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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. M. Moorsom   28 October 1877

Ewell | Surrey

Oct 28/77

Dear Sir,

A few weeks ago I wrote to you from Whitehaven & related a story about elephants getting drunk.1

Yesterday I happened to fall in with the book in wh: I read the story originally— I have copied out the passage, & enclose it— The title of the book is

The Large Game, and Natural History of South & South East Africa from the Journals of the Hon: W. H. Drummond.

Edinbro’ Edmonston & Douglas 1875—”2

In the Preface the writer says his experiences extended over 5 years ending in 1872 “during which time to all intents & purposes I lived amongst the natives & the game”3

“About Natural History as a Science I know little or nothing— I have been careful to exclude everything but what has come within my personal knowledge—”4

If this be true, Mr. Drummond has himself seen the elephants in a state of intoxication, but the wording of the passage itself is a little hazy—

I suppose the fruit of the “umganu tree” contains alcohol when ripe or when decaying?5

I must apologize for troubling you with this story but it may be interesting to you, if it is to be relied on; & if not to be relied on, it is well that the mistake or inaccuracy should be made clear—

Yours faithfully | W M Moorsom

Chas: Darwin Esqr. F.R.S.


“Even in Zululand there is but one spot where they (elephants) still exist. They frequent the country from the Pongolo northward, during the summer season, retiring to their fastnesses in the interior at the approach of winter— The general time of their arrival is simultaneous with the ripening of the fruit of the umganu tree, of which they are passionately fond & doubtless come in search of— This fruit is capable of being made into a strong intoxicating drink & the elephants after eating it become quite tipsy, staggering about, playing huge antics, screaming so as to be heard miles off & not seldom having tremendous fights.—

Native hunters fear to approach them when in this state, but on the principle that it is safer to quarrel with a drunken man than a sober one, I consider that so long as you possess sufficient nerve not to become flustered by their trumpeting or by the exhibitions of strength displayed upon the trees & upon one another, you have far more chance at such a time of killing several as they are not so likely to take to flight at the first shot & perhaps make their next halt 30 miles off.”


Drummond had described intoxicated elephants in Drummond 1875, pp. 213–14, a section of which is copied in the enclosure to this letter. He attributed their state to the consumption of the fruit of the Southern African umganu or marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea). The fruit can be used to produce an alcoholic liqueur, but it is thought unlikely that the fermented fruit could make elephants drunk (Morris et al. 2006).


Drummond, William Henry. 1875. The large game and natural history of South and South-East Africa. From the journals of the Hon. W. H. Drummond. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.


Sends extract reporting elephants that get drunk on a plant.

Letter details

Letter no.
Warren Maude Moorsom
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 171: 236
Physical description
ALS 2pp, encl 1p

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11214,” accessed on 8 February 2023,