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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Walter Baldock Durrant Mantell   [before 10 April 1856]1

Have you any idea whether the New Zealanders ideas of Beauty either in face or whole person, in their women, is like ours? i.e. would the handsomest woman in a tribe in the eyes of a New Zealander, be the handsomest woman in our eyes?


I am aware it is a mere chance whether you can answer this odd question; & certainly no one less familiar with the natives than you are, could answer it.— Lastly do the chief men generally succeed in getting for their wives the handsomest women, or do they care more for a good work-woman?

Both— In the old times almost every girl pretty or promising to be so, whom one might see in a pa was sure to be taken to some chief—2 But the aristō’s took care to have wives skilled in watu-ing mats3 and in cookery— In the straits Ngatiruanui ladies were highly prized from their skill in roasting potatos—4

Another charm was rank in their own or a neighbg. tribe   Te Hapuku of Ahuriri,5 has succeeded thus in greatly increasing his importance & doubling that of his children—

No room to add more

CD annotations

4.1 Both … potatos— 4.4] ‘chiefs seized on prettiest women’ in margin, pencil
5.1 Another charm … children— 5.3] crossed pencil


The date is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to W. B. D. Mantell, 10 April [1856] (Correspondence vol. 6). In his letter to Mantell of 10 April [1856], CD wrote, ‘I fear you cannot answer my question whether the beau ideal of beauty amongst the less civilised natives … would agree with ours’. The assumption is that he had sent this letter to Mantell before 10 April and that Mantell, once his memory had been jogged, sent his replies, written on the original letter, after 10 April. See also Correspondence vol. 6, letter to W. B. D. Mantell, 3 April [1856], for CD’s request to Mantell to answer queries on the paper they were written on, and this volume, Supplement, letter to C. J. Andersson, 25 March [1856], for a similar query. In his letter to Mantell of 5 June [1856–9] (Correspondence vol. 6), CD wrote, ‘I think that you were so kind as to answer fully all my previous questions.—’. ‘Yes’, and the section ‘Both … more’ are in Mantell’s hand.
CD cited Mantell on this point in Descent 2: 369. Pa: fortified village (Maori).
Watu, or whatu: weave (Maori: Williams 1971). The mats in question were called whariki, and were of great cultural significance.
The Ngāti Ruanui are a Maori people traditionally based in the Taranaki region of the North Island of New Zealand, north of the Cook Strait. The potatoes would traditionally have been sweet potatoes.
Ahuriri is now a suburb of the modern city of Napier, in Hawke’s Bay. Te Hapuku, an influential Maori leader in the Hawke’s Bay region, had taken up residence in 1859 at Poukawa, inland and south of Napier (DNZB). He may have been born at Ahuriri (ENZ s.v. Te Hapuku).


Williams, Herbert William. 1971. A dictionary of the Maori language. 7th edition. Wellington, New Zealand: A.R. Shearer.


CD asks whether New Zealand tribes have an idea of beauty in women which is "like ours"; WBDM answers, "Yes".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Walter Baldock Durrant Mantell
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 85: A99
Physical description
AL inc , WBDM note 1p † (by CD)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6520,” accessed on 18 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18 (Supplement)