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Darwin Correspondence Project

From E. B. de Fonblanque   2 April 1871

94, Piccadilly, | W.

April 2. 71.


In the course of studying your last works1 two instances of extraordinary sagacity on the part of animals which I had personaly witnessed were recalled to my recollection, and as they support your theory of the reasoning powers of the brute creation I beg to offer them for your information.

If worth quoting or repeating you are quite at liberty to give them upon my authority.

I remain Sir | Your faithful servant | Edward B de Fonblanque

C. Darwin Esq


In the year ’45 I was quartered in Toronto in Western Canada.2 The room I occupied overlooked a small court yard at the back of which was a guardhouse. The place being infested with rats the soldiers on guard were in the habit of setting large Iron Snap traps for catching this vermin & one day while sitting at my window I saw a small mongrel looking dog enter the yard & attracted by the smell of the toasted cheese approach the trap. He seemed puzzled & rather afraid of it, but after several inspections his greed overcame his prudence & making a grab at the tempting morsel the iron teeth of the trap closed upon his nose. He uttered the most dismal howls & the soldiers after enjoying his discomfiture for a little while released him & he bolted out of the yard with his tail between his legs in abject terror.—

To my surprise he returned within ten minutes. His nose was swollen which ga〈ve〉 him a ludicrous expression, but he had quite recovered from his fear & by his gestures betrayed the highest spirits as he stood wagging his tail & looking out into the road evidently inviting some by me unseen friend to enter.— By & bye a large burly dog trotted into the yard. The little fellow seemed delighted to see him & dancing around led him up to the trap which had been re-set.— the new comer no sooner sniffed the bait that he made a rush at it; the trap closed upon his snout & while he stood howling in agony & endeavouring to shake it off the little dog once more put his tail between his legs & ran off at full speed.—

On enquiry I ascertained that the big dog belonged to a public house in the neighbourhood & the little cur to a cobbler not far off. While accompanying his master to the taproom some days ago the small dog had been attacked & severely punished by the big one & the publican when I told him what had occurred burst into 〈a〉 roar of laughter “to think that knowing 〈lit〉tle brute had paid off old scores in that way”

There is no room to doubt that the dog brooding over his wrongs & feeling his impotence for open vengeance had by persuasion led his enemy to the trap & inflicted upon him the torture which but a few minutes before he had himself suffered.— The reasoning procees required to carry out his plan of revenge was complete & among the many instances of what is called Canine instinct I know of none which argues in a greater degree the possession by the dog of the power often denied to animals of entertaining sentiments & connecting ideas.—

Two or three years ago I saw an elephant belonging to the Board of Works in Ceylon3 being operated upon for ulcers on his legs. The operation consisted in repeatedly running a red hot iron, the size of a small poker into the wound. The animal evidently suffered excruciating pains but as evidently knew that its tormenter was acting for its good; had it thought otherwise it would have turned and trampled him to death. It was very touching to see how between each interval of the application of the Iron the poor animal rolled its head backward & forward with a grateful 〈trum〉pet of relief & then on a given signal raised its poor foot for a fresh infliction of pain.

No animal is more quick to resent an injury, or even an insult than the Elephant; and a judicious keeper knows well how far he can venture upon teazing, or playing tricks with his charge; yet in this case the keeper had no fear of causing great pain & this could only arise from his confidence in the extraordinary sagacity of the Animal under his treatment.

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘(Answered)’4pencil


Fonblanque was stationed in Canada as deputy assistant commissary general from 1842 to 1849 (Hart’s army list).
Ceylon is now Sri Lanka.
CD’s reply has not been found.


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

Hart’s army list: The new annual army list … with an index. Compiled by H. G. Hart. London: John Murray. 1840–1900.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Encloses notes that illustrate apparent intelligent reasoning by a dog which tricked an adversary, and by an elephant peaceably enduring a painful operation.

Letter details

Letter no.
Edward Barrington de Fonblanque
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Naval and Military Club
Source of text
DAR 162: 140
Physical description
3pp, encl 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7653,” accessed on 4 December 2020,

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