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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Edward Blyth   [22 October 1855]1

Notes for Mr. Darwin

I have been looking over Capt. W. Allen’s narrative of the disastrous Niger expedition,2 which I had begun to do some weeks ago, as shewn by references formerly sent. There is not much in our particular way, but I may call attention to one or two passages, respecting which it is probable that Louis Fraser might further enlighten you.3 By the way, he seems to be treated with something very like contemptuous silence throughout the narrative: his name is only mentioned, first as on the expedition, & then as having shot a native boy in mistake for a monkey! Till we reach the Appendix, when he again turns up. I remember him well, as a rough kind of lad employed in the Z. museum; and I have heard that he was one of the few who entirely escaped sickness. I suppose that many of the specific names given are upon his authority; but he was innocent enough of science, beyond the knowledge which he could not help picking up at the museum; & I remember his asking me what I meant by the sexes of plants! Perhaps he did as much as could have been expected from him, all circumstances considered; & so he becomes ‘H. M. Consul’ of I forget where.4 It is a curious coincidence that the bad fever of the Niger is there designated the “Owl”, the very same name which the worst form of jungle-fever bears in the subHimalayan terai; & this seems to be identical with the “black vomit” of the W. Indies. In II, 42, you will find an interesting notice of common fowls returning to wildness, in the islet called Ilha das Rollas near Isle St. Thomas! Also a notice of domestic animals in I, 403, & of the “Haussa Sheep” again in II, 100 (note). These would seem to be of the well known Guinea race, & to afford a good instance of a true climatal variety. The “long shaggy mane” does not denote a descent from the maned wild sheep of the Atlas (O. tragelaphus); for several tame races of other regions are more or less maned in front of the neck, & especially certain short-tailed domestic races (the fighting races of India & Persia), which possibly may derive from my O. Vignei (now alive? at the Z. Garden). O. tragelaphus has a longish tail, and also a straight (if not slightly concave) chaffron, unlike other wild species of Ovis, & especially unlike the Guinea race which has the chaffron excessively convex or bombed.— “Ducks very fine, like the Muscovy breed”,—meaning I suppose the actual Cairina moschata; which would be a remarkable fact, the truth of which is probably ascertainable from Fraser; as also some information on the breeds of cattle, goats, & poultry.— II, 393.—White fowls among the sacrificial animals of ancient Egypt. See to this, in connexion with the question why the fowl is never represented, on the Egyptian monuments, paintings, &c, when Geese &c. are represented so abundantly!— I think that somewhere in this work I observed a notice of Turkies, & of the name they bore, denoting whence brought; but I cannot find the place.5 The spread of Turkies into Africa is an interesting fact. I believe they are common enough in Egypt, & there eaten by the Mussulman population, who before killing them give them a dose of spirit to make the flesh tender. I must have before told you that the Mussulmans of India refuse to eat Turkey. The last remark I shall offer on this work is, that I think the author is rather hard upon the Filátas;6 considering that they were themselves an enslaved nation not so many years back, & are now self-emancipated & converts to Islam; the greatest blight that can fall on any people!—

Among introduced animals, notice the Fallow Deer in Jamaica, as determined by Gosse.7 I do not think that the natural range of this animal has been at all well made out. The unmistakable representation of it on cirtain Nineveh sculptures is remarkable (& as unmistakable are several Nineveh figures of the wild Ovis Vignei). Is it, therefore, indigenous to W. Asia, or to Europe, or to Barbary? Are there any reliable fossil data to guide us? I think it probably N. African, from a certain affinity which it bears to the Barbary Stag (or Cervus barbarus, whose name by the bye?); & then comes the curious fact of its being sculptured at Nineveh!— [DIAGRAMS HERE] a 1. 2. Fig. 1 is a rough sketch of a typical horn of C. elaphus a being the “bez-antler”, which is normally present in this species, though often wanting in young animals. In three other typical stags, it seems to be constantly present,—viz. in the Wapiti (or so called ‘Elk’) of N. America, the Schou of Tibet, & the Honglu of Kashmir (which is the Maral of Persia). In C. barbarus (as in the Fallow Deer) it would seem to be as invariably absent. Fig. 2 represents a horn of C. barbarus; to which add the dotted line behind the rough sketch, & you have the palmation of the Fallow Deer; converting the figure into a representation of the horn of the latter. Now this wanting of the bez-antler may be characteristic of the N. African type of Deer (i.e. Deer of the Elaphine or Elaphsid group, to which I further subordinate the Megacervus & the Rein Deer). You will see a good series of horns of the Barbary Stag in the Zool. Soc. museum, & probably know the animal just as familiarly well as I do: a robust short-limbed fellow, with enormously tumid larynx during the rutting season, & the crown of the horn generally bifurcating & rarely trifurcating. That of the great Tibetan Stag would seem to bifurcate invariably. N.B.— S. of the Atlas I need hardly remark that there are no Cervidæ, unless the Giraffes be admitted, & even though I merge Moschidæ in Cervidæ: for the curious Moschus aquaticus, Ogilby, of Sierra Leone, Although so very similar, externally, to the Meminna indica!8 prove to have divided metarcarpals (as Falconer told me), & would seem therefore to approximate the small tertiary pachyderms of the genus Dichobune! Now I have often been struck with the curious (& somewhat piggy) resemblances subsisting between the tiny Mouse Deer of S. Asia, the Philantomba Antelopes (Cephalophus) of Africa, the rodent Agoutis of S. America, & suspected the same resemblance in the extinct Dichobune. There is no occasion to go into particulars.—

The young kid’s penchant for clambering is a common remark, as indicative of its natural haunts. Well, yesterday as I was crossing the Calcutta maidán (or plain, esplanade), under a burning sun—don’t suppose that I was walking,—I was struck with the fact, that whereas the very numerous humped cattle were dispersed everywhere over the grass (at this season as green & fresh as in England), a considerable number of little insignificant Indian Donkeys all kept upon—or just at the margin of—the very dusty roads; thus evincing their natural propensity for the arid & sandy desert, such as the Runn of Cutch, where the Ghor-khurs (or so called ‘Wild Asses’) abound. You must often have remarked how the Ass delights in rolling itself on a dusty road, even more so than the horse, though he too delights in it; & the former seems to be indifferent to the hottest Indian sun. The race is here excessively degenerate, however; though I doubt not that the fine race of Egypt, Syria, & Arabia would thrive if imported; only Hindu prejudice would stand in the way of their being made use of (it being degradation here for anyone save a dhobi —or washerman to have aught to do with Donkeys). What we have are remarkably diminutive, & shockingly ‘cat-hammed” for the most part; & so are the little hard-working Bengáli Tats (or ponies). I think I have before told you that our Donkeys have often zebra markings on the legs, & rarely one or more additional cross-stripes on the body. The superb race of Asses in the province of Omán in Arabia are bred with as much care as the Horse, & the pedigrees of them have been preserved for many centuries!

Mem. In a recent communication, referring to the double-spurred species & genera of Gallinaceous birds, I mentioned certain African Partridges.9 These belong to the genera Clamator & Pternestis. The other African Partridges, if separable from the Asiatic Francolins, should be referred to Chætopus of Swainson.—

I incline more and more to the opinion (no, say rather to entertain the consideration) that the common chaus-like domestic Cat of India, without body- streaks, is indigenous, with a natural propensity for lurking about human habitations, and tendency to domestication. The chaus also is a nightly prowler in our gardens, and often takes up its abode about human dwellings; but seems nevertheless to be untameable. F. viverrinus, a much more robust species, comes less about houses, & is a species easily tamed. As for chaus, the little imps of kittens, almost before they open their eyes, hiss & spit & remain incurably savage.

In India, certain animals, as the Jackal, & our common grey-necked crow (C. splendens), are never met with far from the dwellings of man; & why not our common cat likewise? Without having therefore escaped from servitude? Nevertheless, it should if really indigenous scarcely have merged so completely into domestication as it seems to have done, & I should like to see a satisfactory wild specimen; or even such as the feral cats of Sardinia!

In the ‘Athenæum’ for the current year, p. 834, you will find a short critique on a work on ancient gardening:10 This has always appeared to me a subject of the utmost interest—i.e. the origins and traceable history of the anciently cultivated flowers, fruits, & vegetables. It is an enquiry which I should delight to enter upon, had I only the requisite time & opportunities to devote to it in right earnest. As it is, I can only venture on a few indications. What know we of the veritable history of the dble Rosa centifolia ? Even as regards its introduction into Britain! Was this by the monks, or by the Romans before them, or even prior (which is unlikely)? The genus belongs to the temperate regions of the N. hemisphere exclusively; yet we have many fine cultivated varieties here (of various species), the best flowering during the cold weather, & these being recent introductions. The ordinary European varieties do not thrive here, although we have some very similar— We have 2 or 3 varieties very similar to the English ‘cabbage rose’, but distinguishable at the first glance by a practised eye; yet I doubt whether the true ‘cabbage rose’ would thrive here, as its variety the moss-rose has never I believe been brought to flower; & the ‘York & Lancaster’, or variegated semi-double R. gallica, likewise does not thrive, nor have we any white roses similar to the English ordinary double white, & ‘maiden’s blush’. We have other white & pale roses, however, and some which pass as varieties of R. canina; but I suspect that most (if not all) of these are of Chinese origin. The ‘sweet-briar’ is abundantly cultivated in European gardens; but never flowers & is propagated by grafts. The ‘damask’ I have never seen here, nor aught approaching to it. The varieties of the R. sinensis (or ‘monthly rose’) thrive well. Now could you induce some capable person to take up this fine & inviting subject? To trace its classical history, both occidental & oriental; & its sculptured history? Does no Nineveh monument give an idea of the roses which were probably grown in the ‘hanging gardens’ of Babylon? Bussorah & elsewhere in that vicinity are even now celebrated for perhaps those same varieties of roses; & how long back can be traced notices of rose-water, & consequently of the essential oil or atar-gul ? I will make some enquiries here upon this point; but just now we are in the midst of the annual vacation (of 15 days) known to us as the Durga puja holidays,11 during which no Hindu will come to his work, & our countrymen are glad enough of the opportunity to take a holiday too. I have not indulged in one hour, nor do I mean to; but am working double tides to make the most of the chance to get on with my multifarious undertakings. When our librarian returns, I will consult him about early Sanscrit notices of the rose, atar, &c (i.e. ‘Otto of Roses’, Anglicá). Such enquiries should be extended to all the known cultivated varieties of plants, which have any ancient history: but assertions of old writers should be well considered over, before acceptance; for to take an illustration from a widely different topic, who that has seen the said Nineveh sculptures (or Layard’s representations of them)12 will afterwards believe the stereotyped assertion that common playing-cards were invented to amuse an imbecile King of France?13 Did the marked resemblance never occur to you, of the conventional figures of the ‘Kings’ & ‘Knaves’, transmitted through so many centuries, to the old Assyrian figures; the same countenances, quaintly muscular limbs, &c &c? The Asiatic history of playing-cards is another fine subject for a capable enquirer; but European writers still labour much under “prejudices of the Den”!14 & seldom dream that supposed European inventions (of comparatively modern date) have really an antique & oriental origin. I am less disposed than many to point to India as the source of various inventions & discoveries; because I think that the natives of this land are essentially an imitative & not an inventive people; slaves to inveterate custom & conventionalities to an extent hardly imaginable to one who has had no experience of them. I look rather to the old civilizations of W. Asia, as the source from which customs & sundry inventions have been derived, alike by the peoples of India & of Europe; and if we may use such an expression as the mythology of the scriptures, the doctrine of the soul’s immortality, the personification of the evil principle, & battle of the angels of which Milton has made so much,15 we cannot but discern that however those ideas were primarily conceived & developed, they have flowed through the ancient Chaldæan mind, & thence probably ramified into the modern faiths of the Yezidis, Parsis, Syrian & other Christians, & Mahomedans, &c,—excluding not the old Etruscans. For how different the indigenous mythologies of the nations since converted to Christianity & Islam, & of the modern Hindus & Buddhists! Here again is a grand field for a competent enquirer. The monuments of the same ancient people can never be too curiously scrutinized by modern naturalists.

Mem. The huge snail introduced here from the Mauritius, & which I designated Achatina perdix (being the name long attached to it in this museum), you will find figured as Agathina fasciata in the Nouv. Dict. d’Hist. Nat., Volume of plates, & pl. 86.16

Mem. The blind animals of the Kentucky caves. Can any one of these be shewn to be identical with known species with developed eyes? And therefore to have been altered by the peculiar circumstances to which they have been subjected.17

Pray excuse the villainous scrawl, for all has been penned hastily, & under the púnkah.

CD annotations

1.18 In II, … in Egypt, 1.39] scored brown crayon
1.35 Geese] double underl brown crayon
2.3 The unmistakeable … Barbary? 2.5] scored brown crayon
2.3 cirtain Nineveh] underl brown crayon
2.8 the curious … present 2.10] scored brown crayon; ‘[reverse question mark]added brown crayon
2.25 for the curious … me), 2.27] scored brown crayon
3.9 You must … dusty road, 3.10] scored brown crayon
3.12 The race … Syria, 3.13] scored brown crayon
3.12 The race] ‘of Donkeys’ interl pencil
3.12 excessively] underl pencil
3.12 degenerate] ‘degenerate’ added pencil
3.16 diminutive] ‘diminutive’ added pencil
3.16 ‘cat-hammed’] underl pencil
3.17 I think … centuries! 3.21] double scored brown crayon
3.18 have] ‘haveadded pencil
5.1 I incline … savage. 5.8] scored brown crayon; ‘Cats’added brown crayon
7.1 current year] ‘1855’ added pencil
7.1 p. 834,] underl brown crayon
7.6 What … Britain! 7.7] ‘Roses’added brown crayon
7.11 The ordinary … flower; 7.6] scored brown crayon
7.19 but I suspect … grafts. 7.21] double scored brown crayon
7.23 Now could … naturalists. 7.64] crossed pencil
8.3 Agathina fasciata] double underl brown crayon
First page: ‘7’brown crayon, circled brown crayon


Dated on the assumption that this memorandum was originally enclosed in a letter from Edward Blyth dated 22 October 1855. The letter is now missing but is referred to in the letter from Edward Blyth, 23 January 1856 (Correspondence vol. 6). In the memorandum, Blyth refers to the holidays held for the goddess Durga: according to the Bengali calendar, these fell on 15 Asvina – 15 Kartika (the end of September – end of October 1855); 22 October 1855 was the eighth day of Kartika 1262. In addition, CD wrote ‘1855’ above Blyth’s reference to ‘the current year’ in the letter.
W. Allen and Thomson 1848. Blyth’s following references are to the volume and page numbers of this work.
Louis Fraser had accompanied the 1841 expedition to the Niger. On his return he became curator of the Zoological Society museum and then conservator of Lord Derby’s menagerie at Knowsley. For CD’s earlier correspondence with Fraser, see Correspondence vol. 3.
In November 1850, Fraser had been appointed consul at Whydah, on the west coast of Africa (DNB).
According to W. Allen and Thomson 1848, 1: 403, ducks, geese, and turkeys came from Yarriba and were called Yarriba fowls.
W. Allen and Thomson 1848, 2: 427–9.
P. H. Gosse 1851, pp. 437–9. This work is in the Darwin Library–CUL and was annotated by CD.
This sentence was written in the margin with a line indicating the text to which it applied.
Blyth 1855c, pp. 480–1.
Athenæum, no. 1447, 21 July 1855, p. 834.
See n. 1, above.
A. H. Layard 1849b and 1853.
The belief that playing cards had been invented to amuse Charles VI of France had been discredited long before Blyth wrote. See Singer 1816.
An allusion to Francis Bacon’s ‘idols of the den’ in his Novum organum.
John Milton, Paradise lost, Book VI.
The figure is actually in the Dictionnaire classique d’histoire naturelle (Bory de Saint-Vincent ed. 1822–31, vol. 17, plate 85).
See letter to J. D. Dana, 8 May [1852], for CD’s interest in blind cave animals.


Athenæum. 1844. A few words by way of comment on Miss Martineau’s statement. No. 896 (28 December): 1198–9.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

DNB: Dictionary of national biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. 63 vols. and 2 supplements (6 vols.). London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1912. Dictionary of national biography 1912–90. Edited by H. W. C. Davis et al. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press. 1927–96.

Gosse, Philip Henry. 1851. A naturalist’s sojourn in Jamaica. Assisted by Richard Hill. London. [Vols. 5,6,7,9]

Singer, Samuel Weller. 1816. Researches into the history of playing cards. London.

Thomson, James, Jr. 1848. On the parallel roads of Lochaber. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 45: 49–61.


Gives references to William Allen’s narrative of the Niger expedition [William Allen and T. R. H. Thompson , A narrative of the expedition sent by Her Majesty’s Government to the river Niger in 1841 (1848)]: common fowl returning to wildness, details of domestic sheep, ducks, and white fowl.

Range of the fallow deer; its affinity to the Barbary stag.

Natural propensity of donkeys for arid desert.

Indian donkeys often have zebra markings on the legs.

Believes the common domestic cat of India is indigenous.

Occurrence of cultivated plants from Europe in India; success of cultivation. Ancient history of cultivated plants.

[CD’s notes are an abstract of this memorandum and indicate that it was originally 20 pages long.]

Letter details

Letter no.
Edward Blyth
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 98: A93–A98
Physical description
†, CD note 1p

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1811,” accessed on 16 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 5