skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From William Winwood Reade   [c. 8 or 9 April 1870]1

Swanzy’s Factory | Accra | West Coast of Africa

My dear Sir

I read your last letter with very great pleasure. I should consider a letter from Darwin a treat anywhere—how much more so out here!2

Alex Agassiz has the reputation in the U.S. of being a patient & earnest investigator.3 I knew he differed from his father who has a perfect right to believe in the immutability of species but who has no right (scientifically speaking) to say “we are the children of God not the children of monkeys”, & other such catch-penny or catch-parson statements.4 I am pleased & surprised he has written something contrary to his previously expressed opinions.5 To tell the truth I feared he was not honest enough, & brave enough to change his assertions even if he changed his opinions. What is a naturalist if he is not sincere? Sincerity is to him what faith hope & charity are to the religieux; if he shows a deficiency in that the most splendid talents can scarcely save him from contempt.

I thought you wd like the Jollof instance—6 I need scarcely say that anything I write to you is fully at your disposal. My only fear is that I cannot send you anything worth having—

The hand to mouth expression of astonishment I am told is common on the coast. I made a statement about a girl in her presence wh. I knew wd. excite her astonishment & watched her face. She protruded her lips (much in that curious manner in wh. the chimpanzee does) as if in the act of blowing.7

I discovered a small fly in the Niger country (ie near Kankan)8 which makes honey in holes of trees. It does not sting. I found a nest & identified the species, specimens of which I sent to Mr. Swanzy of 122 Cannon St. E.C.9 I also sent an insect which carries a load of rubbish on its back perhaps to imitate dead leaves. Perhaps Bates can tell you something about these insects if they are worth inquiring about, for he knows Swanzy & I have asked him to look at them.10 I am ignorant of things entomological.

I am going tomorrow to a German mission station 1500 ft above sea-level. There I shall stay for some weeks & recruit.11 I shall moreover be among Europeans who really live among the natives, speak their language & know something of their inner life. In this country the traveller gets little profit from the experience of residents. Most men come out for a few years; & those who do spend their lives here are usually traders who take no interest in anything but trade. As regards natural history there is not to my knowledge an observer on the coast, except perhaps the present Governor of the Gold Coast who has little time for science—if indeed he can boast of anything beyond a taste for it.12 Since the days of Adanson naturalists (especially in his branch) have come out from time to time—13 I see you gleaned one fact of importance from Mann’s energetic researches.14 Do you know if Rohlfs15 made any discovery of a scientific nature apart from geography?

I hope to have the pleasure of being personally questioned by you when I return wh. will be probably next autumn.16 In the mean-time any hint as to ethnological inquiry will be welcome to me. I forget whether I told you that I had seen a blue-eyed negress (not an albino nor cd. she have had European blood) in the interior.17 This instance I believe stands alone. I hope you will not delay your work too long.18 The best way & the surest to get information upon the points which are detaining you is I imagine to publish; facts will then stream in you can then add to subsequent editions— I conjecture it is painful to you to put forward anything in an incomplete form; there is a finish about your work in a literary sense which cd hardly I think have been achieved without much pains. But consider your disciples. Your new work will doubtless prove a revelation to many; and will certainly suggest to ethnologists fresh methods of investigation. I know for my own part that it will be a great loss to me not to have seen your book till after I have left my present field to which I shall never return— I shall have spent probably 312 or 4 years in Africa; to spend more would be to enslave myself to one idea. I am beginning to understand this race; that is up to a certain point. The complex man of civilization is quite undecipherable: women & savages are a little easier; & there is less variety among them. But still the laws of human nature are difficult to get at, even in their simplest form

Hoping to hear from you soon | I remain | Yours truly | Winwood Reade

The above address will find me.

CD annotations

1.1 I read … having— 3.3] crossed blue crayon
4.1 The hand … blowing. 4.4] enclosed in square brackets pencil; scored pencil
5.1 I … form 7.18] crossed blue crayon
Top of letter: ‘Africa’ blue crayon


The date range is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from Reade of 24 April 1870, in which he says that he has been at the Akropong mission station for a fortnight. Akropong is about thirty miles from Accra.
CD’s letter to Reade has not been found. Reade’s career as an explorer and his relationship with CD are discussed in Driver 2001.
Alexander Agassiz had visited CD in late November or early December 1869 (see Correspondence vol. 17, letter to Fritz Müller, 1 December [1869]).
Louis Agassiz had been a vigorous opponent of CD’s theory of natural selection (see Lurie 1960, pp. 252–350).
CD may have reported to Reade a message received from Louis Agassiz via Elizabeth Agassiz and Asa Gray (see letter from Asa Gray, 27 February and 1 March 1870 and n. 4, and letter to Asa Gray, 15 March [1870]).
See Correspondence vol. 17, letter from W. W. Reade, 26 December 1869. CD quoted Reade’s account of the ‘Jollofs’ in Descent 2: 357. The Wolof people (also spelled Ouolof) now live primarily in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania (Appiah and Gates eds. 2005, 5: 430).
The city of Kankan is now in Guinea.
Andrew Swanzy, who traded with the Gold Coast, had sponsored Reade’s explorations (Reade 1873, 2: 352–3). The fly has not been identified.
Reade refers to Henry Walter Bates. The insect has not been identified.
The mission station was at Akropong (see letter from W. W. Reade, 24 April 1870). Akropong is now in Ghana. The mission station took in invalids; Reade stayed there for two months (see Reade 1873, 2: 125). Recruit: reinvigorate (Chambers).
The Gold Coast colony had not had a governor since 1866, since when it had been governed from Sierra Leone. The administrator of the government was Herbert Taylor Ussher. (Colonial Office list 1870.)
Michel Adanson studied the natural history of Senegal from 1748 to 1754 (DBF).
Reade refers to Gustav Mann, and to Origin 4th ed., p. 450: ‘So again, on the island of Fernando Po, in the Gulf of Guinea, Mr. Mann found temperate European forms first beginning to appear at the height of about five thousand feet.’
Gerhard Friedrich Rohlfs.
Reade arrived back in London in August 1870 (letter from W. W. Reade, 3 September 1870).
Reade refers to CD’s work on Descent and Expression.


Chambers: The Chambers dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1998.

Colonial Office list: The Colonial Office list … or, general register of the colonial dependencies of Great Britain. London: Edward Stanford; Harrison & Sons. 1862–99.

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

DBF: Dictionnaire de biographie Française. Under the direction of J. Balteau et al. 21 vols. and 4 fascicules of vol. 22 (A–Leyris d’Esponchès) to date. Paris: Librairie Letouzey & Ané. 1933–.

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

Driver, Felix. 2001. Geography militant: cultures of exploration and empire. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lurie, Edward. 1960. Louis Agassiz: a life in science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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.

Reade, William Winwood. 1873. The African sketch-book. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.


Brief observations on expression in Africa.

Alexander Agassiz is a good investigator, who differs with his father on evolution.

The behaviour of women and savages is a little easier to understand than that of civilised men.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 36
Physical description
ALS 4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7069,” accessed on 21 February 2024,

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