Charles Darwin. Manuscript letters to George Grey

1846-55

Charles Darwin. Manuscript letters to George Grey. Charles Darwin. Manuscript letters to George Grey

In 1846, during his first term as Governor of New Zealand, George Grey was surprised, on opening a parcel of books sent from London, to discover that the package also contained some correspondence between the great English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Darwin's friend and former shipmate aboard the HMS Beagle, John Lort Stokes. The chief topic of discussion was Grey himself - and the comments were not flattering. Some years earlier, Stokes and Grey had been embroiled in a dispute over the suitability of a stretch of West Australia for colonisation. One of the first Europeans to explore the area, Grey said yes, but Stokes, coming along afterwards as the official British surveyor, gave a very firm no and ridiculed Grey's opinion.

Rather than have the argument blow up again, Grey returned the letters he had found to Darwin with a politely querying note. Deeply embarrassed, describing himself as 'much mortified', Darwin replied on 10 November 1846, assuring Grey of his high opinion of him ('Your account of the aborigines I have always thought one of the most able ever written') and enclosing a message from Stokes, who promised to locate the 'mischief-maker' responsible for slipping the damaging correspondence into Grey's mail.

Grey's response has been lost, but it must have been warm and forgiving, for Darwin wrote again on 13 November 1847, praising his 'admirable spirit' and taking up Grey's invitation to comment, at some length, on interesting aspects of New Zealand's natural history. 'I have long ardently wished to hear of the exploration of the New Zealand caverns,' Darwin says, referring, in particular, to the limestone caves at Waiomio in the Bay of Islands, which he had visited in 1835 and thought likely to contain moa fossils. His letter also makes mention of 'erratic boulders' and the debate, current in the 1840s, whether these relocated rocks had been transported by glaciers or on icebergs. Although we tend to think of Darwin today primarily as a zoological theorist, he first made his reputation as a geologist.

Darwin sent another letter to Grey on 9 December 1855, by which stage Grey was Governor of the Cape Colony. The subject this time was pigeons. Darwin wanted to know if any of these birds, brought to the Cape by settlers in earlier centuries, had survived. He hoped that Grey might be able to send him some skins, so that he could compare African pigeons with their European equivalents. 'I have during many years been collecting all the facts and reasoning which I could, in regard to the variation and origin of species,' he tells Grey. It was not until 1859, however, that the most famous of Darwin's books, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, finally appeared.


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