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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Robert Swinhoe   29 July 1863

Oriental Club. | Hanover Square.

29 July, 1863.

My dear Sir,

I have just received your’s of yesterday, and am very sorry to hear that you are again suffering, and that I cannot have the pleasure of meeting you again before I leave.1 I trust however to see you at Newcastle.2 I shall not neglect to send you copies of all the papers I have published in England in connection with Natural History & Formosa,3 and if you are interested on Chinese topics, (which are normally distasteful to the British mind), I will present you with a copy of my work on the China war.4

You are doubtless aware of the cosimilarity of tendency to change of the Japanese as compared with the Chinese birds with the British birds as compared with those of the European continent. The causes are probably due to the influence on the respective atmospheres produced by the Gulf streams of the Pacific and the Atlantic. Whatever the causes the facts are pretty patent. The differences in plumage of several Japanese birds from allied forms on the main has been often noted, but the strongest in point is in the case of the Wagtails. You are acquainted with the instance of the Grey-backed Wagtail (Motacilla alba, L) in England acquiring a black back—the M. Yarellii Gould.5 In eastern Asia the same thing occurs in other forms of this group. The grey-backed wagtail of Eastern Siberia, Amoorland, and China, in Japan acquires a black back. The black-backed race was procured and noted by Pallas as a Kamtschatkan variety of M. albeola (Zoograph. Ross. Asiat. Vol I. p. 507),6 and has been wrongly referred by modern authors to M. lugubris of western Siberia. In Formosa however where the influence of the gulf stream is strongly felt in the prevalence of rainy weather, the grey-backed is the resident form; though in winter the black-back also occurs, as it does during that season on the China Coast. There is a marked distinction between the two birds, sufficient to distinguish them at first sight; but in my large series of specimens I have one undoubted grey-back with marks here & there of black on its back.

The Budytes group in the east are affected in a similar way to what prevails in Europe. In China, south of Shanghai, the Yellow Wagtail moults in summer into the plumage of typical B. flavas, L. North of Shanghai it adopts the plumage of B. cinereocapilla. In India & Siam that of B. melanocephala. In Japan that of B. rayi of Great Britain. In Formosa similar to B. rayi but with brown instead of yellow cheeks.— In Java & the Archipelago with black cheeks—B. melanotis. Thermally considered the lines of latitude coincide of the areas of the respective forms in the east & west.— Climate in these cases must therefore have something, if not all, to do with the cosimilarity of change. But there are many other like subjects, which will doubtless prove of interest to you have been considered at some length in the different papers I have written, & the shortest way therefore to communicate them to you will be to send you the papers, which I will not fail to do, as soon as they come to hand.

Meanwhile I remain, with hopes for your speedy recovery to health & strength. | Your’s ever truly, | Robert Swinhoe

P.S. I trust you will have no objection to send me a Photograph of yourself in return for mine which I now enclose.7 I would esteem it as a great favour. Kindly sign your name at the foot of the Carte. R S.

CD annotations

1.1 I have … Newcastle. 1.3] crossed pencil
5.1 P.S.... R S. 5.3] crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘Direct Action of Conditions very remarkable’ pencil


CD’s letter has not been found; however, see the letter from Robert Swinhoe, 14 April 1863 and n. 5.
In 1863, the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 26 August to 2 September (Report of the 33d meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, p. l). Swinhoe gave a paper at the meeting entitled ‘Ethnology of the island of Formosa’ (see Swinhoe [1863b] and [1863c]).
Swinhoe was an amateur naturalist who had served with the British Foreign Office in the Far East since 1854, latterly as Vice-Consul of Formosa (now called Taiwan). He returned to London on leave in September 1862, bringing with him a large collection of specimens. During his leave, he lectured widely on his collections, publishing many articles before his return to Formosa late in 1863 or early in 1864 (P. B. Hall 1987 and Royal Society catalogue of scientific papers). Swinhoe issued reprints of many of his papers in 1863; these were apparently circulated in two bound collections, copies of which are in the Darwin Library and Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL, and in the British Library (BLC). There are copies of Swinhoe [1863b–g], bound in a publisher’s case binding with the title on the spine ‘Formosa | R. Swinhoe’, in the Darwin Library–CUL; the volume is inscribed to CD, and is annotated (see Marginalia 1: 797). There are copies of Swinhoe [1863h–o], stitched into a single paper wrapper, in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL; the collection is inscribed to CD, and is annotated.
There is a presentation copy of Swinhoe 1861 in the Darwin Library–Down.
John Gould identified the British pied wagtail as a separate species, which he named Motacilla yarelli (Gould 1837); it is now regarded as a sub-species of the species found on the European continent, and is called Motacilla alba yarelli (Sibley and Monroe 1990–3).
The enclosure has not been found.


BLC: The British Library general catalogue of printed books to 1975. 360 vols. and supplement (6 vols.). London: Clive Bingley; K. G. Saur. 1979–88.

Hall, Philip B. 1987. Robert Swinhoe (1836–1877), FRS, FZS, FRGS: a Victorian naturalist in Treaty Port China. Geographical Journal 153: 37–47.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

Pallas, Pyotr Simon. 1811–31. Zoographia Rosso-Asiatica, sistens omnium animalium in extenso imperio Rossico et adjacentibus maribus observatorum recensionem, domicilia, mores et descriptiones, anatomen atque icones plurimorum. 3 vols. St Petersburg: Caes. Academiae Scientiarum Impress.

Royal Society catalogue of scientific papers: Catalogue of scientific papers (1800–1900). Compiled and published by the Royal Society of London. 19 vols. and index (3 vols.). London: Royal Society of London. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1867–1925.


Describes the similarity in plumage changes between Japanese and Chinese birds on the one hand and British and continental birds on the other. Suggests the changes are due to the warm gulf streams around both islands.

Letter details

Letter no.
Robert Swinhoe
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Oriental Club
Source of text
DAR 47: 176–7
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4257,” accessed on 30 November 2020,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11