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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Andrew Smith   26 March 1867

16 Alexander Square

26 March 1867

My Dear Darwin

Until the time you called, when I was confined to bed, I was under the sorrowful belief that I was never more either to see or hear from you.1 Under those circumstances you will easily imagine how much pleased I was to see your hand writing and find that you had me still in remembrance2   Had I been in the enjoyment of my ordinary health when your letter reached me you would soon have had something in return but seeing my condition was then and has been ever since very different you will I know ascribe my delay to what has really caused it and not to indifference.

Now that we have a prospect of some improvement in the weather I hope to soon get out of doors and gain what I very much want—strength.3 I see you are still as active and enthusiastic as ever and you may rest assured that if I can contribute any thing to you you will have it the moment I can venture a visit to my library which I am told is very cold as there has scarcely been a fire in it since December last. I have no doubt but that I will find among my notes something in regard to the use, which male animals, in South Africa, make of their Horns.4 I recollect although I cannot give the full particulars at present that on one occasion we found the skeletons of two Gnu’s Catoblepas Gnu joined together by the manner in which they had entangled their horns no doubt when fighting— They fight desperately especially about the time they are courting the females.5 They are doubtless weapons both of offence & defence as I trust I will, when I get a little stronger, be able to prove to you from my notes which I dare not yet attack   I strongly suspect will not find it very easy to give you any thing satisfactory as to what kind of women savage men prefer—6 so far as the Hottentot is concerned I can with certainty say he regards a woman with huge posteriors as first rate7 and he some time ago used to value highly such of the females as had very lengthened Nympæ but now he rather views these ugly developements as undesirable if not as deformities   I have been told of some who had them so elongated as that they were able during sexual intercourse to encircle the mans loins and fix him by them until the appetite of both was thoroughly satisfied. I have never seen what would admit of any thing like that being effected   still I have seen them pretty long.8 Now you must reconcile this speciality in the Hottentot’s formation and let me know what brought it into existence. You must not say it is artificial seeing it comes without their using weights to bring it into existence and as a proof that it is not a formation of their manifacture it still begins to appear at puberty though there is nothing they would not now do to prevent it. In regard to the large posteriors I may mention that I once came in communication with a woman more than ordinarly gifted in that way and it was all but an impossibility for her to get on her feet when she was sitting unless where she could avail herself of some slope of the ground— Where such was open to her she had to work herself round till her back was directed up the slope and if it was considerable she rose with tolerable facility.— This Lady was esteemed a beauty and was the mother of several children—9

I find I have just done enough to let me know I am an invalid   you shall however, please God, have more when I am stronger

Yours most faithfully | Andrew Smith—

CD annotations

1.1 Until … Horns. 2.8] crossed blue crayon
2.8 I recollect … deformities 2.19] enclosed in square brackets blue crayon
2.8 I recollect … attack 2.13] crossed pencil
2.15 so far … Nympæ 2.18] scored blue crayon
2.18 Nympæ] ‘h’ interl after ‘p’ pencil
2.19 been told … prevent it. 2.27] crossed blue crayon
2.27 In regard] after opening square bracket blue crayon
2.32 This lady … children— 2.33] scored blue crayon


CD evidently called on Smith during his most recent visit to London from 13 to 21 February 1867 (see ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 15, Appendix II)).
The letter to Smith has not been found.
Smith had resigned from his post as director-general of the army and ordnance medical departments in 1858 due to poor health (ODNB).
In his research on sexual selection, CD was curious about the horns of male mammals and whether they were used in fighting for females.
In a discussion of the ‘law of battle’ in Descent 2: 240 n. 3, CD mentioned Smith’s observation of the gnu skeletons. Catoblepas gnu (then the common gnu: see A. Smith 1849, Mammals, text accompanying plate 38), or Connochaetes gnou, is now known as the white-tailed gnu or black wildebeest; see Nowak 1999, 2: 1184. See also J. E. Gray 1852, pp. 119–22, for a contemporary description of gnu species. Smith had been stationed in South Africa from 1820 to 1836 as an army surgeon, and was an authority on South African zoology.
CD had also discussed sexual selection as a means of forming the human races with Alfred Russel Wallace (see, for example, letter to A. R. Wallace, 26 February [1867] and n. 5, and letter from A. R. Wallace, 2 March [1867]).
CD recorded Smith’s certainty on this point in Descent 2: 345. For nineteenth-century European perceptions of Khoikhoin women and of steatopygia, see Qureshi 2004.
CD placed Smith’s information on the lengthened nymphae (inner labia) in a footnote written in Latin in Descent 2: 345 n. 53. Earlier in the century, Georges Cuvier had lent scientific authority to travellers’ accounts when he examined the cadaver of an African woman and described what he called the ‘Hottentot apron’ (Cuvier 1817 in Fausto-Sterling 1995, pp. 33–6). On the fascination of nineteenth-century European naturalists with the genitalia of African women, including elongated labia, see also Schiebinger 1994, pp. 164–8.
CD included Smith’s account of this woman in Descent 2: 346.


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

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. Gender, race, and nation: the comparative anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ women in Europe, 1815–1817. In Deviant bodies: critical perspectives on difference in science and popular culture, edited by Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press.

Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walker’s mammals of the world. 6th edition. 2 vols. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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.

Qureshi, Sadiah. 2004. Displaying Sara Bartmann, the "Hottentot Venus". History of Science 42: 233–57.

Smith, Andrew. 1849. Illustrations of the zoology of South Africa … collected … in the years 1834, 1835, and 1836. 5 pts. London: Smith, Elder & Co.


On Hottentot ideas of beauty in women; their preference for women with large posteriors. [See Descent 2: 345–6.]

Letter details

Letter no.
Andrew Smith
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Alexander Square, 16
Source of text
DAR 85: A103–5
Physical description
ALS 5pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5465,” accessed on 21 February 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15