In 1848, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates – then unknown, self-taught naturalists in their twenties – left Liverpool, setting sail for Belém, near the mouth of the Amazon. Both had come from similarly modest backgrounds with limited formal education, but were energised by a Victorian entrepreneurial spirit. They planned to spend years collecting plants and animals in the tropics, financing their travels through the sale of specimens that they would dispatch from the Amazon back to England. The following year they were joined by the 31-year-old Richard Spruce, a schoolteacher turned botanist who was an established amateur naturalist, having already collected in the Pyrenees.
In Brazil Bates became an all-rounder: a collector, field naturalist and evolutionary theorist with a passion for insects. Spruce consolidated himself as a gifted botanist who focused on the less glamorous end of his trade – ‘bladderworts, arums, grasses, and sedges’. Wallace, on the other hand, remained an exuberant intellectual