skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Benjamin Disraeli   [15–18 November 1878]1

Your memorialists have heard with alarm that a message has been sent to the Ameer of Afghanistan to which a favourable reply is demanded at an early date—the 20th inst.—on pain of an immediate declaration of war.2 The statements made in explanation of this action have been confused and contradictory, and, with one exception, unofficial. Much excitement, for example, was at first occasioned by a statement, apparently made on authority, that a mission from the Viceroy to the Ameer was turned back by his orders with the utmost discourtesy and with a threat to shoot Major Cavagnari, who had been sent in advance.3 This report has subsequently appeared to be wholly untrue. It has also been said that the Ameer’s reply to a letter from the Viceroy is characterised by unexampled insolence; but there is evidence impugning the accuracy of this statement, and the reply itself has never been published. More recently the one official declaration to which we have referred has been made by the Prime Minister, that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government is to rectify the north-west frontier of India in a scientific manner.4 Any advance of the present frontier has been condemned by a great majority of the highest civil and military authorities of Indian experience, and appears to be inconsistent with the ordinary principles of justice. The Government promised on the 19th of August last that papers explanatory of the Central Asian and Afghan questions should be produced in a few days. These papers have not been published up to the present time. Great expense has already been and is now being incurred, and much greater expense must be incurred if the policy of the Government is further prosecuted. This expenditure, if borne by the United Kingdom, has been and is being made without the consent of Parliament, and if by India without the consent of the Council of the Secretary of State. We protest against any further steps being taken in a course of action that appears at once impolitic and unjust until the fullest information has been given to the nation, and its consent obtained through its representatives, and we therefore ask that Parliament should be summoned without delay.


The memorial is described in the Manchester Guardian, 18 November 1878, p. 5, as to ‘Lord Beaconsfield’. The date range is established by the date of the first publication of the text (Manchester Guardian, 15 November 1878, p. 5), and the report that a large number of signatures, including CD’s, had been added (ibid., 19 November 1878, p. 8). For the views of CD’s family on his signing of this and other petitions, see Emma Darwin (1904) 2: 293.
The memorial was drawn up by a committee formed by John Lawrence, former viceroy of India, on 15 November, and by 18 November had been signed by ‘a large number of influential persons’, most prominently Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, duke of Westminster (Manchester Guardian, 18 November 1878, p. 5. See also letter to R. A. T. Gascoyne-Cecil, [18 May 1878]). Lawrence’s successor as viceroy, Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton, had sent an ultimatum to Sher Ali Khan, Amir of Afghanistan, on 31 October demanding that he accept a permanent British military presence in Kabul (Robson 1986, p. 52). Sher Ali’s failure to respond in time triggered the start of the second Afghan war in November 1878. For more on the causes of the war, see Robson 1986, especially pp. 48–52 and 99–101.
Pierre Louis Napoleon Cavagnari had led an advance party of the proposed mission but had been turned back inside the Afghan border on 21 September 1878 (Robson 1986, p. 50).
In a speech at the Guildhall on 8 November 1878, Benjamin Disraeli had declared that the government was taking action on the north-west frontier of the British empire in India because, being ‘a haphazard and not a scientific frontier’, it was expensive to defend (Manchester Guardian, 11 November 1878, p. 8). The redrawing of the border between India and Afghanistan as a ‘scientific frontier’ was achieved by the treaty of Gandamak signed in 1879 (ODNB s.v. Lytton, Edward Robert Bulwer-).


Emma Darwin (1904): Emma Darwin, wife of Charles Darwin. A century of family letters. Edited by Henrietta Litchfield. 2 vols. Cambridge: privately printed by Cambridge University Press. 1904.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.


A memorial signed by CD and many others, calling upon the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, to convene Parliament to discuss the ultimatum addressed to the Amir of Afghanistan, Sher Ali Khan, by the Viceroy of India, E. R. Bulwer-Lytton.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Benjamin Disraeli, earl of Beaconsfield
Source of text
Manchester Guardian, 19 November 1878, p. 8
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11744F,” accessed on 5 March 2021,