How Charles Darwin received Wallace's Ternate paper 15 days earlier than he claimed: a comment on van Wyhe and Rookmaaker (2012)




Van Wyhe and Rookmaaker (2012) postulate a set of events to support their claim that Wallace's ‘evolution’ letter, posted at Ternate in the Moluccas in the spring of 1858, arrived at Darwin's home on 18 June 1858. If their claim were to be proven, then evidence that Darwin probably received Wallace's letter 2 weeks earlier than he ever admitted would clearly be erroneous, and any charges that he plagiarized the ideas of Wallace from that letter would be shown to be wrong. Here, evidence against this interpretation is presented and it is argued that the letter did indeed arrive in the port of Southampton on 2 June 1858 and would have been at Darwin's home near London the following day. If this were true, then the 66 new pages of material on aspects of Divergence that Darwin entered into his ‘big’ species book in the weeks before admitting he had received the letter could be interpreted as an attempt to present Wallace's ideas as his own. © 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 105, 472–477.

Van Wyhe & Rookmaaker (2012) present a set of historical events by which they aim to prove that Wallace's letter and essay proposing a theory of evolution by means of natural selection, posted at Ternate in the Moluccas in the spring of 1858, arrived at Darwin's home on 18 June 1858, and not 2 weeks before as has been claimed previously (McKinney, 1972; Brackman, 1980; Brooks, 1984; Davies, 2008). Charles Darwin, in his letter to Lyell of 18 June 1858 (Davies, 2008: 149–152), claimed that, earlier that day, he had received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. In that letter, Darwin wrote that Wallace's ideas in his essay on how species originate were so close to his own that ‘even his terms stand as the Heads of my Chapters’ (Burkhardt & Smith, 1990). It has been argued previously that Lyell and Hooker, over the following days, colluded to find a way for their friend to be acknowledged as equally deserving with Wallace of the title of ‘discoverer’ of the theory of how new species originate (Davies, 2008). At a special meeting of the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858, the two men presented selected passages from an essay that Darwin had written 14 years before but never published, together with a letter written to Asa Gray of Harvard University 9 months before in which he claimed the discovery of a ‘Principle of Divergence’ (Darwin & Wallace, 1858). With these extracts, Lyell and Hooker intimated that Darwin had equal claim to that of Wallace as the discoverer of the theory of the origin of species.

Van Wyhe and Rookmaaker consider they have found evidence indicating that those who argue that Wallace's letter arrived in London on 2 June 1858 are wrong, and that Wallace's letter did indeed arrive at Darwin's home on 18 June 1858 as he claimed. Their argument is dependent on: (1) that the letter was posted at Ternate on 5 April, rather than 9 March, 1858; (2) that the mail service was inefficient and unpredictable; and (3) that there was a previously unknown ‘uninterrupted route’ for Wallace's letter to Darwin's home. In fact, as I now describe, the Dutch Colonial administration in the East Indies had put in place a system that ensured all mail was dealt with in an organized, secure and predictable manner, which had worked without interruption for many years (Brooks, 1984; Davies, 2008).

When he was on the island of Gilolo (now Halmahera) close to the smaller island of Ternate in February 1858, Alfred Russel Wallace first came to understand and then write down a complete outline of the process of how new species originate. As previously argued (McKinney, 1972; Brooks, 1984; Davies, 2008), as February turned to March, Wallace left Gilolo for Ternate, intent on sending his theory to Charles Darwin by the next available packet steamer, which was due to arrive early in March. He had thought out his theory in between bouts of fever and had waited anxiously for the termination of his fit so that he could make notes. On two succeeding evenings, he wrote it out carefully so that he could send it to Darwin by the mail steamer scheduled to arrive in the next day or two (Wallace, 1903; 1905). He had sent two previous letters (no longer extant; but see British Library : ADD46434 for Darwin's responses) to Darwin outlining his nascent beliefs regarding the relationship between varieties and new species after the publication of his ‘Sarawak Law’ paper in September 1855 (Brooks, 1984; Davies, 2008). The only response came from Samuel Stevens, his agent, who informed him that the feeling in London was that Wallace should stop theorizing and stick to collecting (Marchant, 1916) However, he was unaware that his article had captured the interest of Charles Lyell. Six months after reading the Sarawak Law paper, Lyell, during a visit to Darwin, had warned him that the ideas in that paper had led him to believe that Wallace might yet thwart Darwin's ambition to become the first man to explain convincingly how new species originate (Davies, 2008: 66–67).

When the mail steamer Ambon entered the port of Ternate on 9 March 1858, Wallace was waiting for the delivery of some boxes (Pearson 2005, Wallace Journal for 1858, entries 128 and 129). Once the mail had been taken off the steamer, he would have learned there was a letter for him. It was from Darwin saying, among other things, that, despite Wallace's concern, both Charles Lyell and Edward Blyth, an eminent naturalist then working in Calcutta, had thought well of his ideas in the Sarawak Law paper (British Library: ADD 46434). Until he read Darwin's letter, Wallace could have had no inkling of Lyell's enthusiasm for his ideas. Indeed, after reading Wallace's Sarawak Law in November 1855, Lyell had immediately opened a new species notebook and written on its first page the single word: ‘Wallace’ (Wilson, 1970). The awareness that the mail steamer was to arrive in ‘a day or two’ also suggests that Wallace was already back on Ternate when he was completing his paper and thus this was where his ideas were first written down. Location has been an issue for many over the years, ever since McKinney (1972) first suggested that Wallace had used famous Ternate rather than humble Gilolo as the geographical background to his great idea.

If, by the time the steamer had arrived and Darwin's letter opened, Wallace had not by then posted his letters (one to Darwin, enclosing his theory, and one to the brother of his friend Henry Bates), then it would surely have taken only a few minutes to scribble a brief note on the outside of the letter before posting it to Darwin, giving him permission to show his theory to Lyell if Darwin thought it sufficiently important. However, if both letters had already been posted before the Ambon arrived at Ternate, then, equally, it would have been the work of only a few minutes for someone as resourceful as Wallace to have reclaimed his letter to Darwin from the mail that had yet to be put aboard the packet boat, write out his brief message, and return it to the post-master as the steamer readied itself to leave port. It appears extremely unlikely that Wallace would have retrieved the letter if he had not been given an assurance that he could return it before the steamer left port. His need for Darwin to read his paper as soon as possible was paramount not only because, in his first letter to Wallace, Darwin had claimed he was planning to publish his species theory in the near future, but also because of Wallace's natural excitement and desire to tell someone who would understand that he had achieved his life's ambition to discover how species originate.

It should also be remembered that Wallace carried no threat to the integrity of ‘Her Majesty's’ mail. His travels in search of specimens to send home had made him one of the most familiar figures in the archipelago over the previous 4 years. He constantly sent letters to his agent in London and knew every nuance of the mail system and many of the captains and crews of the boats that carried the mail since he had travelled on them as a passenger during his time in the islands; some as recently as the previous November, December and January (Brooks, 1984, 175–178).

These landing-stage scenarios, however, are dismissed by van Wyhe & Rookmaaker (2012). Whether the letters had already been posted or not, and we have no way of knowing, the authors claim that ‘there was no time’ and ‘apparently it was not possible’ and ‘it seems the packet was at Ternate for maybe as little as an hour’, thereby suggesting that a whole hour (let alone exactly how long the steamer might have been at Ternate) was not sufficient for someone as capable as Wallace to scribble out a short sentence on his letter to Darwin. In the face of such uncertainty, they still conclude that ‘the only occasion when that letter could have left Ternate was by the following month's steamer which was not to arrive there until April 5th, 1858’.

However, there is no evidence offered for these claims, and the suggestion that, when on Ternate, ‘Wallace never replied to a letter by the same mail boat on which it arrived’ discounts the emotion Wallace must have felt when he discovered that the great Charles Lyell had approved of his work after almost 10 years of formulating his ideas both in situations of intense loneliness and also in the class-ridden natural history societies of London. It is not difficult to understand that his reaction to such a letter might have been different had it been yet again only another request from Darwin for information about local species.

In their Introduction, van Wyhe & Rookmaaker (2012) state that they intend to show how it was the mail steamer of 5 April (the Makassar) that actually carried Wallace's letter on the first leg of its journey from Ternate to Java. However, when, in a letter written years later, Wallace says that he sent the letter to Darwin by the next post, he was not talking about the Makassar, the 5 April mail steamer, but the Ambon, which left on 9 March. This is confirmed by the letter to the brother of Henry Bates, which arrived in Central London on 2 June 1858, having left Ternate on 9 March aboard the Ambon (Davies, 2008). The possibility that his letter to Darwin did not also leave by that steamer seems little more than wishful thinking. To deal with it, however, we need to understand precisely how integrated were the local and international postal and shipping services of the mid-19th Century.

In the East Indies at that time, there were two companies collecting and organizing mail deliveries for the Dutch Colonial administration centred on Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital city of Java. Both companies were contracted to take mail from Java to Singapore once every month (à Campo, 2002: 42). On the 12th of each month, the Nederlandsch-Indische Stoomboot Maatschappij (the Dutch East-Indies Steamboat Company), was contracted to transport all mail collected from the islands of the archipelago, and from Java itself, to Singapore and, once there, to place the mail for Europe under secure storage until it was picked up by a P&O liner heading homeward from Hong Kong at the end of the first leg of its journey. The journey from Singapore to Southampton, England, took approximately 6 weeks.

The Company's other duty when at Singapore was to pick up mail from Europe aboard a P&O liner heading for Hong Kong, outward bound from Southampton, and deliver it back to the postal authorities at Batavia. The mail picked up for the return voyage to Batavia was never scheduled to be delivered to the islands of the archipelago but only to addresses within the island of Java itself.

Ships owned by Cores de Vries, the other company involved, were employed to leave Batavia for Singapore on the 26th of each month to deliver shipments of mail to the P&O liner heading home from Hong Kong. However, these shipments consisted of Java mail alone. They never included mail collected from the islands. The mail they picked up from the outward bound P&O liner arriving from Ceylon and heading for Hong Kong was mail that would be sorted immediately the steamer docked at Batavia and which, within 24 h, would be heading for the island of Celebes and the Moluccas. Table 1 summarizes the pattern of collection and delivery that existed between December 1857 and June 1858 at Singapore (data from The Singapore Free Press and Javasche Courant). It shows the coordination between the Koningin der Nederlanden leaving Batavia on the 12th of each month and the Banda leaving on the 26th of each month. The system was so organized that the main steamer of the Netherlands steamboat company, the Koningin der Nederlanden, always delivered the mail collected from the islands along with mail from Java, whereas the Banda, the main steamer of Cores de Vries, never delivered the islands mail to Singapore but delivered mail for the islands back to Batavia. The entire enterprise was metronomic and entirely predictable (Table 1).

Table 1.  Mail steamer activity at Singapore, December 1857 to June 1858 (compiled from The Singapore Free Press: December 1857 to July 1858)
Batavia Post Office sorts mail for EuropeDutch packet leaves Java – arrives in SingaporeP&O liner for Hong Kong arrives with Mail from EuropeDutch steamer leaves for BataviaP&O liner from Hong Kong leaves for Europe
  1. Kon. der Ned, Koningin der Nederlanden.

First monthly dispatch12–16 December17 December18–21 December23 December
Kon. der Ned: delivers islands mailAden: offloads Java mailKon. der Ned: Java mail on boardSingapore: islands mail on board.
UK scheduled arrival: 2 February
Second monthly dispatch26–30 December2 January3 January7 January
Banda: delivers Java mailOttowa: offloads islands mailBanda: islands mail On boardCadiz: Java mail on board.
UK scheduled arrival: 18 February
First monthly dispatch12–20 January22 January23 January23 January
Kon. der Ned: delivers islands mailNo P&O liner: no steamer at Suez. No mailKon. der Ned: no Java mail on boardAden: islands mail on board
UK scheduled arrival: 2 March
Second monthly dispatch26–31 January1 February2 February5 February
Banda: delivers Java mailSingapore: offloads two cargoes of mailBanda: Islands and delayed Java mail on boardOttowa: Java mail on board
UK scheduled arrival: 18 March
First monthly dispatch12–16 February16 February19 February23 February
Kon. der Ned: no islands mail on boardNorna: offloads Java mailKon. der Ned: Java mail on boardGanges: no islands mail
UK scheduled arrival: 2 April
Second monthly dispatch26 February to 2 March5 March6 March8 March
Banda: delivers Java mailCadiz: offloads islands mailBanda: islands mail on boardSingapore: Java mail on board
UK scheduled arrival: 18 April
First monthly dispatch12–16 March18 March20 March23 March
Kon. der Ned: delivers islands mailBombay: offloads Java mailKon. der Ned: Java mail on boardNorna: Islands Mail on board
UK scheduled arrival: 2 May
Second monthly dispatch26–31 March3 April4 April5 April
Banda: delivers Java mailPekin: no islands mail on boardBanda returns empty handed. No islands mail on boardCadiz: Java mail on board
UK scheduled arrival: 18 May
First monthly dispatch12–16 April14 April18 April21 April
Kon. der Ned: delivers islands mail (letter to Bates' brother on board)Pottinger: offloads Java and late islands mailKon. der Ned: Java and late islands mails on boardBombay: islands mail on board
UK scheduled arrival: 2 June
Second monthly dispatch26–30 April29 April1 May1 May
Banda: delivers Java mailSingapore: offloads islands mailBanda: returns with islands mailPekin: Java mail on board
UK scheduled arrival: 18 June

Once the Banda had deposited the mail it had brought from Singapore at the main post office in Batavia, she, or one of her sister ships, had to be ready within 24 h to take on board the mail for the islands and to deliver it to Surabaya, eastern Java, in the quickest possible time (à Campo, 2002: 41; Davies, 2008). At Surabaya, another of the Cores de Vries fleet would be waiting for that mail before starting its monthly journey around the islands.

However, something rare happened at Singapore when the Banda arrived there after her journey from Batavia on the 26 March 1858. She arrived on 31 March and waited for the P&O liner from Ceylon, which eventually arrived on 3 April. However, the liner had no mail on board (Table 1). The Singapore Free Press, in its issue of 8 April 1858, announced that the liner, Pekin, was not carrying any mail because there had not been a steamer at the port of Suez to convey the mail from there to Ceylon. Because this was shortly before the very date when van Wyhe and Rookmaaker claim the Banda picked up the islands mail from the mail steamer Makassar, the consequences deserve closer examination.

The Banda would have steamed back to Batavia from Singapore empty-handed, arriving there by 7 April. Normally, she would have taken the mail on to Surabaya. In the absence of mail for the islands, however, there was still the islands mail to be picked up. And so the Banda steamed to Surabaya, picked up the islands mail from the Makassar on 20 April and arrived back in Batavia on the 23 April (van Wyhe & Rookmaaker, 2012). Having dropped off the islands mail at Batavia for it to await the sailing of the Koningin der Nederlanden on 12 May, the Banda still had 3 days to prepare for her own monthly assignment of carrying the ordinary Java mail to Singapore on 26 April. Three days later, the Banda would have shipped the ordinary Java mail on board, some of it for Holland in sealed boxes, and made her regular journey to Singapore reaching there on the last day of April (Table 1). On 1 May, The Singapore Free Press noted that the P&O liner Pekin had shipped aboard the Banda's cargo of mail and headed for Ceylon and home. The Banda returned to Batavia carrying the European mail, including that destined for the islands of the archipelago.

Two weeks later, the mail steamer Koningin der Nederlanden, with the islands mail on board, left Batavia for Singapore. She arrived on 15 May to find the P&O liner Norna had already offloaded her cargo of incoming European mail, set course for Hong Kong and departed. The mail steamer put her cargo of islands mail aboard the P&O liner Pottinger out of Hong Kong, which immediately left for Ceylon and England. Meanwhile, with the Norna's cargo of European mail safely on board, the Koningin der Nederlanden made for Batavia where she arrived safely on 17 May (Table 1).

Had there been any question of this monthly pattern being disturbed, there would have been some serious questions asked at Singapore about such a drastic change of routine by both the Banda and the Koningin der Nederlanden. However, there were none. The Singapore Free Press, which quickly printed information about mail disruptions, simply made the announcement on 20 May that the Banda had left for Batavia with its shipment of European mail.

My conclusions, then, are that the Banda did indeed offload the islands mail into the hands of postal officials at Batavia once it had arrived there on 23 April 1858 and that that particular delivery of mail destined for England left Batavia aboard the Koningin der Nederlanden on 12 May and would not have arrived in England until scheduled to do so on 2 July, which is the day following the events at the Linnean meeting where it has been argued previously that Lyell and Hooker met to ensure the future reputation of Charles Darwin (Davies, 2008).

What evidence is there for the letter having arrived with Darwin on 3 June 1858 and not 15 days later? Well, it was during that period that Darwin added 66 new pages on the subject of divergence to his ‘big’ species book, which were written on pages of a different colour and texture from all the other pages of that document (Brooks, 1984). Then, on 8 June, he wrote a letter to Hooker stating that divergence along with natural selection was now a keystone of his theory. He committed similar thoughts to his notebook on 12 June (Brooks, 1984; Davies, 2008). Darwin's subsequent claim to Lyell in his letter of 18 June announcing the arrival of Wallace's letter that ‘even his terms now stand as Heads of my Chapters’ can be interpreted as an attempt to convince Lyell that his work was original and primary and Wallace's secondary and too late (Davies, 2008: 149).

Some might suggest that, despite this evidence, something prevented the letter from Wallace arriving at Down House until 18 June. Of course, this is a possibility until we begin to question why receipt of Wallace's first letter to Darwin, which should have arrived with him on 12 January 1857, was not acknowledged by Darwin until the beginning of May, more than 3 months later (Davies, 2008). Might this delay have had anything to do with the fact that between these dates Darwin suddenly discovered not only a ‘Principle of Divergence’, which Asa Gray was to dismiss so quickly as ‘grievously hypothetical’, but also the revolutionary idea, for him, that new species were only strongly marked varieties; a fact that Wallace had long accepted as fundamental to his own theoretical ideas (Davies, 2008)?


I would like to thank five anonymous reviewers who took the time to analyse and comment on the weaknesses in previous versions of this paper. Their knowledge and attention to detail suggests a longstanding generosity of thought and time for which there can have been little reward. Specific research for The Darwin Conspiracy on which this reply is based was carried out by Femme Gaastra, Professor of Dutch Maritime History at the University of Leiden, Holland, who allowed me to access his phenomenal knowledge of communications and the patterns of shipping routes and times in the Dutch East Indies in the middle of the 19th Century. Additional and invaluable research was carried out in London at the British Library (Colindale) by my colleague Paul Hannon into newspaper records from The Singapore Free Press and the Lloyds Register of Shipping over the same period of time.