ALS to John Murray.

DARWIN Charles (1880.)


Holograph ms. in ink. Bifolium printed stationery with integral blank. 8vo. Very good with an old fold. Down, Beckenham Kent, 11 June,

A rare unpublished letter by Charles Darwin. This not only displays his ongoing cordial relations with his publisher, but is proof of the deep interest held in Darwin's account of his time on the Beagle and his encounters with indigenous population of the New World including Australian Aborigines.


This warm letter to John Murray asks for permission to reprint sections from his 1860 work, A Naturalist's Voyage: Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of HMS "Beagle" Round the World... Darwin is actually writing on behalf of R.F. Charles of the City of London School. R.F. Charles wrote to Darwin on 6 June 1880 requesting permission to use them in his Relfe Brothers Model Reading Books (London 1880-3).


He specifically asks after three passages: "the corrobery [sic] dance of the Australians", "Tierra del Fuego, account of" and "Horsemanship of the Guachos." Darwin explains that the extracts will "be used for educational purposes; but I cannot of course grant permission without your consent, as the book is your property. I hope, however, that you will oblige me..." Apparently Charles had previously applied for permission to Murray himself, though was refused. Permission was evidently granted in the wake of Darwin's intervention as the three extracts appeared in volumes 5 and 6 of the series.


In the capacity of naturalist and companion, Charles Darwin visited Sydney, Hobart and King George's Sound while on the Beagle. It was in March 1836 in King George's Sound that he witnessed a corroboree. His description of it, taken from A Naturalist's Voyage..., is lightly edited from the original text and appears on pages 10 and 11 of the fifth volume.


"A large tribe of natives called the White Cockatoo men, happened to pay the settlement a visit while we were there. These men, as well as those of the tribe belonging to King George's Sound, being tempted by the offer of some tubs of rice and sugar, were persuaded to hold a "corrobery," or a great dancing-party.  As soon as it grew dark they lighted small fires and commenced their toilet which consisted in painting themselves in spots & lines with a white colour ... [T]he Cockatoo & King George's men formed two distinct parties and danced generally in answer to each other. The dancing consisted in the whole set running either sideways or in Indian file into an open space ... Their heavy footsteps were accompanied by a kind of grunt, and by beating their clubs and spears together, and by various other gesticulations, such as extending their arms & wriggling their bodies. It was a most rude, barbarous scene, and to our ideas, without any sort of meaning; but we observed that the women and children watched it with the greatest pleasure. Perhaps these dances originally represented some scenes such as wars and victories; there was one called the Emu dance in which each man extended his arms in a bent manner like the neck of that bird. In another dance, one man imitated the movements of a kangaroo grazing in the woods, whilst a second crawled up and pretended to spear him. When both tribes mingled in one dance, the ground trembled with the heaviness of their steps and the air resounded with their wild crys. Every one appeared in high spirits, and the group of nearly naked figures, viewed by the light of the blazing fired, all moving in hideous harmony, formed a perfect display of a festival amongst the lowest barbarians ... In Tierra del Fuego we have beheld many curious scenes in savage life, but I think never one where the natives were in such high spirits & so perfectly at ease. After the dancing was over, the whole party formed a great circle on the ground, and the boiled rice and sugar was distributed to the delight of all."


Regarding his contact with Tierra del Fuegans, ODNB writes: "The most unsettling of all Darwin's encounters was with the native inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. He was stunned by their naked ‘savage’ state, particularly in comparison with the three fine-clothed Fuegians on board. ‘I would not have believed how entire the difference between savage & civilized man is.—It is greater than between a wild & domesticated animal’ (Diary, ed. Keynes, 122). Yet the fact that Fuegians could be ‘civilized’ (as Darwin saw it) confirmed his belief that, under the skin, humans were all one species, and this remained a lasting influence on his later evolutionary theories. During the Beagle's time in the far south Darwin and FitzRoy were sad to note that the three Anglicized Fuegians soon returned to the aboriginal state."


Letters by Darwin mentioning Australia are very rare on the market. Of the 495 examples of Darwin correspondence and signatures list on auction records between 1975 and today, just three mention Australia. Not in the Darwin Correspondence project.

Stock Code: 227979

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