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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John James Aubertin   27 April 1863

São Paulo. Brazil—

April 27. 1863

My dear Mr Darwin—

I wonder whether you still recollect our joint sojourn at Ilkley Wells!1—washing ourselves inside & out in order to wash the Satan of Illness out of us!—& seeking to purify our vile flesh by Water, as metals are purified by the more potent Element of Fire!—

If you do I hope you will accept of me the enclosed Vignette Portrait of myself,2 trusting you will not find from it that I have within the past three years or more descended too rapidly into the vale of years!

Pray make my best remembrances to Mrs Darwin,3 with best hopes also that you & all your family are well & flourishing!

I do not wake up our old acquaintance, short but pleasant, for the mere purpose of sending you my portrait: but I am sending also, all the way from Brazil to your quiet quarters at Down two lumps of stone, which I want you to see, as coming out of this Country: & not so only, but coming moreover out of the Tunnel we are blasting on our Great São Paulo Railway—4 A friend who is going home takes the small box containing them to my brothers in London, by this mail of 9th May from Rio, & they will no doubt quickly forward the box to you, as I shall request them to do so—5

We have much curiosity among us here to know how the stone is to be strictly classified— Some declare it contains metal: & others that this metal is or ought to be gold! We are by no means however in search of the precious metal: but rather want to know whether the stone is likely to continue the features it at present presents, or whether it is likely to change its character for one which more readily responds to the Blast, before we get through our hill— There is a quantity of loose sort of wet schist outside: & gradually we have pushed forward into the character of stuff I now send you— The hill is a long sharp ridge, rising up into almost an edge at the Top—& the length of our Tunnel through it is somewhere about 500 yards— The Angles on both sides in upright lines must show something about an inclination of 1 in 5—but on one side this very sharp descent soon changes, & rather abruptly, into a far flatter one, from which we hope to find that the interior stone is more likely to prove a great thick upright wall than a broad flat bed: & that we shall not have to cut through hard stone for anything like the whole length of the 500 yards— We cannot yet tell anything of what the exit of the Tunnel is likely to be, as the form of the ground will oblige us to rely upon a very long heavy cutting, which of course has been perforce begun at its end: i.e about 34 of a mile from what we propose should be the end of the Tunnel.6

In the course of our learned doubts hopes & fears it occurred to me that if I could send you a specimen stone or two you might feel interested in giving us a few hints upon the subject in general:7 & I thought also my doing so might afford me a pleasant opportunity of re-opening our intercourse, though we are now rather farther apart than we were while conversing together at the Ilkley Fire-side, over the proof sheets of your Naughty Book8

I have been writing thus far taking it for granted that you are aware of my being the Superintendent of this same Railway in Brazil, of which very likely you are aware—9 We are pushing along very well, & hope we shall be able to complete all our works long within the time allotted to us—10 I feel sure you have yourself visited Brazil, in your travels round the world: but I do not at all know whether you may have visited our Province of São Paulo.11 You doubtless know the general character of the Brazilian Coast— I mean its great long, high, steep, wooded Serra! The barrier formed by this Phenomenon all along the Coast of this Province exhibits some of its most abrupt and obstinate difficulties: & the consequence is that we are all here much shut out of the civilized world: having nothing but monstrously bad roads, & mule-backs to get down to the coast with! Up the great Coast Serra our Ry comes by an incline of 1 foot in 10— We rise to the height of 2.600 in about five miles. We run up a great cheek of an immense buttress of the main ridge, not in zigzags: but in comparatively a straight line. Our incline is divided into four stages, each with its “landing” at the top of it: and on each of these “landings” is to be planted a stationary Engine, to draw up the carriages as far as itself by steel ropes: a new adjustment of the apparatus is to take place at each of these stages: & in all we shall have four stationary Engines.12

The work is a very venturesome one: but with Mr Fairbairn’s & others’ scientific applications I trust we shall surmount all difficulties—13 The happy result of our exertions is a vital question for the Province which is pining for proper intercourse with mankind & commerce— The population is very scanty— We measure nearly 34 of the area of France proper: & we have only 800.000 souls—blacks included! We are all very ignorant, & narrow-minded!— The Brazilians are of so weak & lazy a character that there seems almost more strength of character in many of the Blacks! In many of the Mulattos there assuredly is— Tho’ I must confess that after contemplating the nature of the greater part of the Slaves here, I have a strong leaning to your doctrines in part: for I can scarcely hold to my old belief that the Negro can rank in common originin with the white, as a separate human race in the Animal Kingdom. Slavery here is very different from what it is in North America.14 There the black is most rigidly separated, in all social points of view. Here, on the other hand this weak people let him in every where—even petting him—& the Mulatto has responded by taking, in more instances than merely a few, high, & even official position— A case in point indeed may be found in our very Provincial President here, who undoubtedly claims black blood, & is, in many respects, all the more active & intelligent therefrom!15 Coffee, as you may know is our chief produce here: I have been doing my best to get them to add Cotton—16 Tobacco also might result in much gain— In short, our climate, & natural fertility with a little exertion would produce anything & everything. At St Paul’s we are just under the Tropic of Capricorn, at about the altitude of Madrid— Corn & Cattle of all kinds might flourish: but all flour is imported, & almost all beef & mutton is horribly hard & uneatable— Chickens abound—& I wonder feathers are not growing out of some of us! Add to this eggs, eggs, eggs— But potted meats & hams & English beer, by myriads of Dozens come in now— Our Railway runs, or is to run some 85 miles inland, to a place called Jundiahy—a cold, ugly empty Town:17 & we hope to extend it to Campinas—an equally ugly City some 30 miles onward, but situated in a more fertile district, & in a warmer soil— The Coffee Plantations begin to abound thence onwards— Sugar also is cultivated: but in these districts not well: more comes to you from the North. Some of our Coffee however, & some of our Tobacco ranks first in these productions in Brazil—

It is only a few mails ago that I took it into my head to write to Dr Smith of Ilkley, sending him also a vignette, & recalling old scenes.18 Among the number of these do your boys still remember the Lecture on the Mummy? beginning, if I rightly remember “Peace in the presence of the mighty Dead”—19

But how it ended I cannot venture to recall!— We got on there tolerably well altogether— The “course” did me a great deal of good: & I think it did you much good too. Our climate here is generally very hot at midday: but always cool at night & at morning—& I think it suits me very well altogether. Society there is just precisely & exactly none! I must by no means forget to ask after my friend Miss Butler!20 Pray make my kindest remembrances to her, with best hopes that she is quite well. She will not forget our jaunt to Harrowgate with the Miss Scotts.21 Pray where are they? I suppose you have never repeated the dose at Ilkley, under “Wickers”—he of charade notoriety: & upon my honour a most admirable bath man!22 The beef & mutton at Ilkley were always first-class—& indeed all the eatables were the same— In drinkables there was (ex necessitate) no very great variety—

Any letter for me may be directed either to my brothers “Aubertin bros 6 Gt. Winchester St. Broad St. E.C. to come in their post: or to the care of Messrs Baird Le Cocq & Co Rio de Janeiro—”23 The Stones I send come from a range of hills some seven leagues up country from this City: or about 70 miles from the sea—

With just room for kind regards to Mrs Darwin & yourself Believe me faithy yours | J. J. Aubertin.

CD annotations

10.5 I must … well. 10.7] cross in margin, brown crayon
10.7 Scotts.] underl brown crayon
11.1 Any … post: 11.2] scored brown crayon


CD had undergone hydropathic treatment at Ilkley Wells, Yorkshire, from 3 October to 9 December 1859 (see Correspondence vol. 7). See also nn. 8 and 18, below. Aubertin is not mentioned by CD in his letters from Ilkley.
The enclosure has not been found.
Aubertin was superintendent of the São Paulo railway from 1860 to 1869 (Graham 1968, p. 67). Eventually extending 139 kilometres from the port of Santos into the coffee districts of the province of São Paulo, the railway became the wealthiest in the country, and Britain’s most profitable railway enterprise in Latin America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Graham 1968, pp. 60, 66). See also nn. 6, 10, and 17, below.
Aubertin’s brothers were merchants; their address was listed as Aubertin Brothers, 6 Great Winchester Street, London (Post Office London directory 1863).
For the technical difficulties involved in building the São Paulo railway, see Graham 1968, pp. 63–4.
Origin was published while CD was at Ilkley Wells in 1859, and he immediately began making corrections and additions for a second edition (see Correspondence vol. 7, and Freeman 1977, p. 75).
See n. 4, above.
The railway line opened in 1867.
CD had never visited São Paulo, Brazil, but from 4 April to 5 July 1832, during the Beagle voyage, he spent time in the vicinity of Rio de Janeiro (Journal of researches, pp. 21–43).
See n. 6, above.
Aubertin apparently refers to the Scottish engineer William Fairbairn (DNB). Earlier in the century, Fairbairn had designed and constructed tubular railway bridges as well as locomotive engines (Pole 1877, pp. 197–213, 316–17, 320).
CD wrote about slavery in Brazil during his Beagle voyage (see n. 11, above, and Journal of researches 2d ed., pp. 20, 24, 499).
In 1863, Vicente Pires da Mota was president of the province of São Paulo (Dicionário de história de São Paulo).
Aubertin was an active proponent of cotton culture in Brazil in the 1860s; in 1869 the Manchester Cotton Supply Association awarded him a gold medal for services rendered in creating a source of supply in Brazil (Graham 1968, pp. 67–8).
See n. 4, above. The railway ran from the province’s principal port, Santos, through its capital, São Paulo, to Jundiahy at the start of the coffee district (Graham 1968, pp. 60–6).
Edmund Smith was the proprietor of Ilkley Wells hydropathic establishment (Metcalfe 1906, p. 107).
Emma Darwin and the younger children joined CD at Ilkley Wells on 17 October 1859 (see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to W. D. Fox, [6 October 1859], and letter to W. E. Darwin, [14 October 1859]). In a letter to William Erasmus Darwin of [7 or 14 November 1859], Emma reported (DAR 210.6: 51): The other day the children had a charming evening at the Estab. A gent. gave a comic lecture on mummies (2 of the maids dressed up) & did it uncommonly well & afterwards they had a most ideotic game called the wild beast shew in which all the ladies yelled & barked & roared like mad.
Mary Butler had been a patient at Ilkley Wells when CD and Aubertin were there in 1859 (Correspondence vol. 7). See Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Mary Butler, [before 25 December 1862].
Neither the reference to Harrogate nor the Miss Scotts have been further identified.
This individual has not been identified.
See n. 5, above. The Rio de Janeiro company has not been identified.


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

Dicionário de história de São Paulo: Dicionário de história de São Paulo. By Antonio Barreto do Amaral. São Paulo, Brazil: Governo do Estado de São Paulo. 1980.

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.

Freeman, Richard Broke. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d edition. Folkestone, Kent: William Dawson & Sons. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, Shoe String Press.

Graham, Richard. 1968. Britain and the onset of modernization in Brazil 1850–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Journal of researches 2d ed.: Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN. 2d edition, corrected, with additions. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1845.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Metcalfe, Richard. 1906. The rise and progress of hydropathy in England and Scotland. London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co.

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.

Pole, William, ed. 1877. The life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Post Office London directory: Post-Office annual directory. … A list of the principal merchants, traders of eminence, &c. in the cities of London and Westminster, the borough of Southwark, and parts adjacent … general and special information relating to the Post Office. Post Office London directory. London: His Majesty’s Postmaster-General [and others]. 1802–1967.


Reminds CD of their acquaintance at Ilkley Wells; encloses portrait of self;

describes the topography, trade, commerce, produce, and population of São Paulo province.

Sends pieces of rock blasted for railway for CD to analyse.

Letter details

Letter no.
John James Aubertin
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Sao Paulo
Source of text
DAR 159: 123
Physical description
ALS 12pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4129,” accessed on 22 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11