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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   26 November 1850

Silchar (Cachar District) E Bengal

Novr. 26/50

Dear Darwin

I am now & have been for some time a letter in your debt but feel so near home at last that my correspondence naturally slackens.

Master Falconer is at his tricks again with my letters, & has not forwarded me one for this 6 mails, so that I am all adrift about home & love & all that sort of thing.

What an incomprehensible fellow F. is in his failings & how charming in every other point— After leaving Calcutta last April—every thing went as regular as clockwork for 3 months, & since then he neither answers one of my letters, nor forwards me my English, though I reiterate my address weekly, & send him seeds plants & roots galore.— My dying effort is to tell him my Father has sent me no remittance; or if so, he (F) has the letter & money & I am starving. whether this will bring him to his senses or no I can’t tell; I have exhausted all argument & persuasion to no avail.

I should not quite say he sends me nothing—for to day arrived an English parcel with some rubbishy proofs of Victoria Regia from Mr Reeves,1 which I don’t care one rush about & have given away forthwith:—no letter from Falconer with it, nor one of my overlands2 of 3 months. Colvile3 tells me he (F) has both letters & parcels & is sending them—but that was weeks ago—.

I left the curious Khassya Mts 4 —a fortnight ago & am on my way to the frontier Mts. of Munnipore, for a few days, when I drop down the Soormah via Sylhet to the Megna & so to the sea & Chittagong— There I shall spend a few weeks botanizing, going down the coast if I can to Arracan & the mud volcanoes of Akyab, & thence across to Calcutta & so home after a month in Ceylon before the middle of the year.—

This route will enable me to connect the Floras of the Himalayah, with the Khassya (Garrow & Jyntea) hills, that with the AEng range which runs from E. Cachar South to Cape Negrais— I shall also have seen the vegetation of the dry Mts & plains of Behar, of the Morung Forests & Terai at the foot of the Himal. of the Jheels & fresh water deltas of the Ganges & Megna, of the Sea-coast & of the salt marshes & Soonderbunds. I hope that having seen these in connexion will be an advantage, & now I turn about & feel myself fully alive to the advantages I have enjoyed & half as much so to my shortcomings—the said half being overwhelming I shall think no [more].

In Geology I fear my results are but poor, indeed the grander features of the science to which my eyes are but openening are sufficiently conclusive against my being able to grasp any thing but details. In this country of enormous plains & no less conspicuous mountains the magnitude of the causes favors too much speculation. Denudation is at present my bug-bear—it is impossible to deny the evidences of its having controlled every feature from the greatest elevation downwards, & where to draw the line between it’s action, & that of upheaval, appears very difficult.: the loftiest summits appear to have lost miles of matter in thickness, & the thickest series to have been once thicker.

I have been puzzling over what you say of double Mt chains, & of the posterior elevation of that intersected by the water-courses, whether the most lofty or no. I can quite fancy its being as you say & can suppose good reasons for it—but I have never seen a double mt. chain. There is however a difficulty in defining a “Mt: chain” & I can understand such a feature as a different thing from a “chain of Mts.” without any play upon words. Geological upheaval or depression may produce a chain of Mts.—the action of water may too, but sequence of geological composition will not entitle an elevated area to the term in all cases, & if waters may flow through Mt chains it would appear as if physical geography & geology were at cross purposes. I suppose that the axis of a Mt chain is always the line from either side of wh. the waters flow in opposite directions. such a line is never straight, always zigzag, the waters flow from the reentrant angles but the most elevated Peaks may or may not head them— in the Himalaya the elevated Peaks are on the spurs from the main axis & not on the line of mean greatest elevation I shall try to illustrate my difficulty by a sketch—


Let A.B be the axis, cc. are the rivers given off from the reentrant angles e,e, are spurs from the same main axis— Let ooo. represent Peaks on the spurs e, reaching a much greater elevation than any part of the zigzag line AB— would you then call an imaginary line through o1 o2 o3 the axis of the chain— Geologically you cannot fix this in the Himal. for o1. may be a granite cap protruding, o2. a granite nucleus covered with Gniess & o3. these rocks with Limestone over all.— The first o1 may be highest, though geologically the lowest, & denudation may have removed the superior strata from o1 & o2.— The Himal. represents much such a chain, the line in all our maps is drawn through o.o.o. partly because these isolated peaks are (albeit only for aught we know) the loftiest, & partly because they are snowed down to 15,000 on their south flank, while the line AB. is not snowed at 19000,—but most of all because the subsidiary spurs from ooo cross one another, appearing as a continuous Mt line & all behind is hid from the observer in India.—

Not one of the great Himal rivers has its source in any of these great Mts.., all hove from far behind it, & whether you actually travel across the Snows to Thibet & find yourself with the Snows far astern & the river heads & Mts still before, or whether you take a birds eye glance of 200 miles of the Snows from 150–200 miles off, as I have been doing from the Khassya Mts the result appears the same to me, that the great snows do not form a chain (in latitude) per se, but are snowed portions of meridional spurs from an axis of mean greater elevation behind, from which said axis every drop of water that flows South flows past all the Snows. i.e. rises from far behind them & not even from their N. flank

I am further impressed with the idea that the said meridional spurs are the crests of great geological waves of gneiss from the prevalence of a strike at an oblique angle with the meridian throughout all we know of the Himal. It is quite a fallacy to suppose that after passing the Snows, (the Ghats, & Passes as they are called) you begin to descend & still greater that you come on a plateau, (table-land, or most fallacious of all a plain) of Thibet. Comparatively level spots occur it is true & of considerable area but they are few & far between, the great roads of course lead to & over them, & the mass of the country between the Snows & Tsampu river is a chaos of Mts rugged & uninhabitable, seperated by flat floored valleys along which the rivers wind.

The decomposition of the more recent rocks which only appear behind the snows, where the mean greatest mass is, (ie that which may have been removed by denudation from the isolated Peaks & meridional spurs of equal or greater elevation), produces a flatter surface in many places & over considerable area, but the Mts behind when of slate & primitive rocks Gneiss &c are as rugged & impracticable as what we call the Himal, & when of Limestone no less so. It is not a little curious that the greatest display of tertiary formations in these regions should be where the land attains its greatest elevation in mass, & that there the surface should be most even, as on the plains N. of Phari crossed by Turner,5 the Cholamo district I visited, that of Tingri (N of Nepal) the Mansarovar where Strachey6 was & a few others; & that there the rivers flow more tranquilly, but leaving there, the rivers flow in Mt gorges in Thibet as well as in the Himal., as the Indus, Sutledge or other rivers in the N.W. & the Arun &c in the more central districts.

In one other point they all agree;—from the bend of the Indus to that of the Dihong (which I believe to be the Burrampooter),—a total disregard of the snowy Himal: which they all cut through & take tribute from as they pass.— Now I do not know whether you could demonstrate the line of loftiest peaks to be geologically a chain parallel to the axis, & ergo the Himal to be double: it seems to me opposed to the principles of pure geography to do so, though there my principles are very shaky & perhaps pure humbug.

It is very captivating to run chains of Mts from Canton to the Caspian & Caucasus, but I cannot help thinking that there is no such real geographical line of Mts, & that the said line indicates no geological connexion between the said places. I can fancy Asia divided by a line dividing the waters that flow to the Pole from what do to the tropic, or better by what flow east from what flow west, & I should doubt the Himal being a part of the axis of Asia (isolated as it is by 2 such rivers as the Indus & Burrampooter,) for the same reasons as I think are opposed to the idea that the line of snows represents the axis of the Himal

I was so glad to see your name at the Brit:. Assocn again7 & that the Barnacles are feathering—these things bring hosts of associations with them. you are well enough for that any how & that is a comfort for me to know

The Khassya & Jyntea Botany was so engrossing & rich8 that I had little time for any but rock geology, & have sections of the Mts. but I fear very poor— I could not get one day to search for Mc Lellands fossil beach9 nor a soul who knew where to dig.— I found erect, or rather perpendicular, roots evident in the under clay of the coal, but no fossils to speak of— The Khassya are a charming miniature Himal. & just fancy my seeing a Snowy Mt in Thibet from 210 miles off! the same I saw when in Thibet last October 12 month. From one spot on the Khassya I believe the limits of my view NW. & S.E. spanned 400 miles Imagine seeing from Dover to Arthurs Seat!—10

I shall not forget the Barnacles at Chittagong.—11 How little we know of Bot geography— Thomson & I have 22 species of Oak, all from below 5000 ft some from that of 60 (sixty) on the plains at the foot of the hills. Birch, Rhododendron, Camellia, Willow Horse chestnut & eatable do. Pines & I dont know what all that I considered types of a temperate climate from a blazing Indian tropic 1–2000 ft. Palms & Tree-ferns from 6–7000 ft Was I not right in saying that before the geologist had any right to legislate for climates to suit the scraps of fossils called plants? some one should examine such regions as these. How I laugh now to think that of the few data I would have allowed Geologists 3 years ago, that of calling Acorns evidences of a temperate climate would have been the most graciously conceded. Yet here are several species bordering these vast swamps actually only 60 ft above the sea with so many Tigers Rhinocerosses wild Elephants Alligators &c about that all will be fossilized together with Palms Tree-ferns Camellia leaves & I do not know what all.12 By the way the Bactrian camel is abundant in Thibet & is used to the most rigorous weather & elevations. Tame elephants are kept at Shigatzi & Lhassa for show. these were taken from Bengal across passes of 16000 ft they are well clothed & fed— Shigatzi is a most rigorous climate & elevation of perhaps 14000 ft.

I had a tremendous yarn for you but cannot go on now about the boulders of the Khassya, as wonderful as are Ice transported & of vast dimensions, piled like glacial phenomena, but I am positive they are the result of denudation, & not glacial at all13

I hope to see you before you can have time to answer this even were it worth an answer.— best remembrances to Mrs Darwin & the children—& to all old friends especially to Lyell.

Ever dear Darwin | affecy Yours | Jos D Hooker.

CD annotations

16.2 from that … 6–7000 ft 16.6] scored, pencil


W. J. Hooker 1851, published by Reeves Brothers, in which the giant waterlily Victoria regia is illustrated in the new hothouse designed for it at Kew Gardens. It had first flowered at Kew in 1850.
Specifically applied to the Mediterranean route to India and commonly used to indicate letters or parcels which came that way, rather than via the Cape of Good Hope. See Sidebottom 1948 for an account of the various routes followed and the political and financial background to the establishment of the mail route to India.
James William Colvile.
For Hooker’s description of these mountains, see J. D. Hooker 1854, 2: 265–325.
Samuel Turner, who was one of the first Europeans to travel in Tibet, had led an expedition to Shigatse in 1783.
Richard Strachey or Henry Strachey.
CD had attended the meeting in Birmingham in September 1849. Hooker had probably received the report of that meeting, published in 1850, or had read CD’s brief account of his barnacle work in the Athenæum (Collected papers 1: 250–1).
Hooker estimated that he had collected upwards of 2500 species in that area alone (J. D. Hooker 1854, 2: 323).
Described in McClelland 1835.
Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh.
Hooker did not collect barnacles for CD at Chittagong, for he recorded that the coastal flats were virtually devoid of animal and plant life: ‘Animal life is extremely rare; and a Cardium-like shell and small crab are found sparingly.’ (J. D. Hooker 1854, 2: 347).
In J. D. Hooker 1854, 2: 336 n., Hooker explained his meaning more fully: It is not generally known that the oaks are often very tropical plants; not only abounding at low elevations in the mountains, but descending in abundance to the level of the sea. Though unknown in Ceylon, the Peninsula of India, tropical Africa, or South America, they abound in the hot valleys of the Eastern Himalaya, East Bengal, Malay Peninsula, and Indian islands; where perhaps more species grow than in any other part of the world. Such facts as this disturb our preconceived notions of the geographical distribution of the most familiar tribes of plants, and throw great doubt on the conclusions which fossil plants are supposed to indicate. See Correspondence vol. 5, letter to W. J. Hooker, 17 February [1851], for the impression Hooker’s suggestions made on CD.
See J. D. Hooker 1854, 2: 302–3, in which he discussed the erratic blocks of Nunklow spur in the Khasia Mountains and suggested they were the result of denudation and weathering.


Falconer’s misbehaviour.

Geology of Khashia [Khasi] mountains. Speculations on mountain building and origin of Himalayas.

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (India letters 1847–51: 314–15)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1371,” accessed on 22 March 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 4