skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To A. C. H. Gordon   April 1874

To His Exceilency The Honorable Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon, K.C.M.G., Governor and Commander in Chief of Mauritius and its Dependencies.

1. We the undersigned respectfully beg to call the attention of the Colonial Government of Mauritius to the imminent extermination of the Gigantic Land Tortoises of the Mascarenes, commonly called “Indian Tortoises.”1

2. These animals were formerly abundant in the Mauritius, Reunion, Rodrigues and other islands of the Western part of the Indian Ocean. Being highly esteemed as food, easy of capture and transport, they formed for many years, a staple supply to ships touching at those islands for refreshment.

3. No means being taken for their protection they have become extinct in nearly all these islands, and Aldabra is now the only locality where the last remains of this animal form are known to exist in a state of nature.2

4. We have been informed that the Government of Mauritius have granted a concession of Aldabra to parties who intend to cut the timber on this island. If this project be carried out, or if otherwise the island be occupied, it is to be feared, nay certain, that all the Tortoises remaining in this limited area will be destroyed by the workmen employed.

5. We would, therefore, earnestly submit it to the consideration of Your Excellency whether it would not be practicable that the Government of Mauritius should cause as many of these animals as possible to be collected before the wood cutting parties or others land with the view of their being transferred to the Mauritius or the Seychelle Islands, where they might be deposited in some enclosed ground or park belonging to the Government, and protected as property of the Colony.3

6. In support of the statements above made and the plan now submitted to the Mauritius Government the following passages may be quoted from Grant’s “History of Mauritius.” (1801, 4):4

P. 194. “We (in Mauritius) possess a great abundance of both Land and Sea Turtle which are not only a great resource for the supply of our ordinary wants, but serve to barter with the crews of ships.”

P. 100. “The best production of Rodriguez is the land-turtle which is in great abundance. Small vessels a[r]e constantly employed in transporting them by thousands to the Isle of Mauritius for the service of the hospital.”

P. 101. “The principal point of view (in Rodrigues) is, first, the French Governor’s house, or rather that of the Superintendent, appointed by the Governor of the Isle of France, to direct the cultivation of the gardens there, and to overlook the park of land-turtles. Secondly, the park of land-turtles which is on the sea-shore facing the house.”

7. The rescue and protection of these animals is, however, recommended to the Colonial Government less on account of their utility (which now-a-days might be questioned in consideration of their diminished number, reduced size and slow growth, and of the greatly improved system of provisioning ships which renders the crews independent of such casual assistance) than on account of the great scientific interest attached to them. With the exception of a similar tortoise in the Galapagos islands5 (now also fast disappearing) that of the Mascarenes is the only surviving link reminding us of those still more gigantic forms which once inhabited the Continent of India in a past geological age. It is one of the few remnants of a curious group of animals once existing on a large submerged continent of which the Mascarenes formed the highest points. It flourished with the Dodo and Solitaire, and whilst it is a matter of lasting regret that not even a few individuals of these curious birds should have had a chance of surviving the lawless and disturbed condition of past centuries, it is confidently hoped that the present Government and people who support the “Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Mauritius” will find the means of saving the last examples of a contemporary of the Dodo and Solitaire.6

London, April 1874.

(Signed by)

Jos. D. Hooker, P.R.S.7

H. B. Frere, P.R.G.S. & R.A.S.8

Charles Darwin, T.R.S.

Richard Owen.9

John Kirk, F.L.S., H.M. Political Agent and Consul General.10

Alfred Newton, M.A., F.R,S, V.P.Z.S.11

Footnotes

The Mascarene Islands, located in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, and including Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues, were home to various species of giant tortoise, most of which were extinct by the nineteenth century (see A. C. L. G. Günther 1875 and 1877). Mauritius had been under British rule since 1810.
On the giant tortoise of Aldabra atoll in the Seychelles (Geochelone gigantea), see Bourn et al. 1999.
Logging rights on Aldabra were eventually granted on condition that the tortoises remain unharmed and that pairs be delivered annually to Mauritius, where they were to reside in the botanic garden at Pamplemousse. A pair was also transported to England in 1875 and lived at the zoological gardens in Regent’s Park. (A. C. L. G. Günther 1875, pp. 260–1.)
The reference is to Charles Grant’s History of Mauritius (Grant 1801).
CD had described the tortoises of the Galápagos (then known as Testudo indicus) in Journal of researches, pp. 462–6. They are now classed as a subspecies of Geochelone nigra (Caccone et al. 1999).
The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was native to Mauritius; the solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria) was native to Rodrigues. On the extinction of these large flightless birds, see Parish 2012.
Joseph Dalton Hooker was president of the Royal Society of London in 1874.
Henry Bartle Edward Frere was president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1874.
Richard Owen was superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum.
The naturalist and colonial official John Kirk was vice-consul of Zanzibar (ODNB).
Alfred Newton was vice-president of the Zoological Society of London in 1874.

Summary

Petition to protect gigantic tortoises on the Mascarene.

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-9382F
From
Charles Robert Darwin
To
Arthur Charles Hamilton Gordon, 1st Baron Stanmore
Source of text
Transactions of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Mauritius n.s. 8 (1875): 106–9

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9382F,” accessed on 25 June 2019, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/DCP-LETT-9382F

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

letter