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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. W. Reade   4 June 1870

cre His Excellency | The Administrator | Lagos

June 4th. ’70

My dear Sir

I put my future address above but do not start from here (Accra) till tomorrow. I came down from the hills yesterday—1

The other day I took a trip with a German missionary to have a look at the Volta, wh. is the largest river on the Gold Coast; on taking our lunch out of a newspaper the word Darwinismus caught my eye. I found it was an article on a work justifying your theory as regards scripture much in the style of Asa Gray’s article. The work was I think by a Dr. Jäger.2 But you have doubtless many correspondents in Germany who keep you au courant with the Darwinian controversy in that country.

After a series of very cautious inquiries I am able to assert that the negro’s idea of beauty is the same as ours, & not exactly opposite as so many have supposed— I hope to give you details shd you require them when I return.—3 They admire a black skin more than the lighter varieties (I do not mean European mixtures but pure native) which are so common here & almost everywhere.4 But the Jollofs are I think without exception of a bottle blackness.— I formerly ascribed this blackness to the fact that they lived in the hottest part of Western Africa; on the Senegal which borders on the Sahara; of course the Sahara itself is hotter: but I was supposing that the greatest amount of heat with moisture produced the black skin. Since the black skin is a beauty, however, it is possible that the Jollofs in their process of selection, rogued out the reds & yellows.5 But I have since met with other jet-black tribes. They inhabit a country which is swampy & moist in the rainy season, and febrile: intensely hot in the day. Dr. Wells’ idea is I believe possible; although the immunity of the negroes from coast fever is by no means so complete as is usually supposed.6

Respecting the thick scull. Children a few days after birth are put behind their mothers’ backs & exposed bare-headed to the sun. The mortality is great. Would not the children with thick sculls be selected and so on according to your theory? Then the udder-like breast was I think originally produced by long periods of suckling (usually 3 years) & this once established, the peculiar feature would I imagine appear in young women at the suckling period even if they had not suckled— The capacity of cows & goats to give more & more milk as the udder is systematically teased is curious: by milking the goats twice a day instead of only once the quantity is much increased. Among instances of habit you may have noticed the goats’ love for any stone log of wood or hillock on wh. he can stand however little it may be above the level.

I have found stone implements here. My attention was called to their existence by a German missionary who said he had sent some to the mission house at Basle but had heard nothing concerning them. I send them by this mail to the cre. of Mr. Swanzy 122 Cannon St City. This is his expedition. I write to apprise Huxley D. Forbes Bates &c. of the fact.7 I hope it will be an addition to existing facts on the Stone Age but am not sufficiently up in the science to know much about that.

The negroes are also fond of pigeons. I met with them in the house of a chief who lived interior of Sa. Leone8 beyond the Niger, almost at the boundaries of the S. Leone trade. The travellers who come down to S. Leone often buy English fowls to take home to breed from. At Falaba I noticed a horse wh. was decidedly above the average. said so to the King who replied that the master of the horse was noted among them for his skill in breeding horses.9 This I think illustrates yr statement chapter 1. p. 36 (edit of ’66)10 No people cd be more pure of European influences than they are. The poverty of the Africans generally prevents them from doing much in the way of rejecting & selecting.

The more I see & hear of these people; the more I am convinced that they are acquainted with the principles of breeding. A West Indian emigrated to Akropong where I have be〈en〉 staying: the natives after examining her toe〈s〉 said that she came from their country & this was partly corroborated by her recollections of the circumstances of her sale & export. This story may be laughed at; but no people cd even make such an assertion or dream of making it unless they were in the habit of closely studying race or rather tribe peculiarities   The girls of Croboe near Akropong have a reputation for strength & beauty; when for a certain offence against the laws of their country they are banished, the Akropong people are delighted to get them to breed from.

I lately read a learned article by Ehrenberg on earth eating in this country.11 As far as my investigations go, the earths in question are argillaceous with a pleasant odour & are used by young people as a kind of sweetmeat, & by others as a medicine. But the idea of using earth as a food has not entered their heads here at all events. He also writes about the famous red sand of the Cape de Verdes.12 Certainly there is abundance of red soil from Sa. Leone downwards more than he supposes but would it not require a desert of red sand 〈to〉 send off such quantities? There is one desert not yet visited; probably a small one: behind Ashanti, & just where geographers usually place the mythical Kong Mountains.13

The astonishment expression of the hand to the mouth is also expressed in words in Croboe. The man who uses this gesture will say “my mouth cleaves to me” (ie to my hand).14 I hope to be home now in a few months, so any other point of inquiry you must please notify in your next, which 〈wi〉ll probably come to hand on my return from the Niger15

I remain | My dear Sir | yours very truly | Winwood Reade

CD annotations

1.1 I put … country. 2.6] crossed blue crayon
3.1 After … blackness.— 3.6] crossed pencil
3.3 I hope … everywhere. 3.5] scored blue crayon
3.6 I formerly … level. 4.10] crossed blue crayon
6.4 At Falaba] opening square bracket red crayon
6.5 King … country 7.4] scored blue crayon
6.5 the master] ‘owner’ added red crayon
6.5 of the horse] del red crayon
6.5 was noted … horses. 6.6] enclosed in quotation marks red crayon
6.6 among them] del red crayon
6.7 pure of European influences] underl red crayon
7.4 & this … Mountains. 8.9] crossed blue crayon
9.1 The … Niger 9.5] scored blue crayon; crossed pencil

CD note:16

‘p. 1. idea of Beauty’ ink; del pencil; ‘2’ added; ‘The immunity of negros p. 2. from fever not so great as supposed.’ ink, enclosed in braces ink, crossed pencil; ‘Celts S. Africa & Egypt’ ink del ink; ‘(Dom. Animals.— p. 3 Principles of Breeding by savages’17 ink; ‘p. 4. Expression of Astonishment.’ ink del ink; ‘about some negroes at Fal [interl] who had never [above ‘not’] [3 words illeg] red crayon; ‘W. Winwood Reade’ ink; ‘Selection by Savages’ pencil; ‘who had never seen [below del ‘seen men of’] Europeans’ pencil


Reade had been staying at a missionary station at Akropong (see letter from W. W. Reade, [c. 8 or 9 April 1870] and n. 11).
The German missionary has not been identified. The article in the newspaper was presumably a review of Gustav Jäger’s Die Darwin’sche Theorie und ihre Stellung zur Moral und Religion (Jäger [1869]). See also the letter to Gustav Jäger, 17 February 1870. Reade also refers to Gray’s pamphlet, Natural selection not inconsistent with natural theology (A. Gray 1861). For more on Gray’s pamphlet, see Correspondence vol. 9, Appendix III.
CD had asked Reade to observe what style of beauty was admired by natives in his letter of 21 May [1868] (Correspondence vol. 16). CD reported Reade’s views in Descent 2: 350.
CD reported this observation in Descent 2: 346.
The Wolof people (also spelled Ouolof) now live primarily in Senegal, Gambia, and Mauritania (Appiah and Gates eds. 2005, 5: 430). On the Wolof’s ‘process of selection’, see Correspondence vol. 17, letter from W. W. Reade, 26 December 1869 and n. 7.
Reade refers to William Charles Wells and Wells 1818. CD discussed the idea of Wells, and others, that darker skinned peoples were immune to various fevers, poisons, and parasites in Descent 1: 242–6. ‘Coast fever’ is not the cattle disease (East Coast fever), but the illness or illnesses described by CD in Descent 1: 243 as ‘the fatal intermittent fevers that prevail along, at least, 2600 miles of the shores of Africa, and which annually cause one-fifth of the white settlers to die, and another fifth to return home invalided’.
Reade described and provided a woodcut of some of the stone tools in Reade 1873, 2: 167–9. Andrew Swanzy, the London-based merchant who sponsored Reade’s 1868 and 1869 expeditions into the Niger region, gave them to the Christy Collection (Reade 1873, 2: 168 n. 1, 352–3). Reade also refers to Thomas Henry Huxley, David Forbes, and Henry Walter Bates. John Lubbock described these and other finds in Lubbock 1870b; according to his account, the implements, mostly axes, were found at Akropong and Aburi on the Gold Coast (now in Ghana) and at Odumassie on the Volta (Lubbock 1870b, p. xciv). Odumassie was in the region of modern-day Akuse, Ghana.
Sierra Leone.
The King of Falaba was Manga Sewa. CD cited Reade for this story in Variation 2d ed., 2: 191.
In Origin 4th ed., p. 36, CD discussed ‘unconscious selection’, which he said resulted from ‘every one trying to possess and breed from the best individual animals’.
Reade refers to Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg and Ehrenberg 1868.
Cape Verde is an archipelago off the coast of West Africa. See Ehrenberg 1868, p. 20.
On the mythical Kong mountains, see Bassett and Porter 1991.
CD cited Reade for this information in Expression, p. 289. The expression of astonishment was the first asked about in CD’s list of queries about expression, which he had sent to Reade with his letter of 21 May [1868] (see Correspondence vol. 16).
Reade did not make another expedition to the Niger; in Reade 1873, 2: 509, he explains, ‘commercial jealousy prevented me from obtaining a passage, and my work was therefore left in some degree incomplete’.
The notes are on a slip of paper that was filed with the letter in the archive. The page numbers are references to the pages of Reade’s letter.
In Descent 2: 358, CD commented, ‘negroes fully appreciate the importance of selection in the breeding of their domestic animals, and I could give from Mr. Reade additional evidence on this head.’ See also n. 9, above.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

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

Ehrenberg, Christian Gottfried. 1868. Über die rothen Erden als Speise der Guinea-Neger. [Read 14 May 1868.] Abhandlungen der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin (Physikalische Abhandlungen) (1868): 1–55.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Jäger, Gustav. [1869.] Die Darwin’sche Theorie und ihre Stellung zur Moral und Religion. Stuttgart: Julius Hoffman.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

Reade, William Winwood. 1873. The African sketch-book. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.

Variation 2d ed.: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1875.

Wells, William Charles. 1818. Two essays: one upon single vision with two eyes; the other on dew. A letter to the Right Hon. Lloyd, Lord Kenyon and an account of a female of the white race of mankind, part of whose skin resembles that of a negro; with some observations on the causes of the differences in colour and form between the white and negro races of men. London: Archibald Constable and Co. [and others].


The Negro’s idea of beauty is the same as white man’s.

Believes the Jollops select for blackness.

Native immunity from coast fever is not complete.

Has found stone instruments.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 38
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7216,” accessed on 12 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18