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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Henry Cecil   9 April 1874

Bregner, | Bournemouth, | Hants.

April 9th. 1874.

My dear Sir,

I have just laid down, having read from the first page to the last with the keenest interest, your “Researches.”1 Shall I confess that the name, so familiar to everyone, was associated in my mind with not a little prejudice; but it has melted away before the genial sunshine of these pages like the mist-clouds at dawn. It seems to me impossible that the excellent observer, and keen-sighted naturalist of this Book can have travelled fantastically beyond the record where there is neither foothold nor handrail from the region of dreams to the pure ground of verity. It is certain that your later investigations, followed in your own company, must be very unlike the benighted report of them which has raised such a line & cross. That I must early ascertain. Meantime I thank you from my heart for the unalloyed enjoyment I have had in this book.

May I add a trifling note or two? I was struck with your remark on the inferiority of the women to the men in Tahiti.2 I observed the same thing on the mainland of Greece. The autochthones—peasants, and boatmen (excluding the town populations, of Athens for instance) show some splendid forms, but I never saw a passable woman whom I could fancy the mother of such men. Alcibiades as he stood poising at his boat end with his oar was as lithe well-proportioned & agile a human creature as Phidias could have moulded, but of Venus and the Graces I saw for my part no reminiscence.3

There are districts in Switzerland where the case seems to me reversed, and you see a bright, coquettish, rose-cheeked live-eyed girl consorting with a heavy, rude, saturnine sallow-visaged lout whom you can hardly fancy to be of the same race. But both cases are curious.

Your theory of the coral islands is to me new and very interesting, and it seems to commend itself to demonstration.4 There is one little verification of which, if it exists I miss the mention. Of the reef-fringed islands and coasts which you take to show that the level there has been stationary, or that there has been elevation.5 If this were so would you not expect to find instances at least where, after the formation of the fringe, elevation has continued, & a crest or casing of dead coral has ascended with the still rising land? Are there such?—

The phenomenon you mention at St. Helena of standing in calm within arm’s-length of an upward-blowing gale occurred to myself at Cintra in Portugal (July 1854). We had ascended the Penna to the summit of the little Moorish Castle which commands such a sudden and remarkable view of land and sea in the dead calm of a sultry day when to our astonishment, turning on the battlements to seaward, any attempt to lean over was met by a tremendous gale roaring straight up to the zenith like a defined air-fountain.6 So strong was the current, that one’s usual feeling in such positions seemed reversed—and the instinctive apprehension was that of being carried up, not down. Half a dozen paces off on the land side all was still. I suppose that point is from 900 to 1000 high in very perpendicular ascent, so that in my experience and your own the conditions were the same.

I am uncertain whether you will get this. In any case the impulse was strong to write it, and I suppose every successful writer has ample experience that the impulse is very general, and common to “all sorts and conditions of men”.7

The sometime voyageur of the Beagle must have far too much kind consideration for human tendencies and liabilities to despise an offering which is a small tribute to his own power to interest, and harmless in itself.

I am, dear Sir, | Yours very truly | Henry Cecil.

Charles Darwin M.A. F.R.S. | &c &c &c.


Cecil refers to CD’s Journal of researches; the most recent edition, Journal of researches (1870), was largely identical to Journal of researches 2d ed.
In Journal of researches 2d ed., p. 404, CD wrote: ‘I was much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women: they are far inferior in every respect to the men.’
Alcibiades was an Athenian statesman and general. Phidias was a Greek sculptor.
For CD’s theory that lagoon islands or atolls were formed by the upward growth of coral, together with the gradual subsidence of land, see Journal of researches 2d ed., pp. 465–82. A fuller account of his theory was published in Coral reefs. For a discussion of CD’s theory, see Stoddart 1976 and 1994.
See Journal of researches 2d ed., p. 491. The Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) is on a rocky outcrop (peña) above the town of Sintra in Portugal.
The quotation is from the Book of common prayer (Evening prayer: collect or prayer for all conditions of men).


Journal of researches (1870): Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN. By Charles Darwin. New edition. London: John Murray. 1870.

Journal of researches 2d ed.: Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN. 2d edition, corrected, with additions. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1845.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Stoddart, David R. 1976. Darwin, Lyell, and the geological significance of coral reefs. British Journal for the History of Science 9: 199–218.


Has just read Journal of researches and has been charmed out of his anti-Darwinian prejudice.

Letter details

Letter no.
Henry Cecil
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 161: 128
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9399,” accessed on 18 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22