skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From C. V. Smith   [1879]1

South West Pacific

Niua-fu or Good Hope Island which I presume to be the same as that Onouafu in “Coral Reefs” is entirely volcanic and has no reef whatever.2 The shores are steep to. There is a salt water lake about 6 miles in circumference connected with the sea by a very narrow stream. The island is about 500 feet high. There are several craters and I was informed that some had very recently been in a state of activity. (June 1872)

Wallis Island is encircled. There are 11 islands, 7 of which are on the outer reef. Its native name is Uea3

Horn Islands comprising Fotuna and Alofa each have a distinct fringing reef. Fotuna is about 2500 feet and Alofa 1200 feet high.4 I can give you no information regarding the depth of water except that there is a deep ship channel between the islands no soundings being obtainable with the hand line. The channel is barely a mile broad.

Mitchell Island to the south of the Ellice Group is a very low atoll with about 10 small islands on the reef.5 We were unable to discover any entrance into the lagoon

Grand Cocal was searched for in vain by HMS Basilisk and as all the local traders deny its existence, I cannot think it exists. It has long been marked doubtful on the Admiralty charts and the description leads me to suppose the island reported to have been St. Augustine6

Sapona or Edgecumbe Island (Otooboa of Dillon”) has a barrier reef with a four fathom channel through it which leads into a harbour in the island itself.7 There is also deep but uneven water generally inside the reef

Espiritu Santo and the Banks’ Islands have reefs of the fringing kind as also have all the New Hebrides & Torres Groups.8

Indian Ocean

St. Jean de Nova or Farquhar Islands is an undoubted atoll with 4 large & several smaller islands.9 There is a channel into the lagoon at the N.W. side between the largest island and the Western reef. A coral bank of considerable extent stretches off the southern end of the atoll with 5 fathoms of water on it.

Aldabra is undoubtedly an upheaved atoll. The account in Horsburgh is very misleading as neither the red cliffs nor high forests were to be found.10 It is entirely composed of coral rock with a fine growth of mangroves enclosing an extensive but shallow lagoon. There is a narrow riband of 9 fathoms water running 3 miles into the lagoon from the N.W. corner.

Great Comoro is volcanic and about 8600 feet high.11 There is a little fringing reef on the North & S.E. sides

The above islands were surveyed by H.M.S. Fawn last year on an inch scale so that doubtless charts of them will shortly be published by the Admiralty.12

The East Coast of Africa South of Mombas has a fringing reef and is itself composed of coral rock.13 From Wasin to Punganis however there is a barrier of large coral reefs from 2 to 5 miles off shore with a deep channel inside having sometimes as great a depth as 20 fathoms. An Admiralty chart of Tanga Harbour and its approaches has recently been published by the Admiralty which will give a good general idea of the coast in that district.14

Chas V Smith | Lieut: HMS. Fawn

CD annotations

Verso of last page: tick blue crayon


The year is established by the references to the surveying voyage of HMS Fawn and the publication of the resulting charts; see n. 12, below.
See Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 211; CD had described Onouafu, or Proby Island, as one of the islands of which he could find no distinct account. Niuafo’ou is the most northerly island in the kingdom of Tonga (formerly the Friendly Islands); it is a volcanic-rim island.
See Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 211. Wallis Island is surrounded by a barrier reef.
In Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 211, CD had referred to Alloufatou, or Horn island, as one of the islands of which he could find no distinct account. Futuna and Alofi, the Hoorn Islands, are remnants of an extinct volcano.
Ellice Islands: Tuvalu. Mitchell Island: Nukulaelae. Nukulaelae is now part of the nation of Tuvalu.
CD mentioned Gran Cocal, relying on Adam Johann von Krusenstern’s account, in Coral reefs 2d ed., pp. 212–13. Smith was midshipman and then acting sublieutenant on HMS Basilisk, based at Australia, between 1872 and 1874 (Navy list). On the identity of Gran Cocal, as originally discovered by Europeans, with Niutao, Tuvalu, and the subsequent confusion over what the name referred to, see K. Chambers and Munro 1980. In 1872, the officers of the Basilisk searched for Gran Cocal north of Nanumanga, Tuvalu; when they failed to find it, the suggestion arose that the island had been confused with a reported shoal in the area between Nanumanga and Nanumea (St Augustine), Tuvalu (ibid., p. 189).
CD mentioned ‘Toupoua (Otooboa of Dillon)’, one of the Santa Cruz islands, in Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 216. Peter Dillon explored the Santa Cruz islands in 1828 and 1829. Otooboa is now Utupua.
In Coral reefs 2d ed., pp. 215–16, CD wrote that the island of Espiritu Santo, and Banks Islands, had no reefs; in ibid., p. 214, he wrote that the New Hebrides had fringing reefs. Banks Islands and the Torres Islands are in the northern part of Vanuatu; the central and south part of Vanuatu was formerly known as the New Hebrides. Espiritu Santo was the largest island of the New Hebrides.
See Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 246. The Farquhar Atoll is in the outer islands of the Seychelles.
CD cited James Horsburgh’s India directory, or directions for sailing to and from the East Indies, etc. (Horsburgh 1836, 1: 176), for Aldabra in Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 244, and speculated that it might be an upheaved atoll, or the crater of a volcano. Aldabra is in the outer islands of the Seychelles.
CD mentioned Great Comoro Island (Grande Comore) in Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 245.
Smith was lieutenant on the surveying vessel HMS Fawn. The charts (Indian Ocean islands off the North Coast of Madagascar surveyed by Commander WJL Wharton and the officers of HMS Fawn 1878: G252:1/2) are at the Royal Museums, Greenwich; they were drawn up in 1879. Wharton completed the survey in August 1878 (see Correspondence vol. 1878, letter from W. J. L. Wharton, 14 August 1878).
Mombas: Mombasa, Kenya. See Coral reefs 2d ed., p. 248. Wasin: Wasini Island, now in Kenya. Punganis: Pangani, now in Tanzania.
Tanga is now in Tanzania. Admiralty chart 663, Mansa and Tanga bays, is held at the National Archives, Kew; it was made in 1878 (Catalogue of Admiralty charts, plans, and sailing directions 1898, p. 136).


Catalogue of Admiralty charts, plans, and sailing directions, 1898. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. 1898.

Chambers, Keith S. and Munro, Doug. 1980. The ‘mystery’ of Gran Cocal: European discovery and mis-discovery in Tuvalu. Journal of the Polynesian Society 89: 167–98.

Horsburgh, James. 1836. India directory: or, directions for sailing to and from the East Indies, China, Australia, Cape of Good Hope, Brazil, and the interjacent ports. 4th edition. 2 vols. London: W. H. Allen and Co.


Notes on reefs in the SW Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Valentine Smith
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 69: A61–2
Physical description
AmemS 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8131,” accessed on 20 March 2023,