skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Robert Bastard James to Charles Lyell  [c. 10 March 1838]

H.M: Packet Brig Spey Falmouth


Although I have not the pleasure of being personally known to you— yet, I beg, you will be pleased to consider me, as a sincere friend to any science, that may tend towards the improvement of the human understanding—and, in my humble opinion;— I know of no other science, that can surpass Geology,—especially, since the discovery of so many wonderful fossil remains in the high northern Latitudes;

Permit me then Sir, to add my mite, in sending you a few papers of dust,—blown on board the Spey—from the coast of Africa—nearly four hundred miles distance—1 I almost despaired of being able to collect any at all— It was too light and too fine to get even a pinch of it—but a clean sponge and fresh water soon procured me as much as I wanted;

The Dust that I collected on the 7th—8th—9th—and 10thof March 1838 was blown off to us in a SE & ESE wind a smart top-gallant breeze— on the 6th—in the afternoon, the Sympasometer kept rising and falling from 29o103 ths—to 29o107 ths— without any visible change in the atmosphere, only a thick haze that obscured the setting sun—

On the 7thin the morning it came on like a dense thick fog—to the great astonishment and annoyance of every person on board— in the evening I collected the contents of No. 1—paper from the bottom of my gig—a boat ready cleaned for painting— No. 2 parcel was collected on the 8th—from the top-gallant sails 140 feet from the deck —on examination by a good microscope I found a great difference—No. 2 being much finer than No. 1— It was composed of particles so fine that I was unable to find, form, or dimension;—while No. 1 was much coarser, and rough to the touch—presenting some bright shining particles—with a quantity of transparent grains (probably quartz) mixed with particles as fine as No. 2—

On trial by acids this substance produced no effervescence—but is is very probable, that the finer particles would give way to the stronger acids, of which I had none with me;

By the blow-pipe it glomerated quite easily—and on taking a small portion of the glomerate and exposing it to a strong heat—the fusion was complete— with this difference No 1 was less fusible—only giving a kind of green enamel—while No 2 melted into a black shining globule—

On the trial with Borax it indicated the presence of Iron—

On rubbing some of No 2 on a fine polished new silver spoon—with a piece of soft leather—the silver became a dull pale white—

With these results I send the four parcels— only Nos. 1—and 2—have been tried— I do not know whether any of the above powder was ever sent to the geological Society before—for their inspection and trial— I rather think not—for I never read or heard of any collected quantity sufficient for the benefit of a scientifical lecture —another thing—years and years—may pass away before such a phenomenon appears again—and then it is only to the Sailor—who only swears at the Idea of thick dust been blown in his eyes in the open Atlantic—and among a thousand—one may take the trouble to see what it is composed of and send some for the good of the Geologist— If in my rambles I should pick up any thing worthy the Societys acceptance—I shall be most happy to give it a passage home in the Spey and send it to you by the earliest opportunity.

I have the honor to be | Sir | your obedient Servt | Robt. B: James Lieutt. & Commander Cha’s Lyell Esqr &c &c

CD annotations

Between 4.2 and 4.7 added in margin, ink: March 7th 1. Lat 21o. 40’N. 22. 14 W 330 miles ——— 2. March 8 19. 57N 356 Miles 24. 5 W ——— March 9th (Specimen sent to Ehrenberg) 3 17. 43 N 380 miles 25. 54 W. ——— 4 ’ 10. 5. My specimen
scored pencil
scored pencil
crossed pencil
On cover, ink:2 Jan. 14.–15th 1839. Feb. 2–4th 9 to 13th.


CD had observed this phenomenon early in the Beagle voyage (see Journal and remarks, p. 4). James’s letter is summarised in CD’s paper ‘An account of the fine dust which often falls on vessels in the Atlantic Ocean’, read on 4 June 1845 at the Geological Society (Collected papers 1: 199–203).
CD’s annotation on the cover refers to dates of observations of dust reported in various publications cited in his paper.


Sends four samples of dust blown on board his ship from the coast of Africa, nearly 400 miles away, during four days in March 1838. Gives careful descriptions and relates the tests he made of it [see Collected papers 1: 200].

Letter details

Letter no.
Robert Bastard James
Charles Lyell (1st baronet)
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 168: 43
Physical description
3pp †(by CD)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 405,” accessed on 24 October 2017,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2