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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. W. Reade   21 February 1871

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

Feb. 21. ’71

My dear Sir

Very many thanks for your work duly recd..1 I have skimmed through it at once, but shall study it most carefully before writing my travels: & in that work I shall enter into long details relative to some of the points touched upon in your work.2 Just now I am entirely taken up with history: I have determined to get rid of my historical sketch of Africa quickly, and shall have finished it by the autumn. Its proper title would be Africa’s Place in History—though that is too hackneyed a title—for I bring in a good deal of European & Asiatic history as well— I also bring in a chapter on the origin of religion which may interest you, though I do not suppose that I shall say anything that has not been said before.3 The quotations from my letters are correct; I assure you that I feel very proud of seeing my name in such a book.4

I will just note down one or two marginal mems that I made in my hasty perusal—

i. 26–7— the food of the West African is always soft: everything is boiled—so that the meat (if any) can be divided with a spoon.5 Are there negroes who have no pottery? I have not met with them.

i. 36. I can assert positively that the gorilla also makes nests.6 But I doubt whether either animal uses the nest for sleeping in. Otherwise how easy it wd be to shoot them! & it is not easy. The evidence I collected was this. That the male ga. & ce.7 builds the nest for the female to lie in: that the nest is not used as a sleeping place usually: but that sometimes it is so used: just I imagine as birds often roost in old nests. Compare the use of the dray or squirrel’s nest by that animal. The nest-building ape of Du Chaillu is a myth.8

i. 94. Suicide very common on Gold Coast. A man blew out his brains at my side one night— I have also seen a case of suicide of a chief defeated in battle. That is de rigueur. Women hang themselves, men shoot themselves. I shall write much on this head in my travels.9

i. 100. The Negroes like the Orientals admire truth though they do not practise it.10

i. 143. I saw a small monkey in Africa whose master used to tie its hands behind its back to make it run like a biped wh. it did with great ease, though naturally going on all fours.11 The gorilla goes on all fours & cannot I have been informed stand up without holding on to a branch. The disproportion between the huge trunk & the legs wh. have a stunted withered appearance as if disused in the animal when seen just after death is very striking.

i. 221. The negroes of the Gold Coast though reverencing white men, & mulattoes, have it as a maxim that mulattoes must not intermarry, as the children will be few & sickly.12 Otherwise they wd. probably intermarry always just as the aristocracy in France under the old régime. This is I think as important a fact as has yet been collected on this point. White men have been on the Gold Coast 400 years: the natives have had time enough to gain this knowledge by experience

The Hottentot peculiarity exists in a less marked manner among many African tribes. (i. 225)13 Woolly hair is a constant character—the only one—in the negroes. Complexion & contour vary immensely.

i. 242. The blackest tribes I know in Africa are found in places where the greatest possible heat coexists with moisture produced by a rainy season—a river or sea coast & marshes—e.g. the Jollofs on the Senegal—14 The heat of the Sahara is there blended with the moisture & pestilential exhalations of tropical Africa.

Black I maintain is more beautiful than the lighter skins in the Africans.15

ii. 320. The body of the negro is not destitute of fine down. The legs I remember are often covered with hairs like ours; but these leg hairs even preserve their peculiar curly character. Men & women are well furnished with hair at the junction of the four limbs to the trunks. I do not think they differ essentially from us in that respect—as to quantity.

I think I have seen negroes with small whiskers: I believe they generally shave the cheeks, but wont be sure.16

ii. 334 Magyar, the African traveller says that savages from the far interior go to the coast for trade & return to their native country singing or whistling opera airs.17

ii. 346— A Moor I met seemed rather put out at finding I was whiter than he was & said the bad food of the country spoilt one’s skin.18 The Moors are white men. But we shudder when we first land on the coast & see the cadaverous faces of the residents.

I am not disappointed in your book— It will be read by thousands, who are not naturalists. At length every man will be furnished with a satisfactory explanation of the existence of his mammæ: as for the coccyx, many men are happily unconscious of it— The governor of Lagos19 said to me in a very surly manner, “yes but you said we have all got tails, didnt you?” I owned the soft impeachment but pleaded the fact as my justification. He looked much put out. To such men, & there are many, your book will appear an outrage: but it will encourage many in their writings to tell what they believe to be the truth, whether pleasant or not. You must expect plenty of vulgar abuse: you got a good deal for only hinting for what you have now said in a very clear voice. But it wont hurt you.

With kind regards to Mrs. Darwin | believe me | yours very truly | Winwood Reade

CD annotations

1.1 Very … autumn. 1.5] crossed pencil
16.1 I am … you. 16.10] crossed pencil


Reade’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for Descent (Appendix IV).
Reade refers to his African sketch-book (Reade 1873).
Reade’s work was published in 1872 under the title Martyrdom of man (Reade 1872).
CD cited Reade frequently in Descent.
In Descent 1: 26–7, CD suggested that the shortening of the jaw in ‘civilised’ races was due to their eating soft, cooked food.
In Descent 1: 36, CD stated that both the orang-utan and the chimpanzee built sleeping platforms for themselves.
Gorilla and chimpanzee.
Reade refers to Paul Belloni Du Chaillu and Du Chaillu 1861. Du Chaillu’s nest-building ape was his Troglodytes calvus; it was probably one of the two currently recognised species of chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes or P. paniscus.
In Descent 1: 94, CD stated that suicide was not formerly considered a crime, nor was it still among some ‘semi-civilised nations’. Reade did not discuss different methods of suicide in either Reade 1872 or Reade 1873.
Descent 1: 100: ‘Neither can we say why certain admirable virtues, such as the love of truth, are much more highly appreciated by some savage tribes than by others.’
In Descent 1: 142–3, CD discussed intermediate stages between quadripedalism and bipedalism.
In Descent 1: 221, CD discussed allegations of lessened fertility among mulattoes.
The term ‘Hottentot’ was usually used to refer to peoples of south-western Africa (the Khoikhoi); for nineteenth-century uses of the term ‘Hottentot’, see Stocking 1987, Dubow 1995, and S. J. Gould 1997. In Descent 1: 225–6, CD wrote, ‘Hottentot women offer certain peculiarities, more strongly marked than those occurring in any other race, but these are known not to be of constant occurrence.’ CD and Reade presumably allude to elongated labia minora or steatopygia; see Correspondence vol. 15, letter from Andrew Smith, 26 March 1867 and nn. 7 and 8, and Descent 2: 345 n. 53.
In Descent 1: 242, CD pointed out that the distribution of the variously coloured races did not coincide with corresponding difference of climate. The Wolof people (also spelled Ouolof) now live primarily in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania (Appiah and Gates eds. 2005, 5: 430).
In Descent 2: 321, CD wrote: ‘With negroes the beard is scanty or absent, and they have no whiskers; in both sexes the body is almost destitute of fine down.’
In Descent 2: 334, CD wrote that ‘Hottentots and Negroes’ readily became excellent musicians, though they did not practise in their native countries anything that Europeans would esteem as music. Reade refers to László Magyar and Magyar 1859, p. 357 n. 13: Man kann sehr oft von den Jünglingen, die mit den Karavanen die portugiesischen Ansiedlungen besucht hatten, Opern-Arien singen oder pfeifen hören, die sie dort erlernt haben. One often hears the young people who have visited the Portuguese settlements with the caravans singing or whistling arias from operas, which they have learnt there.
In Descent 2: 346, CD gave instances of black people expressing dislike of white skin.
John Hawley Glover.


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.

Du Chaillu, Paul Belloni. 1861. Explorations & adventures in equatorial Africa; with accounts of the manners and customs of the people, and of the chace of the gorilla, crocodile, leopard, elephant, hippopotamus, and other animals. 2d edition. London: John Murray.

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

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

Magyar, László. 1859. Reisen in Süd-Afrika in den Jahren 1849 bis 1857. Translated from the Hungarian by Johann Hunfalvy. Vol. 1 (no more published). Pest: Verlag von Lauffer & Stolp.

Reade, William Winwood. 1872. The martyrdom of man. London: Trübner & Co.

Reade, William Winwood. 1873. The African sketch-book. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.

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


Various comments on Descent;

on suicide on Gold Coast;

on mulattoes’ not being prolific.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, St Mary Abbot’s Terrace, 11
Source of text
DAR 89: 172–4
Physical description
6pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7501,” accessed on 16 September 2021,

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