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Record number: WCP349

Sent by:
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent to:
Richard Spruce
19 September 1852

Sent by Alfred Russel Wallace, Brig Jordeson, Lat. N. 49.30, Long. W. 20 to Richard Spruce Rio Negro, Brazil on 19 September 1852.

Record created:
01 June 2002 by Lucas, Paula J.
Verified by:
22/08/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline (All except summary checked);


Re. the burning and sinking of ship Helen off Brazil, his rescue and voyage to London, the loss of his collections, insurance, and future plans; news of Crystal Palace exhibition.

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Record contains:

  • letter (2)
  • publication (1)

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LETTER (WCP349.349)

A typical letter handwritten by author in English and signed by author.

Addressed in Alfred Russel Wallace's hand to "Illms. Senr. Ricardo Spruce, Pará, Brazil, to be forwarded without delay." The address has been crossed through and replaced, in another hand, with "Rio Negro".

Held by:
Natural History Museum
Finding number:
NHM WP1/3/24
Copyright owner:
ŠA. R. Wallace Literary Estate
Record scrutiny:
22/08/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline;

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Brig Jordeson, Lat. N. 49o. 30 Long W. 20o

Sunday September 19th. 1852.

My dear Friend

Having now some prospect of being home in a week or ten days I will commence giving you an account of the peculiar circumstances which have already kept me at sea seventy days on a voyage which took us only 29 on our passage out. I hope you have received the letter I sent you from Pará dated July 9 or 10 -- in which I informed you that I had taken a passage in a vessel bound for London & was to sail in a few days -- On Monday the 12th. of July I went on board with all my cargo & some articles purchased or collected on my way down with the remnant (about 20) of my live stock. After being at sea about a week I had a slight attack of fever & almost thought I had got the yellow fever after all. However a little calomel set me right in a few days, but I continued weak some time and spent most of my time reading in the cabin which was very comfortable -- On Friday the 6th of August we were in N. Lat.30o.30 W. Long.52o.. when about 9 oclock in the morning just after breakfast the Captain (who was the owner of the vessel) came into the cabin & said "I am afraid the ships on fire. Come & see what you think of it". Going on deck I found a thick smoke coming out of the forecastle, which we both thought seemed more like the steam from heating vegetable matter than the smoke of a fire. The fore hatchway was immediately opened to try and ascertain the origin of the smoke & a quantity of cargo was thrown out but the smoke coming out steadily without any perceptible increase we went to the after hatchway & after throwing out a quantity of Piassaba with which the upper part of the ship was loaded the smoke became so dense that the men could not stay down to throw out any more -- most of them were then set throwing in water & the rest proceeded to the cabin & opened the "lazaretto" or store place beneath its floor & found smoke issuing from the bulkhead which separated it from the hold which extended half way under the fore part of the cabin. Attempts were then made to break down this bulkhead, but it resisted all efforts the smoke being so suffocating as to prevent any one stopping in it more than a minute at a time. [[2]] A hole was then cut in the cabin floor, & while the carpenter was doing this, the rest of the crew were employed getting out the boats & the captain looked after his chronometer, sextant, books charts boat compasses &c. I got up a small tin box with a few shirts in it & put in my fish drawings & palms which where luckily at hand also my watch and a few sovereigns -- The greater part of my clothes were scattered about the cabin & in the dense suffocating smoke it was impossible to look about after them - There were two boats, a long boat & the Captains gig & took a good deal of them time to get the merest necessaries into them & to lower them into the water. Two casks of biscuit and a cask of water were got in a lot of raw pork & some ham & some cases of preserved meats with some wine -- Then there were corks to stop up the holes, oars, masts sails & rudders to be looked up, spare spars cordage twine, canvas needles, carpenters tools, nails &c. the crew all looked after their bags of clothes & all were bundled in indiscriminately. The boats having been so long in the sun were very leaky & every thing in them was soaked they being half full of water & keeping two hands constantly baling in each with buckets. Blankets rugs pillows & clothes were all soaked and the boats appeared overloaded when there was in reality very little in them. All being now prepared, the crew were again employed pouring in water into the cabin and fore hatchway.

The cargo of the Ship consisted of Rubber, Cocoa, Anatto, Balsam of Capivi & Piassaba -- The Balsam was in casks 20 stowed in sand & 20 more small kegs in rice chaff immediately beneath the cabin where the fire seemed to be. For some time we had heard this bubbling & hissing as if boiling furiously, the heat in the cabin was very great & the flame soon broke out into the berths & into the cabin & in a few minutes more out through the skylight on deck. All hands were now ordered into the boats which were astern of the ship -- It was about 12 oclock, only three hours from the time the smoke was first discovered -- I had to let myself down into the boat by a rope & being rather weak it slipped through my hands and took the skin off the sides [[3]] of all my fingers, & finding the boats dreadfully full of water I set to, baling which made the wounds smart to a considerable amount -- We lay near the ship all afternoon watching the progress of the flames, which soon covered the hinder part of the vessel & extended up the shrouds & sails in a most magnificent conflagration - Soon after the masts, by the rolling of the ship broke & fell overboard, the decks all burnt away the iron work at the sides being red hot, & last the bowsprit being burnt at the base fell also -- No one had thought of being hungry till night came on when we made a meal of some biscuit & raw ham, & then disposed ourselves as well as we could for the night which you may be sure was by no means a pleasant one. Our boats continued to make water & we could not cease an instant from baling, there was a considerable swell though the day had been remarkably fine, and constantly there came about pieces of the burnt wreck, masts &c which would probably have stove in our boats, had we not always been on the look out to keep clear of them -- We kept near the ship all night in order that we might have the benefit of its flames attracting any other vessel that might pass within sight of us -- It now presented a magnificent and awful sight as it rolled over [1 word crossed out] looking like a huge caldron of fire, the whole cargo forming a fuming mass at the bottom. In the morning our little mast and sails were got up, & we bid adieu to the Helen now burnt down to the waters edge, and proceeded with a light E.[ast] wind towards the "Bermudas" the nearest land but which were still more than 700 miles from us. As we were nearly in the track of the W.[est] India vessels, we calculated on falling in with some ship in a few days. I cannot attempt to describe my feelings & sensations during these events. I was surprised to find myself very cool and collected. I hardly thought it possible we should escape & remember almost thinking it foolish to save my watch and the little money I had at hand. After being in the boats however some days I began to have more hope & regretted not having saved some new shoes, cloth coat & trousers, hat &c which I might have done with a little [[4]] trouble. My collections however were in the hold & were irrevocably lost. And now I began to think, that almost all the reward of my four years of privation & danger was lost. What I had hitherto sent home had little more than paid my expenses, & what I had with me in the "Helen" I calculated would realize near £500 -- But even all this might have gone with little regret had not far the richest part of my own private collection gone also. All my private collection of Insects & birds since I left Pará was with me, & contained hundreds of new & beautiful species which would have rendered (I had fondly hoped) my cabinet, as far as regards American species, one of the finest in Europe. Fancy your own regrets had you lost all your Pyrenean Mosses on your voyage hope home or should now lose all your S.[outh] American ones & you will have some idea of what I suffer. But besides this I have lost a number of sketches[,] drawings, notes & observations on Natural History besides the three most interesting years of my journal, the whole of which unlike any mere pecuniary loss, can never be replaced; -- so you will see that I have some need of philosophic resignation to bear my fate with patience and equanimity. Day after day we continued in the boats. The winds changed blowing dead from the point we wanted to go to -- We were scorched by the sun, my hands nose & ears being completely skinned, and drenched every day by the seas & spray. We were constantly wet & had no comfort at night. We had raw pork & biscuit for our fare, with some preserved meat or carrots once a day which was a great luxury, & short allowance of water, which left us constantly thirsty the moment after we had drunk our allowance. Ten days & ten nights we spent in this manner, we were still two hundred miles from Bermuda, when one afternoon a vessel was seen and by eight at night we were on board her, much rejoiced to have escaped a death on the wide ocean whence none would ever have come to tell the tale. This was the "Jordeson" bound for London & proves to be one of the slowest old ships going -- With a favorable[sic] wind and all sail set she seldom does more than 5 knots, her general average being two and three so that we have had a most tedious time of it and even now can not calculate with any certainty as to when we shall arrive. Besides this she was rather short of provisions, & as we [[5]] immediately doubled her crew, all were obliged to be put on allowance of bread meat & water. A little ham and butter the Captain had was soon used & we have been now some time on the poorest of fare. We have no suet, butter, or raisins with which to make duff or even molasses & barely sugar enough to last for our tea & coffee, which we take with coarse biscuits & for dinner beef or pork of the very worst quality I have ever eaten or even imagined to exist. This repeated day after day without any variation beats even Rio Negro fixings rough though they be. About a week after we came on board here, we spoke & boarded an outward bound ship and got from her some biscuit & a few potatoes & salt cod which were a great luxury but did not last long. We have also occasionally caught some dolphin and some fish like the Acarrás of the Rio Negro but for some time now have seen none, so that I am looking forward to the "flesh pots of Egypt" with as much pleasure as when luxuriating on farinha & "fiel amigo"1. While we were in the boats we had generally fine weather though with one or two days & nights squally and with a heavy sea which made me often tremble for our safety as we heeled over till the water poured in over the side -- We had almost despaired of seeing any vessel, our circle of vision being so limited, but had great hopes of reaching Bermuda though it is very doubtful if we should have done so, as the neighbourhood of those islands is noted for sudden squalls, tempests, & hurricanes, & it was the time of year when hurricanes most frequently occur. Having never seen a storm or heavy gale at sea I had some desire to witness the phenomenon and have now been completely gratified. The first we had about a fortnight ago. In the morning there was a strong breeze and the Barometer had fallen near half an inch during the night and continued sinking so the Capt[ai]n commenced taking in sail & while getting in the Royals & studding sails the wind increased so as to split the main sail, fore top sail, fore trysail & jib & it was some hours before they could be got off her & the main top sail & fore sail double reefed. We then went flying along, the whole ocean being a mass of boiling foam the crests of the waves carried in spray over the decks. The sea did not get up immediately but by night it was very rough, the ship plunging & rolling most fearfully, the sea pouring in a deluge over the top of her bulwarks & sometimes up over the cabin skylight. The next morning the wind abated but the ship which is a very old one took a deal of water & the pumps were kept going nearly the whole day to keep her dry. During this gale the wind went gradually completely round the compass & after settled from the E[ast] where it pertinaciously continued for twelve days keeping [[6]] us tacking about and making about 40 miles a day. Three days ago we had another gale, more severe than the former, a regular equinoctial which lasted two entire days and nights & split one of the newest and strongest sails in the ship. The rolling & plunging were fearful the bowsprit going completely under water & the ship being very heavily laden with mahogany, fustic, & other heavy woods from Cuba strained and creaked tremendously & leaked to that extent that the pumps were obliged to be kept constantly going & their continued click-clack, click-clack, all through the night was a most disagreeable and nervous sound. One day, no fire could be made from the sea breaking continually into the galley & so we had to eat a biscuit for our dinner and not a moments rest was to be had, as we were obliged constantly to be holding on, whether standing, sitting or lying, to prevent being pitched about by the violent plunges & lurches of the vessel. It has now however happily passed, and we have a fine breeze from the N[orth].W[est]. which is taking us along 6 or 7 knots; -- quicker than we have ever gone yet. Among our other disagreeables here we have no fresh water to spare for washing and as I only saved a couple of shirts, they are in a state of most uncomfortable dirtiness, but I console myself with the thought of a glorious warm bath when I get on shore.

Oct[obe]r. 1st.

Oh! glorious day! here we are on shore at Deal where the ship is at anchor. Such a dinner! Oh! beef steaks & damson tart, a paradise for hungry sinners.

Oct[obe]r. 5th. London.

Here I am laid up with swelled ancles[sic] my legs not being able to stand work after so much rest in the ship. I cannot write now at any length. I have too much to think about. We had a narrow escape in the channel, many vessels were lost in a storm on the night of the 30th. of Oct Sept[embe]r but we escaped -- The old Iron Duke is dead. The Crystal Palace is pulling down and reerecting on a larger & improved plan by a company -- Loddiges collection of [[7]] Plants has been brought entire to put in it & they think by heating it in the centre to get a gradation of climates so as to be able to have plants of different climates in one individual building -- This is Paxtons plan. How I begin to envy you, in that glorious country where "the sun shines forever unchangeably bright" where farinha is abundant and of pacovas there is no lack.

Fifty times since I left Pará have I vowed if I once reached England never to trust myself more on the ocean. But good resolutions soon fade & I am already only doubtful whether the Andes or the Phillipines[sic] are to be the scene of my next wanderings. However for six months I a<n>m [am] a fixture here in London as I am determined to make up for lost time by enjoying myself as much as possible while I can -- I am fortunate in having about £200 insured by Mr Stevens foresight so I must be contented though it very hard to have nothing to show of what I took so much pains to procure.

I trust you are well and successful, you have my best wishes & I shall expect a long letter from you with an account of all your doings. Kind remembrances to everybody everywhere & particularly to the respectable Sen[ho]r. Joaõ de Lima of Saõ Joaquim.

Your very sincere friend | Alfred R. Wallace [signature]

[to] R. Spruce Esq.


MMo Senr. Ricardo Spruce

Parà Rio Negro


Henrique Antony

[Annotated: To be forwarded without delay"]


1. The following annotation has been added in ARWs handwriting along the left margin; (- "faithful friend" the dried fish pirarucu, so called by the Brazilians)

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