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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Edgar Leopold Layard   9 December 1855

Down Bromley Kent

Dec 9th. 1855

Dear Sir

I have read your several communications on the Nat. History of Ceylon with very much interest; & I have thought that the love & zeal shown by you for science, would make you forgive the liberty I take in addressing you; & that perhaps you could give me a little information if your official duties afford you any quite idle time.—1

I have during many years been collecting all the facts & reasoning which I could, in regard to the variation & origin of species, intending to give, as far as lies in my power, the many difficulties surrounding the subject on all sides. One chief line of investigation naturally is concerned with the amount of variation of all our domestic animals.

For various reasons, I have determined to work especially on pigeons, poultry, ducks & rabbits; though at the same time I am most grateful for any facts on all our other domesticated quadrupeds & birds. I have been buying all the races of Pigeons, in order to watch them living & make skeletons of them when dead.— I find from various old works, that the Dutch formerly (as now) were great Fanciers, & it has occurred to me that breeds may in former times have been carried to the Cape of Good Hope & may still be retained there; & that these might possibly belong to breeds now lost in Europe, or rare, or even slightly modified.—

Now would you confer the very great favour on me to make enquiries for me on this head; & I have thought that you might employ any bird-skinner (if such exist) at my expence, to look out for & skin old examples dying a natural death of any breed whatever leaving in the bones of legs & wings, which there is any reason whatever to suppose has long been bred at the Cape. I shd. be extremely glad to get a common Dovehouse Pigeon, if long introduced. I could, I imagine easily repay you for any expence to which you might be put.— It is of course quite possible there may be no Fanciers, but such seem to exist in almost every part of the world; or perhaps you may not have time to spare from more important or interesting employments.— In the same way I shd. be most grateful for any breeds of the domestic Duck; or Poultry if bred at the Cape for many generations; or for any information regarding any Poultry kept by any of the aborigines, but these it would be impossible to get skinned.—

Mr Andersson2 has promised to draw up for me an account of the several breeds of cattle & dogs kept by the several tribes on the Western coast; if at any time you could aid me in this respect the aid would be very valuable. Very slight differences in some respects are almost as interesting as greater ones in the different breeds. But I fear that I shall have exhausted your patience; & I do not know whether your goodnature will lead you to forgive this intrusion of a brother naturalist, who collected & worked on board H.M.S. Beagle in her voyage round the world.—

Pray believe me, dear Sir, with many apologies, Yours faithfully | Charles Darwin

Can you tell me whether there are any Pigeon Fanciers in Ceylon, as perhaps I could get skins made for me there.—

I have thought of writing to Mr Thwaites,3 but any hints from you so that I might guide him, would be very useful; but I am well aware that it is a mere chance whether you have ever attended to domestic Pigeons.—4 I have just remembered one other point, on which I shd. be very much obliged for an answer, viz whether you are sure that the Cyclophorus stemostoma Sow. & the Pterocyclus bilabiatus Sow. are certainly found in Ceylon: I have had a letter from Mr. Benson5 in answer to a query of mine whether any alpine shells were common to the heights of Ceylon, Neilgherries & Himmalaya & he speaks somewhat doubtfully on your authority in regard to the two above-named species.


Layard had served as a civil servant in Ceylon from 1849 until 1853, during which time he had devoted himself to studying the entomology, ornithology, and conchology of the island. He had published several articles in the Annals of Natural History on various aspects of the natural history of Ceylon (E. L. Layard 1851, 1852–3, 1853–4). After returning to England for reasons of health, he had been appointed to the colonial office in Capetown, South Africa, where he also served as the first curator of a museum of natural history. CD wrote to him at the suggestion of Edward Blyth (letter from Edward Blyth, 22–3 August 1855). See also CD’s memorandum, [December 1855].
Charles John Andersson was a Swedish-born naturalist and collector in South Africa.
George Henry Kendrick Thwaites, superintendent of the botanical gardens at Peradeniya, Ceylon, became an important source of information on Ceylon for both Natural selection and Variation. See the letter to George Henry Kendrick Thwaites, 10 December 1855.
Layard’s study of the ornithology of South Africa culminated in the publication of The birds of South Africa in 1867.
William Henry Benson had described Layard’s collection of land shells and published a paper on the new species contained in it (Benson 1853). See letter from W. H. Benson, 5 December 1855.


Benson, William Henry. 1853. Characters of new land shells, collected by Edgar L. Layard, Esq., in Ceylon. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2d ser. 12: 90–7.

Layard, Edgar Leopold. 1851. On the progress of natural history in Ceylon. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2d ser. 7: 402-9.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Is collecting facts for Variation; would be grateful for skins of local [Cape of Good Hope] breeds of pigeons, ducks, and poultry.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Edgar Leopold Layard
Sent from
Source of text
Auckland Public Library (Grey collection GL D8 (3))
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1794,” accessed on 28 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5