Why are Alfred Russel Wallace's early letters to Charles Darwin missing?

By George Beccaloni, December 2020

Alfred Russel Wallace seems to have first written to Charles Darwin on the 10 October 1856, when Wallace was in Sulawesi (now part of Indonesia). This letter no longer exists, but we know it did from Darwin's reply to it (dated 1 May 1857) which survives. We do not know for sure why Wallace began writing to Darwin, but it may very well be because he knew from a printed notice by Darwin (which had been sent to Wallace by his agent Samuel Stevens) that Darwin was investigating the origins of domesticated animals and wanted specimens. On 21 August 1856, Wallace wrote to Stevens that his latest shipment of specimens contained some for Darwin: “The domestic duck var. is for Mr. Darwin & he would perhaps also like the jungle cock, which is often domesticated here & is doubtless one of the originals of the domestic breed of poultry.” From Darwin's reply to Wallace's letter of October 1856, it is clear that Wallace's letter discussed varieties of wild and domesticated animals.

All except one of the letters that Wallace received from Darwin from 1857 to 1862 (when Wallace was in the 'Malay Archipelago') survive, as do most later ones. However, only fragments of two of Wallace's pre. 1862 letters to Darwin from this period exist, yet many (most?) of the letters sent to him by Wallace from 1862 onwards survive in their entirety.  In addition, as I pointed out in a previous post, none of the letters which Lyell and Hooker sent to Darwin in 1858 concerning Wallace's essay on natural selection survive, leading one scholar to write that it was as if "somebody cleaned up the file."

So what happened to Wallace's pre. 1862 letters to Darwin? In an 1875 letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell's biographer, Katharine Murray Lyell, which seems to have been overlooked by scholars, Darwin writes "I used formerly to burn all letters excepting a few, and such as I have kept from Lyell I now send. From the year 1862 I preserved all letters, and wish I had done so earlier. I am thus enabled to send all the letters from Lyell from 1862 to 1869 inclusive." So we now have the probable answer. I do, however, still wonder what became of Wallace's March 1858 letter to Darwin from Ternate Island, which was enclosed with his essay on natural selection. I find it difficult to believe that Darwin burned it, considering it was one of the most important letters he had received from anyone in his life. However, perhaps it was a relief to get rid of it as it was associated with so much angst.

Page 1 of Darwin's 1875 letter to Katharine Lyell.

For more information about Darwin and Wallace's early correspondence see this 2012 paper by Porter and THIS blog post I wrote.

What Wallace's letter March 1858 letter to Darwin might have looked like - a Photoshop mock-up produced from real Wallace letters by George Beccaloni.

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