Wallace was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, relaxing in his cabin, when the captain strolled in and announced, perhaps too calmly: “I am afraid the ship's on fire. Come and see what you think of it."

Within a few hours, the vessel was on its side, engulfed in flames. Sitting in a small lifeboat 1,100 kilometres from land, with minimal supplies, Wallace almost fell victim to the very process he would later uncover — what we would today call survival of the fittest.

Thankfully, after ten days, Wallace was rescued by the Jordeson, a brig running between the West Indies and London. On arriving back home, he was overjoyed, writing to a friend: “Oh! Glorious day! … Beef steaks and damson tart, a paradise for hungry sinners.”

This episode is just one of many to emerge from Wallace Letters Online, launched today on the website of the Natural History Museum in London. It is a project funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation based in New York city to track down and digitize Wallace’s correspondence.