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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. W. Reade   9 November 1870

11 St Mary Abbot’s Terrace | Kensington

Nov. 9. ’70

My dear Sir

I wrote to you at once on my return at the latter end of August, having come home two months earlier than I anticipated owing to the Phonician jealousy of the merchants who trade up the Niger, & who wd. not give me a passage.1 In that letter I replied to your queries about the frown of the chimpanzee by recommending you if you have a correspondent at Liverpool to make him look out for chimpanzees & there make the experiment.2 These apes are often brought to Liverpool, & die after a few days or weeks. I had seen one at Sa Leone—but it was gone before I recd your query. (2) I have seen albinoes but not the blush. By the way I think I must have answered these queries from Africa. I remember asking everybody I met at Accra whether they had seen an albino blush—3 There was an albino girl there I believe: & it was proposed to make the experiment: but how to raise a blush on an African countenance was the difficulty. My letter must have miscarried:4 I attributed your silence to your being so much occupied. I thank you much for your kind and cordial letter.5 The honour of being quoted in your work will be my first reward for toils undergone. I assure you I am very proud of it, and also to receive a copy of your work from you.6 (This address is likely to be permanent).

I do intend to give a full account of my travels: but I think of first bringing out a volume on the history of Africa generally, and then my travels interspersed with essays on parts where I have not been & on scientific questions connected with Africa—the ape & man question for instance—so as to make it a tolerably complete work on Negroland.7 I have observed that books of travel do not live unless there is something in them besides travels. Can there be a more charming narrative than that of Mungo Park?8 But it is only a narrative, & is forgotten though he is not. I cd easily dash off an amusing work à la Hepworth Dixon in a few months,9 but I see there is an opening for a comprehensive work on Africa, and I shall try to unite the solidity of a general work with the attraction of a narrative. The task may be beyond my strength; but industry can do much.

I am glad the fever statement caught you in time.10 I shall bring forward instances of it in my work, but having doctored negros with my own hand given them quinine between the paroxysms &c. I am tolerably confident of the fact. Respecting the beauty question I will express myself more clearly than I have hitherto done. I have examined the question very carefully, and have been assisted in my inquiries not only by intelligent natives speaking English well, but by German missionaries who had lived years among the natives on the Gold Coast & understood their language.11

1. I do not venture to assert, nor do I think it probable that the Africans wd ever prefer the most beautiful European on mere grounds of physical admiration to a good looking negress.12 But I assert this: that if Africans had to choose from a number of European women they would certainly select those whom we should select as the best looking. They often talk about the Europeans they see among them, saying so & so is handsome so & so is ugly. It has been observed that their ideas on these people were the same as ours would be.13

Again nothing is more common in Africa than for Europeans to talk with their interpreters & servants about the native women: it has invariably been found that the man’s idea of beauty & his master’s correspond. To speak not only of the coast but of the interior I have noticed this over & over again: when chatting with the natives one of them has remarked “Dont you think so & so has a very handsome wife” or “look at that pretty girl over there” just as we do in England.14 I have always found that the faces which are much admired are those which are the farthest removed from the prognathous type—from the regular Guinea negro—a type as exceptional in Africa as that of the Pontina Marsh people in Italy—15 What are the “points” wh. they admire in a woman I asked a lady who had spent her life among these people. Small hands & small feet she replied: large eyes: a small nose: a well shaped nape, or back of the neck. “Why do you tie a string round your upper arm? a native chief was asked. Because that gives one a fine round plump arm he replied. (I have among my notes taken years ago a statement that American women do the same whether Red Indians or Anglo-Americans I dont know: probably the latter who have thin arms).

The admiration of broad hips is carried to extravagance in Central Africa. Tight lacing with us is used not only to compress the waist, but to broaden the shoulders & the hips. “The Europeans” say the Gold Coast negroes wd. be good looking if they had better teeth. But they have fine hair”. They themselves use false hair chignons every possible contrivance to make their hair look plentiful just as we do. The nose is the only doubtful point to my mind. But girls have been heard to say “I dont want to marry him he’s got no nose”:16 this shows that the very flat nose is not admired. The large nose, the long nose is also disliked: but the negro nose when large is usually like what we call a bottle-nose though some of them have admirably shaped noses. No doubt habit has something to do with their ideas about the nose—

The black skin is most admired certainly, but that is because the black skin is really the most beautiful. It is not the force of habit, because black skins are the exception not the rule except among a few tribes such as Jollof, the Serracoulis &c.17 I shd sum up as my belief & as the belief of those who have lived long among these people that their ideas on the subject of beauty are on the whole the same as ours.18

Respecting thickness of sculls.19 The Pagan negroes wear no covering on the head & expose it to a vertical sun. It has been asserted I believe by all anatomists that the negro scull is abnormally thick, & hard.20 I have seen a bullet wh. had flattened against the frontal bone of a French negro soldier inflicting a slight wound wh I inspected. This thickness is probably intended as a protection against the sun, & may perhaps have been acquired by the practice they have of carrying their infants soon after birth (a week) bare headed in the sun. There is a most curious passage in Herod: comparing the sculls of Egyptians & Persians. The thick sculls of the former he attributes to their being always in the sun, & always bare-headed.21 I venture to think that this passage which I read on the banks of the Niger of wh river he was the first to speak, may be applied to nat: sel:22 Any further point you may do me the honour to refer to me upon will be answered to the best of my ability by return of post and I shd be happy now or after the book is published to run down to Beckenham for a couple of hours if there shd happen to be a variety of points to discuss. If you write to me again pray do not fatigue yourself to write autographically but talk to me through your secretary.

Hoping that you will get better health now that your present work is approaching its consummation which so many are eagerly looking forward to

I remain | Yours very truly | Winwood Reade

Jollof is so written.23

The people of the Gold Coast have been accustomed to Europeans. But my ideas on this subject are not based on my observations there alone— Much of the apparent horror of the white man among savage negroes is owing to their ideas not that the Devil is white (they have no Devil corresponding to ours) but that all demons, spirits or angels are white.24 I know the case of one traveller in the far interior who having been carefully surveyed by a woman for some time she said— “He is a fine young man”. Again the beard is usually much admired by negro women, though negroes scarcely ever have any.25

I may be able to supply you with additional particulars about love-making exogamy &c for your 2nd edition: & possibly on other points wh will be suggested by your work.26

CD annotations

1.1 I wrote … language. 3.7] crossed pencil
4.1 1.... negress. 4.3] scored red crayon
5.3 To speak … prognathous type— 5.8] scored red crayon
5.8 a type … Italy— 5.9] double scored red crayon
6.1 The admiration … Africa.] scored red crayon
6.4 But … hair”.] double scored red crayon
6.8 but the … noses. 6.9] double scored red crayon
7.3 I shd … as ours. 7.5] double scored red crayon
8.1 Respecting … Reade 10.1] crossed pencil
12.3 the Devil is white 12.4] before closing square bracket pencil
12.4 (they … man”. 12.7] crossed pencil
12.7 Again … any. 12.8] double scored pencil
Top of letter: ‘(Beauty)’ added pencil


See letter from W. W. Reade, 3 September 1870 and n. 2. On Reade’s difficulty in attaining passage up the Niger, see Reade 1873, 2: 508–9; see also letter from W. W. Reade, 4 June 1870 and n. 15.
CD’s query was evidently in a letter that has not been found; see letter to W. W. Reade, 30 June [1870] and n. 8.
Sa Leone: Sierra Leone. Accra is a port in Ghana.
In his letter of 3 September 1870, Reade reported that he had seen albinos in Africa but had not observed them blushing.
The letter from CD to Reade has not been found.
CD cited Reade in Descent 1: 289 and 2: 247, 344, 346, 350, 357–8, 374, and included quotations in Descent 2: 351, 357. Reade was on CD’s presentation list for Descent (see DAR 210.11: 32, and Correspondence vol. 19, Appendix IV).
On Reade’s The martyrdom of man (Reade 1872), and the unusual structure of Reade’s African sketch-book (Reade 1873), see Driver 2001.
CD read an edition of Mungo Park’s Travels in the interior districts of Africa (Park 1799) in 1838 (see CD’s Reading notebooks, Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV).
William Hepworth Dixon had published books on his travels in the Middle East, the United States, and Russia (Dixon 1865, 1867, and 1870).
For CD’s first query to Reade regarding perceptions of beauty among different peoples, see Correspondence vol. 16, letter to W. W. Reade, 21 May [1868]. Reade addressed the question in his letters of 4 June 1870, 3 September 1870, and 6 November 1870. The Gold Coast was the name of the former British colony that now makes up the larger part of the country of Ghana (Columbia gazetteer of the world s.v. Ghana).
CD quoted this statement of Reade’s in Descent 2: 351.
CD cited Reade on this point in Descent 2: 350.
CD cited Reade for this observation in Descent 2: 344.
The Pontine Marshes were in the Lazio region of central Italy, and were famous for malarial fever. (EB). See also Reade 1872, p. 272.
CD quoted this statement in Descent 2: 350.
Europeans called some of the peoples living south of the Senegal River the Serrawoolli or Saracolets (Prichard 1836–7, 2: 80).
CD cited Reade on this point in Descent 2: 350.
James Cowles Prichard discussed the supposition that Africans had thick skulls and noted authors who had written of it in Prichard 1836–7, 1: 282–3.
See Herodotus 3.12.
Herodotus 3.32. Nat. sel.: natural selection.
CD may have asked for the correct spelling of ‘Jollof’, as the word was then also sometimes spelled ‘Iolof’ or ‘Whalof’ (see Prichard 1836–7, 2: 78).
CD cited Reade on this point in Descent 2: 346.
CD cited Reade on this point in Descent 2: 350.
CD did cite Reade on additional points in the second edition of Descent, though not on the practice of exogamy. For CD’s discussion of exogamy, see Descent 2: 360, 364.


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

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.

Dixon, William Hepworth. 1865. The Holy Land. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall.

Driver, Felix. 2001. Geography militant: cultures of exploration and empire. Oxford: Blackwell.

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

Park, Mungo. 1799. Travels in the interior districts of Africa: performed under the direction and patronage of the African Association, in the years 1795, 1796, and 1797 … with an appendix, containing geographical illustrations of Africa by Major Rennell. London: W. Bulmer and Co.

Prichard, James Cowles. 1836–7. Researches into the physical history of mankind. 3d edition. 2 vols. London: Sherwood, Gilbert and Piper.

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.


Ideas of female beauty of W. African Negroes are on the whole the same as those of Europeans.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, St Mary Abbot’s Terrace, 11
Source of text
DAR 85: 109–112
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7363,” accessed on 23 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18