Morni can also use verses from the Koran to treat people. He has travelled widely throughout Borneo, the south Philippines and west Malaysia to acquire more knowledge. Sapian acquired this knowledge from his father and grandfather who were both dukuns and probably further back. He also acquired the historical knowledge from a lineage that spans several generations.  His knowledge has been translated from the Sarawak Malay to English by Suriani binti Sahari.

Ali bin Amit

Ali, Wallace’s invaluable employee and friend.

The South China Sea washed the fishing village of Kampung Jaie about two hours northeast from Kuching. Most of the houses were probably on stilts to allow the waste to wash away. Ali bin Amit was born around 1840. He was not alone. He was the youngest of his siblings, Chek, Osman, Tad and Lon. While growing up, he learned about jungle medicine from his brother Tad (Panglima Putad) then they went to Kuching to work for the Rajah, Mr. James Brooke. Ali soon followed a as young teen lad. He worked under the tutelage of his brother Osman soon to be known as Panglima Seman. The title of Panglima was usually earned in battle as leader of soldiers.

Panglima Putad had learned medical skills from his father and Ali assisted in treating the wounded.  In his book, Ten Years in Sarawak volume 1, Charles Brooke describers the Malays as “the worst kind” except for Panglima Seman and Abang Ali. Later he tells of “good Panglima Seman”.Finally, he informs that he kept a small force back to guard the stockade under Panglima Seman. Ali probably followed his brother through battle, helping to bandage wounds and cooking for the troops.

Following the raids, Ali knew that his fortunes lay with the white people who came to rule Sarawak. He befriended a person named “Edward” to learn the English language. According to the Rajahs letters, Edward was the groom, a person who took care of horses. Ali was no stranger around the Astanna where he learned English from Edward.

The skirmishes ended and  Panglima Seman was granted a tract of land in 1852 from the Rajah for services to him. The land still bears his name.  The first year, Ali did not live in the kampung. Only Panglima Putad, (Tad) one of the brothers,  worked with Seman. He opened a prosperous blacksmith operation and people came in to fill up the kampung. However, a person named Awang Mat (Pengiran Ahmad) became jealous of Seman’s success and started to spread rumours to the Rajah about Panglima Seman. He stated that Seman was plotting to overthrow the Rajah and to make himself  the head of government. The Rajah believed in the plot because Panglima Seman’s family members were there and able to forge arms from the blacksmith shop. He could also produce weapons to fight the Rajah. The Panglima went to see Brooke eight times but Brooke refused to meet with him. A few months after that, Brooke went to Singapore. While he was there, rumours spread that Brooke was forming an army to attack the Panglima Seman.

When Brooke returned from Singapore, the ship passed the kampung. It was three days after his return, he planned to meet with Brooke but he was not allowed to see him. They sent someone to tell Brooke that Panglima wanted to meet him. He was not permitted to enter the Astanna.  Rumors spread again that Brooke want to attack Panglima Seman and his followers. A few weeks later a large ship docked at the mouth of Sarawak River. The debates became heated between the Rajah and the Panglima, and in a fit of temper, The Rajah threatened him and his family. Upon seeing  the ship, they assumed the rumors were true and fled to Kampung Jaie. He packed everything out. His residence  and the land is called Mungguk puang (Sarawak Malay for an empty place.) The Panglima, along with Ali, evacuated his family to Kampung Jaie. He changed the names of his children to Chinese and white men names because he took the threats seriously. Bibi, Tang, Chong, Ben and Mu are their names. It was not true that the Rajah wanted to attack the Panglima’s family. Panglima Seman  disappears from history and it is thought he fled to Sambas. Ali arranged people to take care of the children and returned to Kuching where he met Alfred Wallace. Ali used his skills a speaker of English, his ability as cook and his knowledge of jungle medicine to gain a place in Wallace’s entourage. He actively solicited the position. In his first conversation with Wallace he told him of the herbs but he had not been hired.  He got to know Wallace and thought he was close friends with the royal family in England. He remained with Wallace, off and on, for six years. During his off  time with Wallace he returned to Kampung Jaie  to check on Seman’s children. His exploits have been dissected elsewhere and are  described in Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago.

The Pantun

Most pantuns written during the 1860’s and 1870’s were composed by people who could neither read nor write. They relied on sounds and memory to pass the pantun from one generation to the next. The following pantun is written in Sarawak Malay as they were heard from the people of Kampung Jaie.

A pantun has four lines with an abab rhyming scheme. This means the first line rhymes with the third line while the second rhymes with the fourth. Each line has between eight and twelve syllables. The first two lines usually have no relation to the second two. They are often performed at weddings and other kampung celebrations. Each kampung has its’ own pantun unique to that individual setting.  An old pantun in Sarawak Malay from Kampung Jaie relates:

Apa kaba Weles serani

Abang Ali duak sekawan

Apa daya setuan ini

Berpecah kongsi berputus seratan

The first line Apa kaba Weles serani

Apa kaba means how are you; Weles is Wallace; serani is Sarawak Malay for white man.

Abang Ali duak sekawan

Wallace (from the top line) and Abang Ali  are good friends

Apa daya setaun ini

Unfortunately, this year

Berpecah kongsi berputus seratan

Our cooperation and team work has ended. Berpecah kongsi in Sarawak Malay means to break up. Berputus seratan means  the end of a relationship. The last  line in Sarawak Malay mean the breakup of a relationship who will not see each other for a long time. All four lines refer to the relationship between Wallace and Ali. (This pantun is translated from the old Sarawak Malay by Suriani binti Sahari)

This pantun tells the story of Wallace and Ali and confirms Ali came from Kuching and Kampong Jaie.


thomas barbour
Dr Thomas Barbour

A young western author by the name of Thomas Barbour said he met Ali in 1908 while on a trip.  When we visited Ternate,  our driver took us to the home of a lady, Mbk Iss, who, he said, went into a trance could tell the things about the past. I was expecting an old woman but a motorbike drove up and a beautiful girl of about 27 years old drove up. She put on a tudong and started her incantations. In an elderly persons voice and seemingly in a trance, she told the driver to quit having an affair with a local lady. She told us about Ali Wallace and said he was buried in a plot about a two hour boat ride from Ternate. When she came out of the trance we thanked her very much. The next day she rode with us around the island showing us the intensely beautiful sights of the island.

We were not going to take a two hour boat ride looking for Ali. However, we did visit a graveyard and people collecting fallen flowers for the perfume trade told us that a white man and two Malays from Java had said Ali Wallace grave was close by. We visited the site and noticed new cement and blue paint around the grave. This was all the information we had. We asked around the Malay community and nobody had heard of Ali, the new cement or the blue paint..

The Kampungs

Our adventures in the search for Ali Wallace turned to the kampungs on the Sarawak River. We interviewed hundreds of people, off and on, over a seven year in our search. We combed kampungs from Tupong to Panglima Seman .We gave up our search for Ali  He was not to be found.

It was at Kampung Hilir Batu  that we  interviewed   Sapian bin Morni  for a paper iI was writing which was totally unrelated to Ali. This was about three month later. We were about to leave, and as an afterthought, I asked about Ali. The  narrative flowed forth. I didn’t believe it until he came to the pantun. Then, I was almost convinced.

I told him we were going to Kampung Jaie. He said he couldn’t make until mid September (this was early August, 2016) I I told him we were going anyway and would meet Ali’s relatives. He came with us. A two hour drive and a winding road towards the sea took us to the Kampung. There lived the relatives of Panglima Seman .The man who sang the pantun for us was Jompot bin Chong the son of Chong whose father was Panglima Osman. (Seman). We interviewed several of the relatives, noticed the physical similarities and came away convinced this was indeed the home of Ali, the boy who accompanied Alfred Wallace through the Archipelago.

Ali’s grave at Kampung Jaie.


Ali’s grave is located at the centre of the grave yard. One must walk through high grass  and traverse soggy ground before one comes to the non descript wooden head and foot stone. The aged timbers are spread around as if a flood had lifted and resettled them, which, indeed it had before the building of a huge berm between the sea and the land. Ali’s 20 post house is gone, reclaimed by the South China Sea on the seaside side of the berm.

For footnotes and citations, the author can be emailed at



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