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Darwin Correspondence Project

To S. P. Woodward   9 [July 1860]1

Down Bromley Kent


My dear Sir

I am very sorry to say that I cannot answer one of your questions.—2 Von Buch or Johnston’s Phys. Atlas would probably tell number of Volcanos.—3 I am nearly certain there are the best remarks of anybody’s on antiquity of sub-aerial volcano in Lyell Principles or Elements on Auvergne;4 I remember being astonished at their antiquity.—   Degradation would prevent any sub-aerial volcano in a recognizable condition being of excessive antiquity. St. Helena of which upper part at least is sub-aerial, struck me as of extreme antiquity. The Canary isld. from littoral miocene shells must as a volcanic group be very old.—5

I entirely & absolutely disagree with Von Buch’s elevation-crater-theory—indeed I think it proved false.6 As there are so-considered volcanic ash beds in oldest formations, viz Silurian, no doubt sub-aerial Volcanos has always existed,—or at least probably, for on reflexion I do not suppose volcanic mud & ashes when stratified under water could be distinguished.—

I am very glad to hear about your Brother.7

I am sorry that I cannot answer your queries.—

In Haste | Yours very sincerely | C. Darwin

The Cordillera were volcanic with islands since early part of Cretaceous period or older; but I do not say that the volcanoes were sub-aerial—some stream however flowed in not deep water—8

Iceland from Miocene plants must have been volcano since that period— I suspect that this oldest ascertained volcano.—


The date is given by the reference to Woodward’s brother (see n. 7, below) and by a note written on the manuscript in an unidentified hand that reads: ‘To S. P. Woodward | 1860 | British Museum’.
Woodward was preparing an article on volcanoes for the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (S. P. Woodward 1860). In the article, he cited information from CD’s Volcanic islands. He also discussed CD’s views on the elevation and subsidence of segments of the earth’s crust (S. P. Woodward 1860, pp. 606–7).
The reference is to Buch 1836 (the French translation of Buch 1825) and to Johnston ed. 1856. Christian Leopold von Buch described in this work his theory of the formation of volcanic craters and gave a list of the principal volcanoes of the globe. Alexander Keith Johnston’s edition of the Physikalischer Atlas of Heinrich Karl Wilhelm Berghaus included a double-page plate of volcanoes. Woodward referred to both these works in S. P. Woodward 1860, p. 603. He also cited CD’s map of active volcanic vents published in Coral reefs.
CD probably refers to the ninth edition of Charles Lyell’s Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1853), a copy of which is in the Darwin Library–CUL. Lyell’s Manual of geology discussed the volcanoes of the Auvergne in some detail (C. Lyell 1855, pp. 550–9). A copy of this work is also in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Woodward discussed the antiquity of volcanic vents in S. P. Woodward 1860, p. 606.
CD had expressed his disbelief in Buch’s theory as early as 1844, when Buch and Lyell had first debated the formation of volcanic craters. See Correspondence vols. 2 and 4. In his article, Woodward stated that Buch’s theory had ‘lost its popularity’ owing to Lyell’s and CD’s criticism, but he found it difficult to believe that huge craters could have formed the base of volcanic cones, as Lyell’s theory required (S. P. Woodward 1860, p. 605).
Bernard Bolingbroke Woodward, S. P. Woodward’s older brother, was appointed librarian in ordinary to Queen Victoria at a ceremony at Windsor Castle on 2 July 1860 (DNB).
CD’s point was discussed in S. P. Woodward 1860, p. 606.


Buch, Christian Leopold von. 1825. Physicalische Beschreibung der Canarischen Inseln. Berlin.

Buch, Leopold de. 1836. Description physique des iles Canaries, suivie d’une indication des principaux volcans du globe. Translated by C. Boulanger. Paris: F. G. Levrault.

Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.

Volcanic islands: Geological observations on the volcanic islands, visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle, together with some brief notices on the geology of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope. Being the second part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1844.

Woodward, Samuel Pickworth. 1860. Volcanoes. In Encyclopædia Britannica. 8th edition. 21 vols. and index. Edinburgh. 1855–61.


Regrets he cannot answer SPW’s questions.

Discusses antiquity of subaerial volcanoes.

Disagrees "entirely & absolutely" with L. von Buch’s "elevation-crater-theory".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Samuel Pickworth Woodward
Sent from
Source of text
Natural History Museum, Library and Archives (General Special Collections MSS DAR 2)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2630,” accessed on 20 October 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8