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Darwin Correspondence Project

From F. M. Balfour   [c. 31 January 1878?]1

Trinity College | Cambridge

My dear Mr. Darwin

My brother Cecil who has been in Java for some years has been recently reading your work on Coral reefs.2

His firm have got Keelings Islands completely in their hands; & my brother begs me to tell you that if you wish for observations to be made on that group wh a non-scientific but intelligent person can make, nothing would give him greater pleasure than to have them made for you by residents there.3 My brother who is not scientific, though a fairly careful & intelligent observer expressed himself very much struck by the accuracy of the observations & statements in your work on the Coral reefs so far as his own experience went—, & his reading that working suggested to him the possibility that he might be of some service to you.

He also asks whether he can have any observations upon Torres straits made for you.4

My brother expresses himself, as a Malay Scholar, horrified by your abbreviating Orang-outan in Orang wh he says means simply Man—5 Orang-outan meaning wild man.

He expressly asked me to mention this point to you, though I have no doubt that it is well known to you already

If my brother can do anything for you, either a word of mouth message or short written directions would be all that is required.

I am | Yours very truly | F. M. Balfour


The date is conjectured from the fact that Cecil Charles Balfour was probably in England for the conferring of MA and BA degrees at the University of Oxford on 31 January 1878 (Daily News, 1 February 1878, p. 3). Cecil Balfour had been a partner in the merchants and commission agents Tidman, Balfour & Co., of Batavia (now Jakarta), in Java, since 1872.
Coral reefs 2d ed. was published in 1874.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consist of two atolls comprising twenty-seven coral islands, of which a very small number are inhabited. No correspondence between CD and Cecil Balfour has been found. CD discussed Keeling atoll (now South Keeling Islands) in Coral reefs 2d ed., pp. 7–26.
The Torres Strait runs between Papua New Guinea and Australia.
CD referred to the ‘orang’ throughout Descent, giving ‘orang-outan’ only in the index. For the etymology of orang-utan, see OED s.v. orangutan; the phrase means person of the forest, although it was not originally used in Malay to designate the ape (scientific name Pongo pygmaeus).


Coral reefs 2d ed.: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. By Charles Darwin. Revised edition. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1874.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.


His brother Cecil is reading Coral reefs, and, as his business involves the Keeling Islands and Torres Straits, he offers to make any observations CD might want.

Letter details

Letter no.
Francis Maitland Balfour
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Trinity College, Cambridge
Source of text
DAR 160: 23
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10332,” accessed on 31 July 2021,