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Darwin Correspondence Project

From William Branwhite Clarke1   16 January 1862

St Leonards.

16 Jany 1862.

My dear Sir,

I was extremely gr⁠⟨⁠at⁠⟩⁠ified by your letter of Octr. 25th, this day received.2

It will give me great pleasure, if I be enabled to gratify any of your wishes, when the season comes for experiment.3

I do not profess to be a Botanist; but it is impossible to be uninterested in the subject of Botany, especially as one is requested to dabble in the matter in connection with the f⁠⟨⁠ossi⁠⟩⁠l beds of Antiquity.4

The Goodeniaceæ do not blossom here now. When the season arrives we will put some under a net as you propose: I am prepared to admit that insects do to some extent assist and hinder the work ⁠⟨⁠of⁠⟩⁠ propagation. I have never seen a blossom on our Gum Trees without finding ants and beetles in abundance,—even at the very top most branch.5

I dare say, if one had time, the facts could be made out satisfactorily as to what plants certain insects attach themselves.

In this country the ants are the natural scavengers— they clear away whole trees—and convert the very hearts of our forest monsters in⁠⟨⁠to⁠⟩⁠ papier maché

Flies too do an immense amount of labour in one way or another. When I was in camp on the flanks of the Alps in 1851–2 I was so tormented with them, that I watched their ways.6 I found that they became active about 4 AM. and came in to my tent—so I used to get up at 3 and circumvent them—else I could not have dressed, eaten or shaved in peace.

Crowds of them got ⁠⟨⁠    ⁠⟩⁠ the top of the tent, and we beat them down at night-fall with green branches, making great slaughter. But to solve the mystery as to the morning visiting, I went out one night with a fire stick, and found by its light every blade of grass laden with them all over the space I traversed. What do they and the so-called Mosquitos live on—where no animals are found? Clearly on moisture, dew &c and doubtless on honey—and if so they probably impregnate flowers. There are certain flowers in the bush, which contain a thin sweet juice, which I often sucked in ⁠⟨⁠m⁠⟩⁠y walks in a hot day—but I have always had to bite off the end of the flower to prevent the swallowing of the ants.

As to Bees, I will mention only one incident.7

Some years ago (1844 or 5) I had charge of the country from Paramatta to and beyond the Hawkesbury.8 I formed acquaintance with the aboriginals. In one tribe (of which none now exist) was a man called “Captain” who used to get me native honey from [Ourinbah] and Doural. One day I found him cutting out a large establishment from the top of a very lofty Eucalyptus: and I asked him to bring it to Paramatta to my Cottage, which he did. The hollow in the bough was filled with the harmless native bees and their honey. It lay in the yard for two or three days, till it was discovered by English bees belonging to my friend Dr. Stuart, who lived in another part some distance off.9 In the course of a day or two these foragers killed off nearly all the little native bees and stole their honey. This I can vouch for. Yet I once saw a native hive under the same shed with English bees at the Vineyard, now “Subiaco” Mr Hannibal McArthur’s residence on the Paramatta River.10 The English bees are very common in the bush. They make their hives in hollows in the lofty Gum trees. But the native bee is very rare now where it was once common.— I wish Mr Macleay would give the world the benefit of his researches into our insect world.—11

If I find any thing published on the subject mentioned in your P.S. “effect of introduced on native animal”, I will let you know.—12

You will receive a pamphlet by this mail on the Geoly of Australasia; and I hope you will not be offended with the mention of your notice of N.Z. & Oceania.13

I have always considered N. Zealand, N. Caledonia, &c as merely the summits of the ranges parallel with our Australian “Cordillera”. There are soundings between this and N.Z.—14 There is mention of the reduced state of both countries in the pamphlet that also contains a notice of supposed Glacial action in N.Z. (p 54 to 7)   It brings in your doctrine of ‘submergence’ exemplified by the Reefs.—15 My paper brings up all that is known of Australasian Geology up to 31 De r 1861. and gives what is necessary to simplify the nature of my difference with M’Coy.16

Will you give me your opinion of the deductions from his paper on the Wollumbilla fossils. (p 48 No 5)17 and my Section from Stony Ck (p 53– to 6)

The once penal Norfolk Id is the island on which the greenstone boulders repose. There is basalt in Howe’s Island. But I think no greenstone nearer than Tasmania or New Holland or New Zealand.18 What should prevent ice floes or icebergs in that region if the glacial period be no fiction. Are scratches necessary? Are blocks dropped from icebergs necessarily scratched? Glaciers blocks would be—but ? of others. In my pamphlet I have inserted a paper on the recent journeys across this Continent. In p 60 last paragraph but two and last sentence, I define a strait. The younger Gregory boy just returned from the point I marked finding the same desert sands A. C. G. found on Sturt’s Ck!19

Pardon this garrulity and allow me to remain, My dear Sir, Yrs. very truly | W B Clarke

P.S. One of the local School-masters in this one of my 5 Parishes, is a Mr Hussey who says he is known to you. He is a great fisherman and tells me wondrous things of his catchings. Can you tell me of him? He has been in Africa.20

C Darwin Esq

CD annotations

Top of last page: ‘16th Jan. 1862— Rev. W. B. Clarke of St Leonards | Sydney. Australia’ ink


This letter was apparently sent under the same cover as a postscript dated 21 January 1862. Since the postscript occupies an additional sheet and contains a separate greeting and valediction, it has been treated as a separate letter and appears in its proper chronological position (see letter from W. B. Clarke, 21 January 1862).
CD had asked Clarke to try an experiment that would indicate the extent to which species of Goodeniaceae, Eucalyptus, and Mimosa required the agency of insects in order to set seed (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter to W. B. Clarke, 25 October [1861]).
Clarke carried out extensive research to determine the age of the coal formations in Australia (see n. 16, below), which necessitated the collection and examination of the fossil plants contained within them (see Clarke 1861a).
CD recorded Clarke’s observation in a note that is now preserved in DAR 49: 70.
Clarke refers to the area known as the ‘Australian Alps’ which he visited during his government-sponsored survey of potential gold-bearing localities in the southern highlands of New South Wales, made between September 1851 and June 1852 (Jervis [1945], pp. 52–69).
CD had asked about the effect of introduced hive-bees on native bee populations in the letter to W. B. Clarke, 25 October [1861] (Correspondence vol. 9).
Clarke was offered charge of the new parish of North Parramatta in August 1840; he resided there for five years (Jervis [1945]).
Dr Stuart has not been identified.
The Vineyard, Parramatta, had been the home of the farmer and politician, Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur, who died in 1861 (Aust. dict. biog.). (CD had visited Macarthur while in Australia during the Beagle voyage (R. D. Keynes ed. 1988, p. 405).)
The retired diplomat and distinguished zoologist, William Sharp Macleay, had devoted much of his time since emigrating to Sydney in 1839 to amassing a large collection of Australian insects.
In Clarke 1861b, p. 6, Clarke quoted what he believed to be an erroneous statement by CD that ‘not one oceanic island is as yet known to afford even a remnant of any palæozoic or secondary formation’ (Origin, p. 308). Clarke pointed out that there was distinct evidence of Palaeozoic and Secondary formations in New Zealand and that CD himself had written of New Zealand as an oceanic island (Origin, p. 390). Clarke had previously informed CD of this discrepancy (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter from W. B. Clarke, [August 1861]). The fourth edition of Origin introduced New Zealand as an exception to the general rule (Origin 4th ed., pp. 372–3). There is a lightly annotated presentation copy of Clarke 1861b in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. The pamphlet was presumably posted so as to leave Australia on the same ship as this letter.
In his letter to W. B. Clarke, 25 October [1861] (Correspondence vol. 9), CD stated that, in his mind, he had ‘excluded N. Zealand from the term oceanic Isld, as being connected by a Bank’.
Clarke refers to CD’s theory that coral reefs and atolls originated as fringeing reefs adjacent to or surrounding land that subsequently subsided, the reef continuing to grow upwards, with the living coral maintaining its position near the surface of the water (Coral reefs).
Clarke and Frederick McCoy were engaged in a long-standing dispute about the age of the coal-fields of New South Wales following McCoy’s description of fossil specimens sent back to England by Clarke (McCoy 1847). McCoy considered the coal deposits to belong to the Oolitic age while Clarke maintained that the deposits were Palaeozoic (Clarke 1861b, pp. 10, 17–48).
Clarke refers to McCoy 1861, which he reproduced in its entirety in Clarke 1861b, pp. 48–52.
In Origin, p. 373, CD, without giving details, referred to evidence of glacial action in south-eastern Australia. In response, Clarke provided CD with examples of such evidence including the existence of transported blocks of greenstone on Norfolk Island (see Correspondence vol. 9, letter from W. B. Clarke, [August 1861]). In his letter to Clarke of 25 October [1861] (Correspondence vol. 9), CD had asked for further details of the boulders in order to verify that they were erratics.
Clarke refers to the explorer Augustus Charles Gregory and his younger brother Francis Thomas Gregory. In his paper, Clarke stated that if there had once been a strait running from south to north across Australia, it would probably have been between the Great Australian Bight (on the south coast) and the area of the north-west coast between Point Larry and Cape Joubert now known as Eighty Mile Beach. He asserted: ‘The sandy region found by Mr. A. C. Gregory, on Sturt’s Creek, is on the north-east side of such a strait, the southern boundary being probably, about 500 miles to the south-west of it’ (Clarke 1861b, p. 60). F. T. Gregory had just returned from an expedition to the north-west coast, where he had discovered, in the region identified by Clarke, the south-western edge of a desert plain, consisting of red drift sand, now known as the Great Sandy Desert (see F. T. Gregory 1862 and J. Bartholomew [1864?]).
Mr Hussey has not been identified.


Aust. dict. biog.: Australian dictionary of biography. Edited by Douglas Pike et al. 14 vols. [Melbourne]: Melbourne University Press. London and New York: Cambridge University Press. 1966–96.

Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Gregory, Francis Thomas. 1862. Expedition to the north-west coast of Australia. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society 32: 372–429.

Jervis, James. [1945.] W. B. Clarke: ""The father of Australian geology"". Sydney: Royal Australian Historical Society. [Vols. 9,10]

McCoy, Frederick. 1847. On the fossil botany and zoology of the rocks associated with the coal of Australia. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 20: 145–57, 226–36, 298–312.

McCoy, Frederick. 1861. Remarks on a series of fossils collected at Wollumbilla, and transmitted by Rev. W. D. Clarke, of Sydney. [Read 30 December 1861.] Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 6 (1865): 42–6.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Answers CD’s questions on Australian flora, bees, geology.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Branwhite Clarke
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 161.2: 172
Physical description
ALS 10pp damaged †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3392,” accessed on 13 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 10