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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Arthur Nicols   7 March 1871

The Priory. | Mill Hill | N.W.

March. 7. 1871—

To Charles Darwin— Esq. F.R.S.


At page 12 vol I of “The Descent of Man” this passage occurs. “Many kinds of monkeys have a strong taste for tea, coffee, and spirituous liquors: they will also, as I have myself seen, smoke tobacco with pleasure.”

I beg to submit the following facts to your notice, in preference to publishing them in any way as a comment upon the above extract from your work. You will be better able to judge of their value, or not, as the case may be, than the general public.

While in the Colony of Queensland some years ago, I kept as pets, at different times, three individuals of Phascolarctus cinereus,1 each of which manifested an inordinate love of tobacco and rum. I never in any case invited the desire: it appeared always to originate in their sense of smell. Thus, sitting on my shoulder, his usual place in the evening, Phascolarctus would reach forward and clutch my pipe, sucking the saturated wood or clay with avidity, and licking even the bowl regardless of heat: when denied this luxury he would sit and inhale the smoke with closed eyes, licking his lips the while, and appearing to be in a state of dreamy enjoyment. When the taste was once established he would seek out and chew every pipe he could find, thus imbibing an amount of oil, which, I confess, would have killed me. The three cases were substantially the same. And I have heard on reliable authority, of others.

It was the custom to have a glass of rum in the evening and each of these animals, by first licking the spoon probably, got a taste for the liquor after which it was impossible to prevent them from seizing upon any utensil containing it, and finally they were allotted a small quantity, neat as they preferred it, when they would retire to the rafters and sleep. Occasionally they would become excited and bite severely, their usual disposition being extremely mild, when under the influence of the spirit.

I have related the bald facts: if you think them important enough I shall be happy to answer any questions you may think proper to put.

Perhaps I may also mention that I saw one of these animals being reared on the teats of a cat, who took to it after the destruction of her kittens, and I believe it throve so far as eventually to take its natural food. However I could ascertain every fact of this case by applying to the friend at whose house I saw this singular case of adoption.

While in South America I had a horse with a strong penchant for tobacco, which he ate greedily—but, as I bought him from a native I cannot say how he acquired the habit.

With apologies for taking up so much of your valuable time.

I am, Sir. | yours obediently. | Arthur Nicols

CD annotations

2.1 I beg … public. 2.3] crossed blue crayon
6.1 Perhaps … adoption. 6.4] crossed ink
Top of letter: ‘I must first note that such tastes not confined to Quadrumana.’ ink | ‘Used’2 blue crayon, circled blue crayon


Phascolarctus cinereus (now Phascolarctos cinereus) is the koala.
CD added Nicols’s account to Descent 2d ed., p. 7 n. 6.


Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.


Referring to CD’s passage on monkeys’ acquiring taste for tea, coffee, and tobacco, AN tells of three monkeys he kept in Australia that developed strong taste for rum and smoking tobacco without being taught in any way [see Descent, 2d ed., p. 7 n.].

Letter details

Letter no.
Robert Arthur (Arthur) Nicols
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Mill Hill
Source of text
DAR 87: 19–20
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7553,” accessed on 7 December 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19