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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Ferdinand von Mueller   16 June 1874



When lately issuing a supplement to my “timber-trees” and “other industrial plants”, dear Mr Darwin, I came across the Ribes Magellanicum and remained doubtful, whether it ought to be included in my “additions”.1 Will you kindly inform me, whether it is a species deserving cultivation.2 I wish to prepare a second supplement, and perhaps you may remember other plants of utilitarian importance yet to be cultivated, without taxing your precious time.—3

As I have occasion to write to you I cannot refrain from remarking, that Mr Edw Wilson, Mr. McKinnon & Mr Spowers must not be aware of the ruin of my Department, mainly due to the cruel and unjust persecution of their two papers after their departure for England.4 I cannot think that they would have allowed me thus to be ruined, had they not been misled concerning the changes made in my position.5

All that is left me for working my whole Department with all its responsible daily multifarious duties is £300, which would not even suffice to rent the buildings required for the service in this expensive country, only one room (without fire place) and overcrowed with collections being left me! Altho’ I have spent again my whole modest salary to carry on some part of the service through this year, I was unable to maintain the field branch, nor the laboratory branch, nor the greater part of the required interchanges, nor the lithographic work. Indeed the Observatory receives 10 times as much for working expenses than my Department, not to speak of buildings provided.6 Last week a commencement was made to break even down my laboratory. Imagine Dr. Hooker as Gov. Botanist of England out of Kew and performing the duties out of his salary, leaving his family & old age unprovided.7 What a poor triumph of the proprietors of the Argus, who are well aware that with the scanty means granted noone could have done more for the bot Garden than I did.

Yrs faithfully | Ferd. von Mueller

It is strange, that not one of all the men of science of England has taken the slightest notice of my having left no me⁠⟨⁠a⁠⟩⁠ns beyond £300 to work the important duties of my Department.8


In his ‘Select plants (exclusive of timber trees) readily eligible for Victorian industrial culture’, a paper written for the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, of which he was vice-president, Mueller had included several species of Ribes (currant; Mueller 1872, pp. 369–70). In 1871, Mueller had produced a similar report on timber trees for the society (Mueller 1871). Ribes magellanicum (Magellanic currant) is native to Tierra del Fuego; CD had collected a specimen between 27 and 29 December 1832 while on the Beagle voyage (see Porter 1999, pp. 184–5). The first supplement to the lists appeared in 1874 (Mueller 1874), but it did not include Ribes magellanicum.
In his Beagle notes on plants of Tierra del Fuego, made in January 1833, CD mentioned the ‘black currants tree’, along with some other plants, as ‘the most useful plants in the country’ (see D. M. Porter 1999, p. 184).
The second supplement was published in 1875 but Ribes magellanicum was not added to the list (Mueller 1875).
Edward Wilson, Lauchlan Mackinnon, and Allan Spowers were proprietors of the Argus, a Melbourne daily newspaper. Wilson also founded the Acclimatisation Society as an offshoot of the Victorian Zoological Society in 1861, but returned to England in 1864 and eventually settled near Bromley, Kent, where he was acquainted with the Darwins. Wilson’s partners, Mackinnon and Spowers, changed the paper’s stance from a radical to a conservative position (Aust. dict. biog., s.v. Wilson, Edward; Mackinnon, Lauchlan). No other newspaper was owned or operated by the partners; Mueller may have intended to write ‘the persecution by the paper of those two’ with reference to the two senior partners, Wilson and Mackinnon. For the effect the paper had on Mueller’s department, see n. 5, below.
Mueller’s position as director of the Melbourne Botanic Garden had disappeared in 1873, when the government changed the status of the garden from a distinct department to a subordinate part of Government House and appointed a curator to take charge of it. Mueller’s approach to the garden as a centre for scientific inquiry along with his policy of supplying seeds free of charge had been vigorously opposed by horticulturists and nurserymen. In December 1871, when a Board of Inquiry produced a report highly critical of Mueller, the Argus published it in full and applauded the board’s conclusions. The paper accused Mueller of attempting to manipulate the press and suggested his antagonists were phantoms of his imagination. When Wilson was still in Australia, the paper had supported Mueller. (For a detailed account of the loss of the directorship, including the role played by the Argus, see H. Cohn and Maroske 1996.)
Mueller had retained his position as government botanist of Victoria and had exclusive use of the Botanical Museum but no funding beyond his personal salary (see H. Cohn and Maroske 1996, pp. 104–5).
Joseph Dalton Hooker had been under similar pressure from government over the running of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew when Acton Smee Ayrton, commissioner of the Office of Works, attempted to undermine his position by separating botanical and horticultural responsibilities (see Correspondence vols. 19 and 20; see also Drayton 2000, pp. 211–20, and Endersby 2008, pp. 282–300).
Hooker had written to Mueller about his situation, advising him to hire a horticulturist to do the ‘ornamental and practical gardening’ (letter from J. D. Hooker to Ferdinand Mueller, 15 January 1873; quoted in Powell 1977, p. 317), but his advice came too late to be of any use.


Aust. dict. biog.: Australian dictionary of biography. Edited by Douglas Pike et al. 14 vols. [Melbourne]: Melbourne University Press. London and New York: Cambridge University Press. 1966–96.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Drayton, Richard. 2000. Nature’s government: science, imperial Britain, and the ‘improvement’ of the world. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Endersby, Jim. 2008. Imperial nature: Joseph Hooker and the practices of Victorian science. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Mueller, Ferdinand von. 1871. The principal timber trees readily eligible for Victorian industrial culture, with indications of their native countries and some of their technologic uses. Report of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria (1871): 29–58.

Mueller, Ferdinand von. 1872. Select plants (exclusive of timber trees) readily eligible for Victorian industrial culture, with indications of their native countries and some of their uses. Proceedings of the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria 1: 249–422.

Mueller, Ferdinand von. 1874. Additions to the lists of the principal timber trees and other select plants, readily eligible for Victorian industrial culture. Melbourne: Stillwell.

Mueller, Ferdinand von. 1875. Second supplement to the select plants, readily eligible for Victorian industrial culture. Proceedings of the Zoological and Acclimatisation Society of Victoria 4: 45–56.

Porter, Duncan M. 1999. Charles Darwin’s Chilean plant collections. Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 72: 181–200.

Powell, J. M. 1977. Exiled from the garden: von Mueller’s correspondence with Kew, 1871–81. Victorian Historical Journal 48: 312–20.


Wants information from CD for a revision of the supplement of his work on timber trees and other industrial plants [Proc. Zool. & Acclim. Soc. Victoria 3 (1874): 47–95].

Reports the ruin of his department thanks to two papers by Edward Wilson, McKinnon, and Sparrow.

Letter details

Letter no.
Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich (Ferdinand) von Mueller
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Melbourne, Victoria
Source of text
DAR 171: 283
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9494,” accessed on 7 October 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22