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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Grant Malcolmson   24 July 1839

Forres (N. B.)

July 24th. 1839

My Dear Sir,

I am sorry that I can only spare a few minutes to answer your letter, as I start this forenoon on a tour to the south of Scotland—and hope that you will not think that the poverty of the information I am able to communicate,1 on the interesting subjects referred to in your letter, such as to render it not worth your while to ask other questions on subjects on which I am better informed, and at a time when I have more leasure. I saw at Madras some shells collected on the coast of the Peninsula of Malacca opposite Prince of Wales Island, in the Province Wellesley; & the adjoining part of Quedah now belonging to the Siamese. These shells had a very recent appearance, but we did not compare them with living shells. They had belonged to my friend Dr. Ward. You will find his paper on Pinang (Prince of Wales’ Island) in the Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Bengal vol 18th. Part. 2d. P 150 and the part most interesting to you in the Supplementary note on the “Elephant Rock in the Quedah country”—especially P 166 where he describes the caves and the breccia having “small shells, corals” &c—2 In Capt Low’s paper in the 1st. part of the same vol P 131 you will find the following sentence “That portion of Kedda (Quedah) coast, facing Penang, has evidently, in many parts, been rescued from the sea. The period when this happened is not traditionally known, although it is conjectured that it is not very remote: mounds of sea shells are found about two miles inland”.—3 (In the abstract of this paper in the Gleanings of Science vol 1st these mounds swell into hills, showing the necessity of consulting the original authority).4 See P 1585

You will think me sceptical when I express some doubt as to these “mounds” indicating elevation6 —their low elevation (10 feet); Mr Finlayson in his mission to Siam considers the low plains to be Alluvial:7 and at 165 Dr. Ward states the country north of the peak of Quedah to be nearly on a level with the sea. At P 158 he describes the Boonting islands, and states the sea to be beautifully clear and the coral beds “are distinctly visible at a considerable distance below the surface of the water”—but none has ever been seen either on Pinang or the many islands around. What, however, principally leads me to doubt is the following extract P. 152 “This is in some measure confirmed by the phenomena observable on the opposite shore of Quedah, where Capt Low has traced successive deposits of Alluvial matter, for several miles inland, and the gradual retirement of the ocean indicated by ridges running parallel to the present line of coast”— Again P 165—“The country north of Quedah peak, is an immense plain, nearly level with the sea, covered near the coast with rising mangrove, with a very gentle elevation, and bounded to the east by a small range of hills 16 or 20 miles inland. The breadth of the belt of mangrove along the coast varies from half a mile to a mile. This is succeeded by a narrower one of ataps, behind which the country is richly cultivated, laid out in rice grounds, broken every two or three miles by natural boundaries of forest, left probably when it was first cleared. The soil is a rich whitish clay mixed with sand”.—

Now this is nearly a description of the appearances presented along the Coromandel coast8 where it is gaining on the sea, and in which the waves are the principal agents— 1st. a bank of sand is thrown up, and increased by the wind & consolidated by creeping grasses—behind this there is a backwater or a swamp often salt from the sea water springing up from the sand at high tide, when the inside of the sand hills is below the level of the sea— This swamp is often composed of clay containing much sulphurated Hydrogen and nearly impassible. on the sand hills low jungle forms often full of wild hogs &c and these must often perish in the salt mud along with other land animals & be mixed with the marine shells as Placuna or cerithio, &c— Within these salt marshes & lakes another mound of sand may be seen covered with grass shrubs & palm trees—and then a long extent of flat covered with fresh water in the rains & full of fresh water shells—running parallel to the coast for many miles The streams interrupted by the banks of sand deposit mud & gravel in these places and gradually raise them. Other sand hills covered with palms (Palmyra) occur, and alternate with smooth grassy flats sometimes covered with herds of Antelope, at others with rice fields— The whole of this series of actions I carefully studied with a view to medical enquiries on the cause of fever, and think that many places exist along these coasts where many miles in breadth have been thus gained from the sea. In the mud which I refer to this origin I believe Dr. Benza’s shells were found9 —and also those mentioned by Dr Babington in his paper on Madras in an Early Vol of the geol. Trans.10 where he mentions them as having been found in digging a well near the city. I have a fine Placuna of the existing kind from a tank recently dug inland of the town, but their occurrence there can be explained by the effects of waves & deposit from the neighboring small streams and certainly exhibit no proof of elevation. At the mouths of the great rivers of course the progress of the land is more rapid. The Madras coast however like that of Malacca is in some places wasting. In this I do not refer to the marine shells found by Colonel Cullen & mentioned by Dr Benza resting & covered by Basalt in a hill 40 miles from the sea & 5 miles south of the Godavary—11 these I refer to the great tertiary eruptions that gave the present form to the Indian peninsula and formed that most magnificent of all basaltic regions occupying 200,000 square miles of the west & centre of that country. The fossils are figured in my paper now printing for the transactions12 and as bones of quadrupeds seem to be mixed with the fresh water shells these inferences are confirmed. In that paper I refer I think to Babington’s shells.13

There are other tertiary deposits near Pondicherry & in Travancore, but we cannot yet venture to refer them to any particular epoch. The common opinion and tradition is that the great city of Madapooram14 or Seven Pagodas south of Madras has been depressed, and it is said Pagodas sculptured in the rocks were seen below the waves in calm weather—but this place is cut out of a low granite hill washed by the waves, and their influence is sufficient to account for the destruction of part of the town. You will find this wonderful place described in an Early vol of the Trans of the Asiatic Society of Bengal15 & a paper on it by Dr Babington in the Trans of the Royal Asiatic Society of London16 (antiquarian however).—

I think that there are some of Dr. Ward’s specimens in the Geol Society museum and also Dr. Babingtons. At Malacca I could see no proof of elevation—the low islands near are formed of laterite resting on fine clay & inland there is granite— I found coral under high water mark & none on the islands.— I have also seen in a medical paper by a Dr. Carswell a good account of Singapore which also consists of Laterite. This paper is printed in the 1st number of the Madras Medical journal,17 recently published but without the name. Allen & Co Leadenhall Street would show it to you.—

Arracan is very low—alluvial I believe, with granite hills rising amidst the low swampy plains. I could give you some details from Medical papers—but there may be proofs of elevation in other parts. There were some papers, but very short, published about a volcanic or pseudo-volcanic eruption at Chitagong some years ago in one of the Calcutta journals— I cannot give the exact reference at this moment.— With regard to the Bombay, Burnes & Lyell have made the cutch depression perhaps too notorious.18 Grant’s paper on Cutch now printing for the Transactions throws much light on this district.19 A Dr. Henderson read a paper to the Royal Asiatic Society on Cutch some years ago— it was not printed but you could get it I dare say. I would recommend you to consult Capt. Mc Murdo’s letters in the Trans. of the Literary Society of Bombay on this subject, and a letter in the Edinb Journal.20 At Bombay I could find no proof of Elevation certainly not of a late period— Shells are consolidated but not above high water mark. Baron Hugel & Dr. Lush & a Mr Fulljames however have described the bones of the island Perim in the Calcutta journal.21 Baron Hugel has published in Germany also. Mr. Bailie Fraser has described in the Geol Trans coral islands in the Persian gulf;22 of which I have seen notices in medl. papers.— The papers on the Calcutta borings well deserve a careful examination—which should be deferred however till the operations are completed. I do not think they prove depression.

Have you ever seen the “Gleanings in Science” the name under which the Journal of the A. S. of Bengal first appeared, when edited by Capt Herbert, an astronr. and Geologist. At Page 293 there is a memoir on the Keeling islands or “Cocos”—a coral group in the Indian seas but not proving either elevation or depression I think.23 There is a plan and chart of the island. Royle has got the work— I do not know of any other copy in London. I could lend it to you. At P 164 of the same vol. you will find a short notice of gravel and erratic ? blocks in the Dehera dun valley, high up in the Sub-Himalayan regions. at 18 feet down “gravel & large stones” are mentioned—at 162 feet—“Sand & gravel, with enormous stones”— Some of them must have come “25 miles at least.” The paper is well worth examination being from Capt Herbert himself.24

At Shahar on the south coast of Arabia I found recent coral & shells raised considerably; also at Kamran island—&c and behind the town of Jedda on the road to Mecca.

Sowerby has my specimens, and a box full of them is in the cellar at the Geol socy., which you may consult. A young friend Dr. Nash to w⁠⟨⁠hom⁠⟩⁠ I showed the Jedda specimens, has noticed them in a short paper in the Edinb Journal.25 This I mention, as they were not subjected to any examination, and his authority is therefore not of value on this point. Great part of Java has been raised as I believe in the recent period—84 species of shells collected by my friend Dr Hardy26 40 miles or more inland from Batavia prove this—but G. Sowerby is now comparing them. You can ask him to show them to you if you like.

So much for a very hurried answer to your questions. I hope to see the Glen Roy paper soon, as I hope to visit it before winter.

I have extended the fossil localities of the cornstone or middle series over part of the Nairnshire coast, which is important as we had only the old series there before.27 I think of looking at Orkney & Caithness. I have not yet procured any facts relative to sheepdogs but hope to do so. A good spirit for Natural History exists here. I am glad Murchison has been so successful. I wish he had send me my drawings, however. I propose visiting Dumfries Shire & the Border counties. Can you give me any hints as to interesting localities— If you write soon direct to me “Post Office Edinburgh”. Dr Ward published a work on the Medl Topogy of Penang28 & Capt Low on the statistics of the coast opposite Province Wellesley.29 These you will see at the India House.

Yours truly J G Malcolmson

A very intelligent naturalist & chemist Mr Shiar of Aberdeen is engaged on the diluvium of the E. counties30 . He would be happy to communicate with you I am sure. He has mapped the course of the boulders

Do not pay your letters— I never grudge postage, altho I fear this letter is not worth it

CD annotations

crossed pencil
3.3 1st… . from the sea. 3.19] scored ink; ‘Bahia Blanca’31 added ink
‘Nothing’added ink
scored ink
7.8 Sub-Himalayan regions.] ‘I have looked to this’ added ink
scored ink
8.2 Jedda] underl pencil
Across first page: ‘Letter A’ink
Over paragraphs 3, 4, 5, 6: ‘Elevation in India’ink


Malcolmson’s information in this letter and his letter of 31 August 1839 is used in Coral reefs, chapter 6, where CD presents ‘Proofs of recent elevation where fringing-reefs occur’. CD’s principal evidence is that elevated, tertiary corals and shells, which are apparently identical with living species, are found in the vicinity of fringing reefs.
T. M. Ward 1833 (see Coral reefs, p. 134 n. ††).
Low 1833, p. 131 (see Coral reefs, p. 135 n. ††).
Low 1829, p. 222.
Low 1833, p. 158, describes a black limestone hill 600 feet high.
CD was not prepared to accept Malcolmson’s opinion that shells found inland did not indicate elevation: Coral reefs, pp. 135–6 n. §, ‘Dr. Benza … has described a formation with recent freshwater and marine shells, occurring at the distance of three or four miles from the present shore. Dr. Benza, in conversation with me, attributed their position to a rise of the land. Dr. Malcolmson, however, (and there cannot be a higher authority on the geology of India) informs me that he suspects that these beds may have been formed by the mere action of the waves and currents accumulating sediment. From analogy I should much incline to Dr. Benza’s opinion.’ (See n. 9, below.)
The east coast of Madras.
Benza 1836, pp. 3–4: ‘Colonel Cullen [in 1822 found shell-limestone] … nearly forty miles from the sea shore, underlaying basalt.’
Ibid., p. 573.
Now Mahabalipuram.
Madras Quarterly Medical Journal 1839.
Burnes 1828. Lyell cites Burnes to confirm Lyell’s report on changes in the level of the Indus delta after the Cutch earthquake of 1819 (C. Lyell 1830–3, 1: 405–7, 2: 266–7).
Macmurdo 1823, 1821. Lyell cites Macmurdo 1821 in C. Lyell 1830–3, 1: 406.
See Coral reefs, p. 134.
In Notebook A: 146 (DAR 127) CD noted: ‘G. J. Malcolmson has described formation of shore of Coromandel, just same as at Bahia Blanca—letter in drawer with important letters—’.


Babington, Benjamin Guy. 1821. Remarks on the geology of the country between Tellicherry and Madras. Transactions of the Geological Society of London 328–39.

Babington, Benjamin Guy. 1830. An account of the sculptures and inscriptions at Mahámalaipur. Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 2: 258–69.

Benza, Pasquale-Maria. 1836. Notes on the geology of the country, between Madras and the Neilgherry Hills, via Bangalore and via Salem. Madras Journal of Literature and Science 4: 1–27.

Benza, Pasquale-Maria. 1837. Notes, chiefly geological, of a journey through the Northern Circars in the year 1835. Madras Journal of Literature and Science 5: 43–70.

Burnes, Alexander. 1828. A memoir of a map of the eastern branch of the Indus, giving an account of the alterations produced in it by the earthquake of 1819 and the bursting of the dams in 1826; also a theory of the Runns formation & some surmises on the route of Alexander the Great etc. Bombay.

Chambers, William. 1788. Some account of the sculptures and ruins at Mavalipuram, a place a few miles north of Sadras, and known to seamen by the name of the Seven Pagodas. Asiatic Researches 1: 145–70.

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.

Finlayson, George. 1826. The mission to Siam, and Hué the capital of Cochin China, in the years 1821–2. From the journal of the late George Finlayson … with a memoir of the author, by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. London.

Fraser, James Baillie. 1824. Notes made in the course of a voyage from Bombay to Bushire in the Persian Gulf: transmitted with a series of illustrative specimens. Transactions of the Geological Society of London 2d ser. 1: 409–12.

Goldingham, J. 1799. Some account of the sculptures at Mahabalipoorum; usually called the Seven Pagodas. Asiatic Researches 5: 69–80.

Grant, C. W. 1840. Memoir to illustrate a geological map of Cutch. Transactions of the Geological Society of London 2d ser. 5: 289–329.

Herbert, J. D. 1830. On the accumulation of diluvium or gravel in the vallies which border the great Himmalaya system of formations. Gleanings in Science 2: 164–5.

Hugel, Baron and Fulljames, George. 1836. Recent discovery of fossil bones in Perim Island, in the Cambay Gulph. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 5: 288–91.

Low, James. 1829. Observations on the geological appearances and general features of portions of the Malayan Peninsula and of the countries lying betwixt it and 18o north latitude. [Abstract.] Gleanings in Science 1: 222–5.

Low, James. 1833. Observations on the geological appearances and general features of portions of the Malayan Peninsula, and of the countries lying betwixt it and 18o north latitude. Asiatic Researches 18, Pt 1: 128–62.

Low, James. 1836. A dissertation on the soil & agriculture of the British settlement of Penang, or Prince of Wales Island, in the straits of Malacca; including Province Wellesley on the Malayan Peninsula. Singapore.

Lush, Charles. 1836. Geological notes on the northern Conkan, and a small portion of Guzerat and Kattywár. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 5: 761–8.

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

Macmurdo, James. 1821. Account of the earthquake which occurred in India in June 1819. Edinburgh Philosophical Journal 4: 106-9.

Macmurdo, James. 1823. Papers relating to the earthquake which occurred in India in 1819. Transactions of the Literary Society of Bombay 3: 90–116.

Malcolmson, John Grant. 1839, 1859. On the relations of the different parts of the Old Red Sandstone, in which organic remains have recently been discovered, in the counties of Murray, Nairn, Banff, and Inverness. [Read 5 June 1839.] Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 3 (1838–42): 141–4 and Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 15 (1859): 336–52.

Malcolmson, John Grant. 1840. On the fossils of the eastern portion of the great basaltic district of India. Transactions of the Geological Society of London 2d ser. 5: 537–75.

Nash, Davyd William. 1837. On the geology of Egypt and the valley of Cosseir. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 22: 40–7.

Notebook A. See Theoretical notebooks.

Ross, John Clunies. 1830. Some account of the Cocos or Keeling Islands; and of their recent settlement. Gleanings in Science 2: 293–301.

Ward, T. 1833. Short sketch of the geology of Pulo Pinang and the neighbouring islands, with a map and sections. Asiatic Researches 18, Pt 2: 149–68.

Ward, T. M. 1830. Contributions to the medical topography of Prince of Wales’ Island or Pulo Pinang. In Official papers on the medical statistics and topography of Malacca and Prince of Wales’ Island and on the prevailing diseases of the Tenasserim coast, by T. M. Ward and J. P. Grant. Pinang.


Detailed evidence for and against geological elevation along coast of the Indian subcontinent, South Asia, and Arabia. Extensive references to geological literature about these areas.

Describes coral sand-dune and salt-marsh formation.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Grant Malcolmson
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 39: 7–10
Physical description
ALS 8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 528,” accessed on 4 October 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2