RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1968. [Letter to P. E. de Strzelecki, 1845]. In Lech Paszkowski, Darwin and Strzelecki's book "Physical description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's land". Australian Zoologist 14(3): 246-50.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 5.2022. RN1

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here.

"Strzelecki, Sir Paul (Paweł) Edmund de, 1797-1873. Polish explorer and geologist. Titled Count from his Polish ancestry. 1839-43 Travelled extensively in Australia. 1845 British subject. 1853 FRS. 1856 CD to Hooker, S was on election committee of Athenaeum, and CD proposed to speak to him about election of Huxley. CCD6:103 (misspelt "Strezlecki"). 1869 CMG." (Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion, 2021)

For important editorial notes on Darwin's letter, see Correspondence vol. 3, pp. 195-6.

Also includes Darwin's marginalia in his gift copy of Strzelecki's Physical description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land (1845).

This Darwin letter was first published in facsimile form in Waclaw Slabczynski, 1958. Nieznany list Darwina. Kosmos, ser. A, Biologia, Bok 7, Zeszyt 4 (33): 380-3.

[page] 246


By Lech Paszkowski

Readers of the Australian Zoologist do not need any introduction to Charles Darwin. His fine, honest, observing and modest mind of true scientific greatness has influenced not only the Natural Sciences but also human thought in general. One could expect that Darwin's biographers would have combed and recombed all the libraries of the world and to have published all his precious manuscripts. But even so, from time to time, some material is still found.

An unknown letter by Charles Darwin was found in 1957, and what is more interesting, its contents refer to the book about Australia, Physical Description of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land by Paul Edmund de Strzelecki.

The letter was found at the Yale University Library during a search made at the request of Mr. Waclaw Slabczyński, a Librarian at the National Library of Warsaw, and an eminent biographer of Sir Paul Strzelecki. Slabczyński devoted a decade to his well-documented biography* recording material and documents held in no less than two hundred libraries and institutions from all over the world. He rightly suspected that there had been some personal contacts between these two scientists. Firstly, Strzelecki's book was illustrated with some fossils borrowed from Darwin's collection (four specimens) and secondly, Darwin, in his Journal of Researches into Natural History and Geology of the Countries visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the World…, London, 1870, quoted Strzelecki (p. 448).

The Letter by Charles Darwin

Darwin's letter consisting of three octavo pages was written at Down, Bromley, Kent in the middle of 1845, and was in the form of an acknowledgement for a copy of Strzelecki's book. It reads as follows:

Down Bromley Kent


My dear Sir

I received a few days since your kind & valuable present. I am exceedingly obliged to you for it, though I feel that I have no claim on so magnificent a present.

I congratulate you on having completed a work which must have cost you so much labour & I am astonished at the number of deep subjects which you discuss. I must be permitted to express my sorrow that there are not far more copious extracts from 'M.S. Journal'. I hope some day to see it fully published.—You speak of your unidiomatic English; I heartily wish that one quarter of our English authors could think & write in language one half as spirited yet so simple. Once again allow me to thank you very sincerely & believe me dear Sir

Yours very faithfully

C. Darwin

You were so good when I last saw you as to say that you would take trouble of informing me (as a guide for myself) what you paid for the engraving of the shells alone. The plates appear to me admirable.

* Pawel Edmund Strzelecki. Podróze—Odkrycia—Prace (Paul Edmund Strzelecki. Voyages—Explorations—Works), Warsaw, 1957.

[page] 247

In the first instance Darwin referred to "the number of deep subjects" which he found in the book. What, then, are these "deep subjects" which "astonished" the great scientist. Certainly the climbing of Mt. Kosciusko was not the issue impressing Darwin, but perhaps it was Strzelecki's philosophical reflections on humanity, the beauty of nature, the conquest of free people, slavery, change of nationality, difficulty in learning English, the lot of Aborigines, the behaviour of so-called savages, projects for the improvement of Australian agriculture and the irrigation of New South Wales.

"Mon Journal" and Strzelecki's Literary Style

Many of these reflections were given in the footnotes to Strzelecki's book and taken from his "Mon Journal" written in French. Darwin expressed his regret that only a few pages of the "Journal" were included and hoped that this work would be published one day. […]

The next important fact in the letter is Darwin's remarkable praise for Strzelecki's literary style. As Hume Dow in his excellent Selection of English Prose, Science Speaks (Cheshire, Melbourne, 1966, 3rd Edition), pointed out to the students of English, "Darwin had a feeling for words and exercised care in the way he used them. However, his comments on writing are rare" (p. 87).

From the postscript we can perceive that the two scientists met from time to time and assisted each other in the field of Natural History.


[page] 249


Little Boys' Dreams

It is interesting to note, in passing that, as little boys, both Darwin and Strzelecki liked to draw the attention of their elders to their actions. This "showing off" was quite normal and a healthy indication of the future intelligence and individuality of both boys. While Darwin was stealing apples, or pretending to do so, and running away fast in order to arouse the admiration of adults, Strzelecki charmed his family and servants with very talented declamation and composition of speeches and sermons. In both cases the boys made a success of their lives.

[page] 250

Darwin's Remarks

In 1958, W. Slabczyński traced the original copy of Physical Description presented by Strzelecki to Darwin. At present, the book is held in the Library of the Botany School, Cambridge University. It bears Strzelecki's autographed dedication:

"To Charles Darwin Esqr M.A. from the author 19th of May." and the ex-libris of Sir Francis Darwin, who received his father's book collection. Subsequently Sir Francis offered the copy, along with many other of his father's books, to the University of Cambridge.

At the end of the afore-mentioned copy there are inscriptions in pencil, which, according to the opinion of Mr. Alexander Watt, the Librarian at the Botany School, Cambridge, were most probably made by Charles Darwin himself. The inscriptions are as follow:

"So that animals cannot have pressed [sic. passed?] from one island to another, recently"

"143—Van Diemen's long an island for coast elevated 100 ft"

"254—Proteaceous leaf Bulinus & Helix"

"296—Van Diemen Carboniferous Series—Morris (?)"

"p. 302 Diprotodon Marsupial. Pachyderm Fossil to 312 (not important)"

"347—Sterility of one race of mankind with another"

"p. 352 Number of natives Van Diemens Land."

Slabczyński twice published photographs of Darwin's letter: the first time being in the Polish scientific periodical Kosmos A (Warsaw), vol. VII, 1958, part 4, pp. 379-383 and the second time in a book under his editorship P. E. Strzelecki—Pisma wybrane (Selected Writings of P. E. Strzelecki), Warsaw 1960, Scientific Publishers. The latter volume was reviewed, mentioning Darwin's letter, in The Australian Geographer (March, 1962) and also in the English and German periodicals: The Times Literary Supplement (29.12.1961), The Geographical Journal (London, vol. CXXVTII, part 4, pp. 557-558) and Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 1962, part 2, p. 119.


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