Letter icon
Letter 7363

Reade, W. W. to Darwin, C. R.

9 Nov 1870


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


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 tothe Phonician jealousy of the merchants who trade up the Niger,& who wd. not give me a passage.f1 In that letter I replied to yourqueries about the frown of the chimpanzee by recommending you if youhave a correspondent at Liverpool to make him look out for chimpanzees& there make the experiment.f2 These apes are often brought to Liverpool,& die after a few days or weeks. I had seen one at Sa Leone—butit was gone before I recd your query. (2) I have seen albinoes butnot the blush. By the way I think I must have answered these queriesfrom Africa. I remember asking everybody I met at Accra whetherthey had seen an albino blush—f3 There was an albino girl thereI believe: & it was proposed to make the experiment: but how to raisea blush on an African countenance was the difficulty. My letter musthave miscarried:f4 I attributed your silence to your being so muchoccupied. I thank you much for your kind and cordial letter.f5The honour of being quoted in your work will be my first reward fortoils undergone. I assure you I am very proud of it, and also to receivea copy of your work from you.f6 (This address is likely to be permanent).

I do intend to give a full account of my travels: but I think offirst bringing out a volume on the history of Africa generally,and then my travels interspersed with essays on parts where I have notbeen & on scientific questions connected with Africa—the ape& man question for instance—so as to make it a tolerably completework on Negroland.f7 I have observed that books of travel do not liveunless there is something in them besides travels. Can there bea more charming narrative than that of Mungo Park?f8 But it is onlya narrative, & is forgotten though he is not. I cd easily dashoff an amusing work à la Hepworth Dixon in a few months,f9 but I see thereis an opening for a comprehensive work on Africa, and I shall tryto unite the solidity of a general work with the attraction of anarrative. The task may be beyond my strength; but industry can do much.

I am glad the fever statement caught you in time.f10 I shall bringforward instances of it in my work, but having doctored negros withmy own hand given them quinine between the paroxysms &c. I amtolerably confident of the fact. Respecting the beauty question I willexpress myself more clearly than I have hitherto done. I have examinedthe question very carefully, and have been assisted in my inquiries notonly by intelligent natives speaking English well, but by Germanmissionaries who had lived years among the natives on the Gold Coast& understood their language.f11

1. I do not venture to assert, nor do I think it probable thatthe Africans wd ever prefer the most beautiful European onmere grounds of physical admiration to a good looking negress.f12But I assert this: that if Africans had to choose from a number ofEuropean women they would certainly select those whom we shouldselect as the best looking. They often talk about the Europeansthey see among them, saying so & so is handsome so & so is ugly.It has been observed that their ideas on these people were thesame as ours would be.f13

Again nothing is more common in Africa than for Europeans totalk with their interpreters & servants about the native women:it has invariably been found that the man’s idea of beauty & his master’scorrespond. To speak not only of the coast but of the interior I havenoticed this over & over again: when chatting with the nativesone of them has remarked “Dont you think so & so has a very handsomewife” or “look at that pretty girl over there” just as we doin England.f14 I have always found that the faces which are much admiredare those which are the farthest removed from the prognathous type—fromthe regular Guinea negro—a type as exceptional in Africa asthat of the Pontina Marsh people in Italy—f15 What are the “points”wh. they admire in a woman I asked a lady who had spent her lifeamong these people. Small hands & small feet she replied: large eyes:a small nose: a well shaped nape, or back of the neck. “Why doyou tie a string round your upper arm? a native chief was asked.Because that gives one a fine round plump arm he replied. (I haveamong my notes taken years ago a statement that American women do thesame whether Red Indians or Anglo-Americans I dont know: probably thelatter who have thin arms).

The admiration of broad hips is carried to extravagance inCentral Africa. Tight lacing with us is used not only to compressthe waist, but to broaden the shoulders & the hips. “The Europeans”say the Gold Coast negroes wd. be good looking if they had betterteeth. But they have fine hair”. They themselves use false hairchignons every possible contrivance to make their hair lookplentiful just as we do. The nose is the only doubtful pointto my mind. But girls have been heard to say “I dont want to marryhim he’s got no nose”:f16 this shows that the very flat nose is notadmired. The large nose, the long nose is also disliked: but thenegro nose when large is usually like what we call a bottle-nosethough some of them have admirably shaped noses. No doubt habithas something to do with their ideas about the nose—

The black skin is most admired certainly, but that is becausethe black skin is really the most beautiful. It is not the forceof habit, because black skins are the exception not the ruleexcept among a few tribes such as Jollof, the Serracoulis &c.f17I shd sum up as my belief & as the belief of those who havelived long among these people that their ideas on the subject ofbeauty are on the whole the same as ours.f18

Respecting thickness of sculls.f19 The Pagan negroes wear nocovering on the head & expose it to a vertical sun. It has beenasserted I believe by all anatomists that the negro scull is abnormallythick, & hard.f20 I have seen a bullet wh. had flattened againstthe frontal bone of a French negro soldier inflicting a slight woundwh I inspected. This thickness is probably intended as a protectionagainst the sun, & may perhaps have been acquired by the practice theyhave of carrying their infants soon after birth (a week) bare headedin the sun. There is a most curious passage in Herod: comparing thesculls of Egyptians & Persians. The thick sculls of the former he attributesto their being always in thesun, & always bare-headed.f21 I venture to think that this passage whichI read on the banks of the Niger of wh river he was the first to speak,may be applied to nat: sel:f22Any further point you may do me the honour to refer to me uponwill be answered to the best of my ability by return of post andI shd be happy now or after the book is published to run downto Beckenham for a couple of hours if there shd happen to bea variety of points to discuss. If you write to me again pray donot fatigue yourself to write autographically but talk to methrough your secretary.

Hoping that you will get better health now that your presentwork is approaching its consummation which so many are eagerlylooking forward to

I remain | Yours very truly | Winwood Reade

Jollof is so written.f23

The people of the Gold Coast have been accustomed to Europeans. Butmy ideas on this subject are not based on my observations there alone—Much of the apparent horror of the white man among savage negroesis owing to their ideas not that the Devil is white (they have noDevil corresponding to ours) but that all demons, spirits or angelsare white.f24 I know the case of one traveller in the far interior whohaving been carefully surveyed by a woman for some time she said—“He is a fine young man”. Again the beard is usually much admiredby negro women, though negroes scarcely ever have any.f25

I may be able to supply you with additional particulars aboutlove-making exogamy &c for your 2nd edition: & possibly onother points wh will be suggested by your work.f26

DAR 85: 109–112



See letter from W. W. Reade,3 September 1870 andn. 2. OnReade’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 notbeen 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 albinosin 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. Readewas 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 unusualstructure of Reade’s African sketch-book (Reade 1873), see Driver 2001.
CD read an edition of Mungo Park’s Travels in the interiordistricts of Africa (Park 1799) in 1838 (see CD’s Reading notebooks, Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV).
William Hepworth Dixon had published books on his travelsin the Middle East, the United States, and Russia (Dixon 1865, 1867,and 1870).
See the postscript to the letter from W. W. Reade, 6 November 1870.
For CD’s first query to Reade regarding perceptions of beautyamong different peoples, see Correspondence vol. 16, letter toW. W. Reade, 21 May [1868]. Reade addressed the question in hisletters of 4 June 1870, 3 September 1870, and 6 November 1870. The Gold Coast was thename of the former British colony that now makes up the larger part ofthe 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, andwere 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 theSerrawoolli or Saracolets (Prichard1836–7, 2: 80).
CD cited Reade on this point in Descent 2: 350.
See the postscript to the letter from W. W. Reade, 6 November1870.
James Cowles Prichard discussed the supposition that Africans hadthick skulls and noted authors who had written of itin 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 theword 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 ofDescent, though not on the practice of exogamy. For CD’s discussionof exogamy, see Descent 2: 360, 364.
Maximized viewPrint letter