skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. W. Reade   6 January [1871]1

11 Saint Mary Abbot’s Terrace, | Kensington. W.

Jan. 6. ’70

My dear Sir

I find in Guillain l’Afrique Orientale2 i. 179 a passage which may interest you since it shows the attention paid by negroes to the breeding of men and women with the view of self-improvement. The truth of the passage is strongly supported in my mind by what I have myself observed. The extract is from an Arabic chronicle discovered by the early Portuguese at Quiloa.3 In reference to the gold trade carried on between the negroes of Sofala,4 and the Moors of Moguedchou5 it says “L’une des conditions imposée à ces derniers pour jouir de cet avantage etait de transporter chaque année à Sofala quelques jeunes gens de leur caste considerée par les Cafres comme étant d’une race supérieure qu’ils voulaient propager parmi eux.6

The chronicle goes on to relate that when the Sultan of Quiloa (an Arab colony) heard of this trade “il fit offrir aux Sofaliens de leur donner autant de pièces de drap que les gens de Moguedchou y transportaient d’individus autre que pour satisfaire du désir qu’ils avaient d’améliorer leur race il enverrait s’établir parmi eux quelques habitants de Kilowa (Quiloa) disposés à s’allier aux filles.7 These terms were accepted.

The Sofaliens or natives of Sofala are certainly negroes. The people they admired white men.

I am disposed to believe that reverence for the superior wisdom of the Arabs had something to do with this desire of breeding from them as we might like to breed from a dog of remarkable intelligence: but I think that there must also have been admiration of the physique as well: and surely no abhorrence of it.

With respect to Europeans in the tropics it must be remembered that their pallor is unhealthy looking: & often excites unpleasant feelings in us, when we first land, especially in West Africa.

But I believe this that if a white man & a black man were to look at a number of white faces, they would each select the same one as the most beautiful: that is if there happened to be one distinctively beautiful. The negro would not I am convinced choose an ugly flat nosed thick lipped face by preference.

And so also if both of them were looking at a number of black faces. The latter indeed is to my mind proved by a multitude of circumstances though I never methodically made the experiment.

I am longing to see your book8 and | remain | Yours very truly | Winwood Reade

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘Sexual Selection’ blue crayon; ‘Direct’ pencil del blue crayon; ‘Selection’ pencil


Reade evidently wrote ‘1870’ in error; in January 1870 he was in West Africa (ODNB; Correspondence vol. 18, letter from W. W. Reade, 3 September 1870).
Quiloa: now Kilwa Kisiwani, Tanzania.
Sofala is now in Mozambique.
Now Mogadisho in Somalia.
‘One of the conditions imposed upon the latter in order to enjoy this advantage was to transport every year to Sofala certain young people of their caste considered by the Kafirs as being a superior race that they wished to propagate among themselves.’ In the nineteenth century, the term Caffre or Kafir was usually used to refer to some groups of the Xhosa people of south-eastern Africa; for nineteenth-century uses of the term Kafir, see Stocking 1987, Dubow 1995, and S. J. Gould 1997.
‘He offered to give the Sofalians as many pieces of cloth as the people of Mogadisho brought individuals, and also, to satify their desire to improve their race, he sent some inhabitants of Kilwa who were disposed to marry their daughters to live among them.’ The emphasis was added by Reade.
Reade refers to Descent, published on 24 February 1871 (Freeman 1977).


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

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Dubow, Saul. 1995. Scientific racism in modern South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freeman, Richard Broke. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d edition. Folkestone, Kent: William Dawson & Sons. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, Shoe String Press.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1997. The mismeasure of man. Revised and expanded edition. London: Penguin Books.

Guillain, Charles. 1856. Documents sur l’histoire, la géographie et le commerce de l’Afrique orientale. 3 vols. Paris: Arthus Bertrand.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Stocking, George W., Jr. 1987. Victorian anthropology. New York: The Free Press. London: Collier Macmillan.


On sexual selection and the sense of beauty among the W. African Negroes.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, St Mary Abbot’s Terrace, 11
Source of text
DAR 89: 170–1
Physical description
3pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7429,” accessed on 17 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19