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Record number: WCP462

Sent by:
Frederick R. ("Fred") Birch
Sent to:
Alfred Russel Wallace
14 February 1910

Sent by Frederick R. ("Fred") Birch, Theophilo Ottoni, Brazil to Alfred Russel Wallace Old Orchard, Broadstone, Wimborne, Dorset on 14 February 1910.

Record created:
01 June 2002 by Lucas, Paula J.


Re. Alfred Russel Wallace's letter to Dr Huber; lack of information on insect collecting opportunities in Para, suspects trade rivalry; plans to leave Brazil after two and a half years there, details of repeated theft and loss of packages in the mails and his valuable hand-made collecting case sent from Tring by Dr Jordan at Bahia customs house; misunderstanding with Mr May over house rent and purchase of collections; surprise at news of A M Moss collecting in the Andes; butterflies sent to Tring made 53.12.00 but cannot trust beetle collection to a carrier, is making boxes for them; plans to go to British Guiana and collect on the Demerara or Berbice rivers, cannot afford to go to the Andes because of responsibility for Mary and Elsie [wife and child]; disagrees with Alfred Russel Wallace's views on labour and intellect, quotes Thoreau and from an Alfred Russel Wallace letter; necessity of broad study and experience of life, nobility of agricultural labour; admires some articles in the N.A. ("New Age").; Green paper envelope (stamp torn off) addressed to Alfred Russel Wallace at Broadstone, postmarked on the front Theophilo Ottoni 20 Feb 1910 and on the back Ambula Rio de Janeiro [2 21] 1910, Diamantina (date illegible) and Wimborne 20 Mar (1910); annotated on the front in Alfred Russel Wallace's hand "Recd. Mar 20th 1910 | Rio or B. Guiana! Written Feby 1910".; Birch, Frederick R, fl 1897-1910; Wallace, Alfred Russel, 1823-1913; Huber, [indecipherable], fl 1910; Jordan, Heinrich Ernst Karl, 1861-1959; Moss, A M, fl 1910; May, [indecipherable], fl 1910; Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862; New Age, The, 1907-1922

Record contains:

  • letter (1)
  • envelope (1)

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LETTER (WCP462.462)

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

Held by:
Natural History Museum
Finding number:
NHM WP1/6/3(1)
Copyright owner:
Copyright of the Frederick R. ("Fred") Birch Literary Estate.

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Physical description

Transcription information




T.[heophilo] Ottoni

Wednesday Feb. 14. 10.

Dear Dr. Wallace,

When last Friday, the third after sending the post card to you, brought no wordx x I mean did not bring the word which my card said I was waiting for from Mr. May, I determined not to wait over another mailday without replying to your last letters.

Many thanks for your letter to Dr. Huber. I have had no word from him to show that he has received yours. But I have had a short note from his an assistant, telling me quiet plainly that they dont want to be troubled with the task of assisting any insect hunter to get settled near Para. I mean that he told me as little as possible & that little was not what I wanted to know. In essence it amounted to this - "Para is the dearest place in the world to live in"! This because I had asked if it wd be possible to rent a couple of rooms for a week or fortnight (whilst I looked for a good collection station.) on the edge of the city in some pleasant spot for 8 or 10 milreis[?] per week. He told me absolutely nothing about places to collect at. In short it was the curtest note I ever received. It made me think of the old saying "Two of a trade never agree." I have no doubt that the assistant either feared competition or was too busy, or, more likely too lazy to reply properly. However it doesnt matter now for we have definitely made up our minds to leave Brazil as soon as we can. We can stand it no longer. I have hitherto refrained from troubling you with an account of our woes partly because I thought things might improve, & partly because I didnt want you to be troubled. but now I feel it is time you should know. how we have fared at the hands of those to whom we have entrusted our goods. In the two years & a half we have been here we have had 14 packages stolen by the post men, whether officials or carriers we cannot tell. Repeated complaints [[2]] bring only polite notes regretting that the writers can do nothing in the matter. It is no use to try to recover anything; once a thing is lost in the mails here it lost for ever & no clue can be had. No use to grind your teeth or tear your hair. The only thing left for us is to get away as quickly as possible to a place where we can be sure of an honest service. Some day if I have time Ill give you a list of the things that have been stolen. But that is not all. My collection case, wh Dr Jordan sent from Tring[?] last December to the superintendent of the Navegacão Bahiana [1 word illeg.] with whom I left money (20 milreis) instructions to send on the case to me as soon as he received it back from England, has never reached me. I had word from Dr. Jordan in Feb. that it had been sent off & immediately wrote to the Super, Mr. Cleto Japiassu. asking him to look it up in the custom house & forward it. Instead of going himself he sent his clerk with the result that it could not be found. No consignment note had arrived & without that the Custom clerk wouldnt move. The consignment note came in March to me (!) instead of to Sur. J.Assu. I sent it back to him immediately & begged him to do his best to find the box. I had one note after that from him saying he would try to recover it, & not another word since in spite of the three letters & a postcard Ive since written about it. So there, Im afraid I shall never see that piece of my handiwork again. That loving labour - the handsome case protected with wearing strips on top bottom sides & ends & having the corners bound with 24 iron plates (which also I made) & furnished with handlers -- a perfect little trunk in short, with tightfitting lid hinged & locked, - the six clothcovered storeboxes (also my work) the other three special size boxes for paper specimens. [[3]] All fitting snugly in the interior which I padded with long narrow cushions of curled hair which my mother made at my direction -- so that every storebox edge & the sides of the end boxes was clipped by this elastic material -- all this, is, I fear, lost to me forever. I valued it at about £3. If Dr Jordan enclosed the books he promised that is a further loss. Do you wonder that I curse the day I determined to come here? Or that we want to get away? My last loss was of 35 packets of seed from the States which I had been looking eagerly forward to recovering, that I might plant & see grow vegetables & fruits I had never yet seen. These must have been stolen in Rio. When Dr May heard of the loss of my collection case he offered to get his brother in Bahia to look it up so I sent him full particulars. but have not heard from him since. To take Mr May & your second letter first -- If you had received the strange letter I did from Mr May in an answer to the one in which I told him that I preferred to rent my house independently you would have felt perfectly justified in suspecting his intention as I did. For in that 2nd letter he writes words which seem to me to contradict those of his first. I cant for the life of me reconcile them. Ill let you judge for yourself by quoting them here: - "I must have failed to make myself quite clear re the matter of house rent. In the first place I do not think that you could get a cottage as specified by you for less than 40 to 50 milreis per month. In the 2nd when I stated the condition of having first pick of your catch I meant that I would have the right of choosing a limited proportion of specimens & paying for them separately at a reasonable figure. I certainly would not have s suggested it as you appear to have understood." [[4]] In my reply to this I quoted the proposal in his 10th[?] letter & said "This is clear & explicit, but your words in your 2nd letter make me wonder what you could have meant by your first proposal. I cannot reconcile them." "I can only think that you meant that you wd buy enough insects from me to enable me to pay my rent."

You see here, I think, a case where a man is trying hard to wriggle out of a position without letting the hopes for victim know that he had laid a snare at all. Dont you see that if I had agreed & gone to live in his cottage he could have compelled me to pay him 40 or 50 mils worth of insects every month, & could very easily have demanded for this, insects worth of "species not in his collection." 80 or 100 milreis, because of my concession? You see by these last words of his those I have those I have underlined, that he understood that what he was proposing was a first pick altho he did not mention this in his 1st letter. Do you blame me because by intuition I jumped to his meaning & let you & him know that I knew, when the sequel bears me out in this way? Of course it is possible that I have made a mistake & am wronging him; time will show. In one of my letters I asked him what would happen when the time came when I could no longer find new species to his collection. & said that he might then suddenly order me off to another district or give me notice to quit before I was prepared. The upshot of it all is that we have decided to go to Brit. Guiana unless a letter comes from Dr May of a quite different tone from the last. We may have to go to Rio to board a ship from Barbados & in that case will go to see Mr May & perhaps sell him the collection of moths on hand. Perhaps even on seeing him we may be induced to stay a while in the Organ Mts. I dont know. A man never knows surely in detail what will happen to him. All he can be sure of [[5]] is the general direction of his life if he does the best of the things that lie nearest to him.

So come now to Mr[?] Moss & the wonderful butterflies he has been collecting in the Andes. I was never more agreeably surprised in my life than when I read that A. M. Moss was collecting there! Why! I left him assiduously working the sandhills of Lancashire & Cheshire for the rarer Sphines Bombyces Nochece[?] etc. etc. when I left for Trinidad. He had taken Deilephila[?] galii the year before & was most enthusiastic about it. I remember how I envied him for I had worked for "galii" for years in vain & he bad me work on in hope -- that it might happen to any one any Aug or Sept. day when he least expected it just as it did to him. From the way the sight of the splendid larve crawling amongst the galum affected him I should say he must have felt as if he had found a newly fallen star! But I had to leave without that good fortune. And to[?] the next news of him is that he has been taking the glorious Murpho cypris in the Andes. Well well some folks seem born to enjoy themselves.

I thought I would make a holiday of my life & come butterfly hunting to the tropics, but stern fate said NO. I will see to it that you do a mans work & bear your own burden & will give you no more time for collecting there than you had before when you worked wood for your living. It is true that I feel ashamed every time I got out collecting in the morning, for morning has always meant work for me & only afternoons could be devoted to the enjoyment of Nature. But everything is comparative. Perhaps if I had been a clerk or school teacher I should have considered collecting "work" enough to enable me to eat my dinner with a good conscience. As it is, I dont. But "enough of this" I think I hear say. "Tell me whether you heart does not leap up at the thought vision of all those glorious Andean butterflies." It does & I should like to be there, but as you will see on reflection, it is utterly impossible [[6]] for us to go there now. My duty to Mary & Blair is to stay by them in so safe & healthy a country as we can find within easy sure communication of our homes & amongst people of our own race if possible. I am sorry I have not satisfied your longing for news from the great forest of the equator you loved so well. I wish I could find a young man (single) who worked. Id beg him to try & be to you what I have failed to be. Perhaps Moss himself [1 word illeg.] will prove to be the man!

28 species of Papilios in 1 months collecting proves that Perenne[?] river a very rich place. 224 in all in 1 month is wonderful. A castnia 8 ½ in expanse is astonishing. I have taken here in the 2 years a half between 280 & 300 species of butterflies. I will give you some of the members over again (I have done so once) that you may compare. 2 Papilior, 19 Pieridae, Danaines 4, Heliconidae 10 othomiines[?] -- 8 with quite clear wings, 6 with yellow at base, & 5 others with red, yellow & black or clear with broad black bands as D. dero. in equal proportions, one very lovely. Morphos 3 -- only 1 species caught, caligos 3 - 2 caught. Others of the Morpho group. 4 (3 caught) Taygelis[?] 8 or 9. Enptychia 26 species, other allied species 4 or 5. of Nymphaline. I am not sure of the numbers about 40 I think Casagrammas[?] 6 comparing favorably with the Andes. Of Brycinids & Sheelas[?] I have not kept count that should think about 18 or 20 of former & 25-30 latter. Of Skippers ordinary & spreadwing about 40 species. I know however that I must have taken by this time at least 240 species for the actual count taken at the time I sent the collection to Tring[?] was 236 (I think quoting from memory that is the correct figure) & I know that I added 20 species within 6 months after & have added almost another 20 since. Now for the reason I have not said anything about the beetles. It was just sheer forgetfulness in every letter. I think you got the idea that I had sent them to M. Oberthur [?] thro my once writing something like this -- "I thought I had told you [[7]] that I had agreed to send the beetles to M. Oberthur." when you asked me what Rosenberg thought of or got for my beetles. But I did not intend you to think that I had sent them, not at all. Im sorry Ive kept forgetting to write of them. The reason Ive not sent them is that they were not ready to go with Gerald along with the Butterflies & since, I have been afraid to trust them to any one carrier in this cursed country lest they share the fate of my box. So they are here waiting for the time when we move too. I am making boxes now for them, as cigar boxes are unknown here & I have to saw the boards from the thick blocks with my handsaw. Pretty hard work to make several ¼ inch boards 10 inches long by 4 inches wide from shelf 4 inches thick but it has to be done & after all as the wood is cedar it is childs play compared to the labour of sawing the boards for the wheelbarrow. These I cut out of hardwood like Spanish mahogany -- a section of a log I chopped form a prostrate trunk. 11 inches thick & 2 ft. 6 inches long. I dont think you could find any man within 20 miles of a steam saw in England who wd be willing to saw 4 times thro. that thickness & length with a handsaw, not even for a £20 wages! I expect to finish these boxes in a few days then I can begin packing them & afterwards will pack the luggage & shall hope to really start away from here early in April. It is a pity you are even now sending letters to Caravellas. I suppose you will remember that the coll. sent to Tring[?] only brought me £53.12.0 so this impossibility of going to the Andes should be apparent to you. We hope to have enough to take us to some place up the Demerara or Berbice rivers & last us for 6 months whilst I am making a trist[?] coll. there. but we shall [[8]] have to economise to the last degree!

I am sorry that some parts of my letters do not appeal to you. I should have been glad to have my friend see as I see, but each man must follow the leading of his own genius. You say that there is nothing noble or worthy in a mans working all his life for a bare living & then dying in the workhouse. Does it not occur to you that as the world of men is constituted to day, it is more than likely that the worthiest & noblest are almost sure to "fail." pecuniarily as a direct consequence of their worth & nobleness which prevent them from engaging in the sordid scramble for riches? I am pretty confident that I could find more true gentlemen -- more of those who seek to live in the spirit, who try to make their actual lives conform to their highest aspirations, amongst 100 paupers than I could amongst 100 so called "successful" eity[?] merchants. Why should cooperative farming be any worthier than friendly individual effort? Again do you think that growing ones food will only result in tending the body? Listen to Thoreau: - "How shall we earn our bread is a grave question; yet it is a sweet & inviting question. Let us not shirk it as is usually done. This is the most important & practical question which is put to man. Let us not answer it hastily. Let us not be content to get our bread in some gross, careless, & hasty manner. Some men go a-hunting, some a-fishing, some a-gaming, some to war; but non have so pleasant a time as they who in earnest seek to earn their bread. It is true actually as it is true really; it is true materially as it is true spiritually that they who seek honestly & sincerely, with all their hearts & lives & strength, to earn their bread, do earn it, & it is sure to be very sweet to them. A very little bread, - a very few crumbs are enough, if it be of the right quality, for it is infinitely nutritious. Let each man, then, earn at least a crumb of bread for [[9]] his body before he dies, & know the taste of it, - that it is identical with the bread of life, & that they both go down at one swallow … What Nature is to the mind she is also to the body. As she feeds my imagination, she will feed my body; for what she says she means & is ready to do. She is not simply beautiful to the poets eye. Not only the rainbow & sunset are beautiful, but to be fed & clothed, sheltered & warmed aright are equally beautiful & inspiring. There is not necessarily any gross & ugly tat which may not be eradicated from the life of man. We should endeavour practically in our lives to correct all the defects which our imagination detects. The heavens are as deep as our aspirations are high. So high as a tree aspires to grow, so high will it find an atmosphere suited to it." Do you really mean what you say -- that the possession of a higher degree of intelligence frees a man from the necessity of labour? For this would appear from your words: - "IT is far more worthy of an intelligent human being to help to discover, to appreciate & to teach these complex laws of Nature…than to spend his whole life in labour to merely provide the material necessaries of life. To do the latter is very well for those who have a minimum of intellect. "I cant agree; the latter have as much right to leisure for study as the former have to give a part of their day towards maintaining themselves by labour. Im glad to see that you do add "To do some of it (labour) is good for all." but I cannot follow you when you say " but for nobility for worthiness as an intellectual being the study of nature is above growing "bread." Why! how is it possible for a man to grow his bread without studying Nature? Are not the [[10]] operations of natural selection as visible & sure & beautiful in the plant world as in the animal? I am perfectly sure that they are, & that the man who studies their action amongst the crops on his own farm will gain as wide & accurate (& perhaps a wider & more accurate) knowledge & appreciation of them as ever any did who studied insect alone. As to which is the more worthy pursuit if we would really arrive at the truth we must reduce the matter to its lowest terms & imagine ourself & one other man on an island together. How long do you think you would be content to let him furnish all your food whilst you collected the insects to give in return? I say you could not tolerate it a single month. You would not be able to look him in the face until you shared the labours of life with him & allowed him to share the pleasures. Every man who shirks his own proper amount of labour puts a double burden on some one else. Some poor drudges have to carry whole families on their backs -- no house maids, & some have to carry whole towns, as street sweepers & sewer cleansers. Ah, well might Edward Carpenter cry out that Civilization needs a cure. I, like all other men, need an all around development not a higher specialization. When we have once learned the principle of a thing what do we care for a million repetitions?

I wish to know more about the earth than I can learn as an entomologist merely. I am impelled towards other & wider fields. In short I desire to know the whole essential life of man by experience. In regards to making collections of living things which necessitate the killing of them, I believe that "the slightest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments & customs of mankind." And my final word on the nobility of calling of the planter is this -- In the eyes of all men whose opinion is worth having he will walk as Wordsworth says -- "In glory & in joy, behind his plough upon the mountain side." [The following was written vertically up the left side of the current page.] Please dont think from what I wrote on my p.c. that we have not cared for the N.A. We have been delighted with & proud of many of the articles.

Fred. [signature]


1. The sentence from "x" to "waiting for" is written in the left hand margin of page 1.

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