Wallace Letters Online

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Record number: WCP829

Sent by:
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent to:
Neath Mechanics Institute
February 1849

Sent by Alfred Russel Wallace, Pará, Brazil to Neath Mechanics Institute, [Neath, Glamorganshire, Wales] on February 1849.

Record created:
18 March 2011 by NHM
Verified by:
22/05/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline (All except summary checked);


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LETTER (WCP829.1001)

A transcription handwritten by other in English.

This letter was transcribed by Wallace's mother, Mary Ann Wallace (née Greenell), and occupies the first 21 pages of notebook WP3/6. It was published in ARW's 1905 My Life Vol. 1 page 269. The notebook also contains notes, poems and a transcript of a letter from Herbert Wallace to Wallace's mother, which is dated 12 Nov 1849.

Held by:
Natural History Museum
Finding number:
NHM WP1/8/297
Copyright owner:
ŠA. R. Wallace Literary Estate
Record scrutiny:
22/05/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline;

Physical description

Transcription information





Feb[ruar]y 1849

To the members of the Neath Mechanics Institution

My Dear Friends

Having made a promise before I left Neath to my friend Mr Jevons, that I would write you a letter from Pará giving some account of the Country. I now proceed to do so, and I shall Endeavour to give you as much information as I can in the space of a not very long letter. I have now been in the Amazonian district about nine months part of which time I have spent in and about the City of Pará and part in journeys. one[sic] up the River Tocantins as far as the 4th parallel of S.[outh] Lat.[itude] and another to the Island of Mexiana (pronounced mishiana) situated near the mouth of the main streaks[stream?] of the Amazon where it is upwards of 100 miles wide, and to a part of the great Island of Marajo - I have thus seen a considerable extent of country, and had opportunities of observing many of the peculiar customs & strange natural productions of this great & fertile country.

I will therefore give you from observation & information a sketch of the main features of the Country, But[sic] will first allude to the impressions [[2]] made upon me by my first view of tropical scenery at the Equator in one of the Richest Countries in the World - previous to my leaving England I had read so much of travels in hot countries, had dwell[sic] so much on the enthusiastic descriptions most naturalists give of the surpassing beauty of tropical vegetation and the strange forms and brilliant colors[sic] of the animal world, that I had wrought myself up to the fever heat of expectation and it is not to be wondered at therefore that my first impressions were those of disappointment[.]

On my first walks into the Forest I looked about expecting to see monkeys as plentiful as at the Zoological Gardens, and humming birds and Parrots in profusion -- not for several days I could I get sight of a single monkey or bird of any kind, and began to think that these and the other peculiar productions of a tropical Country were much scarcer than were represented by travellers -- But I soon found that these animals were plentiful enough [[3]] when I knew how and where to look for them and that the number of distinct kinds of all1 is wonderfully great. The surpassing beauty2 of this Country to the naturalist is that while there appears at first sight so few there is in reality an inexhaustible variety of Animals - I do3 believe that in a single walk you may4 see more variety & greater numbers both of quadrupeds birds & insects in England than here; but on seeking them day after day the immense variety of strange forms and beautiful colors[sic] is really astonishing -- For instance in no one place in England can a person find probably more than 30 distinct kinds of Butterflies - but here in Two months I obtained near 500 distinct sorts - many of extraordinary size with the most brilliant colours. There is one thing however, all the beauty & grandeur5 of which may be seen in a single walk; It is the "virgin forest"[.] Here no one who has any feeling of the sublime and magnificent can be disappointed, the sombre shade scarce illuminated by a single ray of [1 word illeg.] a tropical sun, The[sic] Enormous size of the height of the trees, most of which rise like [[4]] like huge columns a hundred feet or more before throwing out a single bough, the curious buttresses springing out at the base of some, the spiny or furrowed stems of others - the extraordinary creepers & climbers which wind around them, hanging in huge festoons from trunk to trunk sometimes throwing twining & twisting on the earth like great Serpents, then mounting to the highest summits & thense[sic] sending down roots & fibres which hang waving for hundreds of feet in the air or twisting around each other [to] form ropes & cables of every variety of size & often the most perfect regularity, these & many other curious features, the parasite plants growing on the stems, the wonderful variety of the foliage, the strange fruits & seeds laying6 rotting in the ground, all surpass Everything that can be described & produce feelings in the beholder of admiration & awe! It is here to7 that the rarest birds the most lovely insects & the most curious animals are to be found - Here lurk the Onca & the [[5]] Boa constrictor, and here from the deepest shade the "Bell bird" tolls his peal. But I must leave these details & return to some more general description of the Country --

The whole country for some hundreds of miles about Para is almost a perfect flat which appears to be elevated perhaps 30 or 40 feet above the River & the only slopes are where running streams occur which flow in shallow scarce perceptible valley[s.] The great Island of Marago8 is equally flat & the Island of Mexiana which is about 40 miles long is more so, there not being I believe a rise or fall of 10 feet over the whole of it. Up the Tocantins however the country varies[.] At 100 miles from its mouth the bed of the river becomes rocky and the country undulating with hills of 400 to 500 feet high[sic] entirely covered with Forest with the exception of a few places on the banks where small extents of a more open ground occur where cattle can graze, Higher up this river are very extensive Campos9 & comparatively very little Forest. In the Islands of Marago & Mexiana the whole district is open flat campo the banks of all [[6]] the river streams &c being skirted with thick wood so that a person sailing round these islands & up the rivers would pronounce them to be one great Forest whereas they are in fact one great Campos the forest being quite insignificant ----

The whole of the Para district is wonderfully intersected by streams & the country being so flat there are frequently cross streams connecting the others so as to form islands of large tracts of land -- Up all these the tide flows and on the bank of them all villages, Houses & estates are situated, and all being navigable for canoes and many for larger vessels, there is probably no country in the World which presents such facilities for internal communication --

The climate of the district of Pará cannot be spoken too highly of - the temperature is wonderfully uniform 12o.. being the general lowest temperature of the night10 extent of the variation of the Thermometer and 20o.. the extreme variation. The general lowest temp[erature] at night is 74o the height of the day 86o.. but at times these are 70 o.. & 90 o.. [[7]] though11 out of all times of the day & constantly exposed to the vertical sun I have never suffered any ill effects from the heat or even experienced so much inconvenience from it as I have done during a hot summer at Home. There are two principal divisions of the year into the wet & dry season called here Winter & Summer - The wet is from Jan[uar]y to June during which time it rains more or less every day - but seldom the whole day, the mornings being almost all fine -- The Dry season to[o], is by no means what it is in some parts of the World it still rains every 3 or 3 days & it is a rare thing for more than a week to pass without a shower, so that vegetation is never [1 word illeg.] up, but a continual round of verdure prevails throughout the Year. The Palm flatness of the country, the quantity of water in the form of rivers & marshes & the situation near the Equator would lead most persons to suppose the place unhealthy, but such is far from being the case. I doubt if any place in England can be found more generally healthy than Pará, the English & Americans who have lived here the longest look the healthiest, & I would challenge [[8]] a comparison between many who have lived here 10 20 or 40 years and the farmers of the healthiest English counties - As for myself I have never12 enjoyed the most perfect health and spirits without the necessity of near so many precautions as are required at Home the nights are so delightfully mild & pure that though (following the example of others here) I have walked out without any additional clothing often without a Hat, have frequently got exposed to the night air without putting on the coat or waistcoat which I had been without during the day & have even slept on the deck of a vessel through a pretty sharp shower of rain, yet I have never caught a cold or suffered the slightest ill effects from what in England as well as many tropical countries would certainly bring on fever or some other severe illness. This description of the climate applies only to the district around the city -- Up the Tocantins we had only one shower in five weeks and in one place the people had not had rain for three months[.] [[9]] In Mexiana the wet season is 8 months & the dry 4 in which not a single shower occurs -- I must now say a few words about the natural productions of the Country - The vegetables13 of Para are very numerous and interesting -- The immense variety if forest trees and Palms are what is most striking in it[.] There are upwards of 30 different kinds of Palms the leaves branches & fruit of all of them have their peculiar use -- One elegant species the stem of which though not thicker than a mans arm rises to the height of 60 to 80 feet produces a fruit from which a preparation called Assayeé is made on which half of the city nearly subsist -- Rope is made of the fibres of one kind which is universally used for the cables of the river vessels - The Houses of the country people are frequently entirely constructed of the various parts of the Palm trees -- their stems & leaf stalks split into perfectly straight pieces of uniform thickness forming Laths Rafters &c without any tools being required but the large large[sic]14 knife which everyone possesses -- The inside of the leaf stalks often [[10]] 20 feet long & 3 in[ches] in diameter is a kind of pith15, splits up straight & can be cut with a pocket knife -- This is used in making window shutters, light doors, gates & fences also bird cages, light boxes and a hundred other little16 articles -- The different timbers of the houses in the Country are entirely fastened together with the natural ropes of the forest, the climbers called sipoos. These are of all thicknesses proportioned to the work to be done and are as tough and durable & are used as neatly and effectively as rope -- not an oz[ounce] of Iron is necessary here to construct a house -- The household utensils are furnished by the Calabashes & Gourd, & earthen vessels they made themselves17 -- A man here may (and many do) grow their18 own Coffee Sugar, Cotton, Indian corn, Farinha (the bread of the country) Oranges Bannanas Bananas, Plantains, Melons, Cocoanuts and a variety of other fruits as well as Tobacco[.] In fact all the necessities of life -- The great articles of export here are however [[11]] Indian19 Rubber & Brazil nuts, and large quantities of Cocoa -- The entire consumption of these first named articles is I believe supplied by Pará[.] The rubber is the milky juice of a large forest tree. It is collected and formed into shoes and bottles on clay moulds & blackened by smocking[sic]20 over a fire in which the nuts of a particular kind of Palm are burnt -- most of the rubber is exported to the21 States where it is manufactured into a much greater variety of articles than in England[.]

The most abundant fruits here are Oranges, Bananas, Pineapples, Water mellons[sic], Allegator[sic] pears, Custard apples, Mangoes, Cashews Cocoa nuts22 & several wild fruits much eaten by the natives, but mostly disagreeable to me the Oranges is[sic]23 decidedly the most delicious & wholesome fruit in the Country, they are here very abundant can be had all the year round and are most excellent quality; the price varies from 4 to 1/ a Basket containing ab[ou]t a Bush[e]l, Pine24 & many other fruits are as cheap in proportion but none equals the Orange as a fruit to be constantly eaten. -- I must [[12]] now say a few words ab[ou]t the Animal Kingdom[.] The monkeys are one of the most interesting tribe and they are here very abundant but require some care to get a sight of them, The[sic] variety of different species is immense -- and there are no doubt many which are yet unknown to Europe -- most of the species here have the power of holding by the extremities of their tails and it is very interesting to watch their movements when well concealed by thick foliage -- If you make the least noise they are off in a moment swinging themselves from bough to bough & running[?] over the tops of the trees & bushes till in half a minute not one is to be seen, They[sic] live in trees, never descending to the ground & in this region of forests they can travel hundreds of miles on their leafy road25 -- having almost as little connection with the Earth below as the Swift or the Frigate bird -- Of what may be termed wild beasts the Onca26 is the most powerful [[13]] and dangerous, while I was in27 Mexiana seven or eight were killed, but I never had the good fortune to fall in with one myself -- The Tapir, the Capybara, the Armadillo, Sloth, Agouti & the Puma are animals which are all more or less abundant here but which I can now merely name -- Many of our28 birds are very beautiful & curious, Macaws, Parrots, Toucans and Chatterers are among the most common and splendid, Humming birds are not very abundant, but there are some beautiful species[.]

On29 Mexiana & Marajo [1 word deleted illeg.] those splendid birds the Scarlet Ibis & Roseate Spoonbill abound with hundreds of Storks Herons duck, divers, plovers & other aquatic birds[.]

Lizards are very plentiful30 & the Boa constrictor is by no means uncommon & is looked upon and is31 as quite a harmless animal as indeed it really seems to be like many other things not half so bad in reality as in imagination -- There are many fine Fish five or six feet long which are [[14]] Eaten, and one the Pirárécir[Pirurucu?] forms when dried the staple article of food of the Country --

With some remarks on the Inhabitants &c I must conclude.32 The natives may be said to consist of three races, the Brazilians, Indians & Negroes33 with a countless variety of mixed races34, the Indians ab[ou]t the city who are a tolerably civilized race and speak the Portuguese language go by the name of Tapcoyahi[?] - They many of them live in little huts in the woods cultivate a small patch of manioc & Bananas & shoot game, numbers however work regularly at various Employments in and about the City -- The Negroes were of course originally all slaves, but a large number are now free, from either having purchased their freedom or from their35 Masters at their death leaving their household slaves free which is rather frequently done & There[sic] is scarcely an estate on which there is not some hired labour, the slave population being [[15]] quite inadequate to do the whole work of the Country, little as that is, Slaves are principally employed in the cultivation of Sugar & on the cattle estates as well as36 the household work. They appear to be an exceedingly talkative, merry contented race as honest as can be expected and in many cases where well treated exceedingly faithful and trustworthy -- generally speaking they are not hard worked and are treated with comparative kindness & lenity, I had been told before coming to the country by persons who had been here before that "I would find slavery a very different thing from what I read of it in England, - that the slaves were frequently the masters, that they were well fed, did little work & were happy & contented and that it would be well for England if Her poor were as well off as the Slaves in Brazill [sic]37 [.] Now all this is perfectly true but I do not see what it has to do with the questions whether Slavery is right or wrong, whether it is a good or an evil. I have seen nothing here to alter one iota the opinion I have always had of [[16]] Slavery, That it is a wrong to the slave and an evil to the slaveholder and a clog upon the prosperity of the Country in which it exists. When I see a slave well treated attached to his master, looking respectable & happy and bearing a good character it seems hardly credible that Tomorrow sh[oul]d his master die the Slave is liable to be sold like a Horse or a dog to one person his Wife & child or Brother to another to be torn away from all his friends all connections with whom he has associated from childhood and then should he from38 grief render him inattentive or careless to the new master, to be beaten or tortured tortured39 in any way that his owners cruelty may suggest -- and yet this is the case which may and does occur daily -- and such instances must produce the more poignant suffering as the previous treatment has been more kind, or domestic affections have had more opportunities for ripening & the burthen[?] of slavery been unfill[?]. -- So that as [[17]] some zealous advocates of temperance have pronounced the moderate drinker worse than the drunkard; so we may be almost inclined to assert That slavery when disguised by kindness & when some rights & privileges of freedom are allowed Is worse than where it exists in its full enormity when the slave is denied all rights & wants & 40feelings of humanity and is treated as any other Brute property --

It will41 there find no European advocate as under its mildest form I am sorry to say it often does, but its upholders in every land42 will be treated with all the detestation & ignominy they deserve --43 On looking at a good map of Brazil you will find the province of Pará in an immense district extending ab[ou]t 1200 miles from E[ast] to W[est] and 600 from N[orth] to S[outh] a country equal in extent to all England France & Spain together or to the whole of the United States E[ast] of the Mississippi -- This district produces several most vegetable substances & will grow all that are most in demand such as [[18]] Sugar, Coffee, rice, Indian corn &c It is intersected in every direction by navigable Rivers and distruction[sic] of property arising from Hurricanes or Earthquakes is unknown [.] It is the outlet too by means of the Amazon and its numerous branches of the greatest extent of Country in the World -- Thus favored[sic] one would suppose that Pará the city through which all imports & exports to and from this immense region must pass, would be a place of great and increasing trade, But such is not the case the whole foreign trade of Pará does not employ more than from 15 to 20 small vessels & there appears for some years to have been no increase -- The causes of this are various [.] The nature of the prinicpal exports, Rubber & Brazil nuts is such that they can only be collected at particular seasons & the trees being widely scattered over a vast extent of Country the occupation is a wandering and irregular one very well suited to the tastes of the half civilized Indians who follow it -- But by preventing them from getting into [[19]] settled & civilized habits & acquiring the wants of civilized life it does much to retard the extension of commerce -- Almost all the only44 Brazilians or foreigners in the interior of the country are merchants who purchase their products of the various natives & supply them with the articles they require. --

scarcely[sic]45 such a thing as cultivation of any thing but the Mandioc[sic]46 is known in all the vast extent of the Country -- The natural productions of the forest are here what Gold is in some other parts of Brazil, a mode of getting a living thought preferable to cultivation or any regular employment. Yet in the city these same half47 Indians work so regularly & so well at all kinds of labour, trades &c that I have no doubt they might by proper management be induced to labour in the raising of Sugar & Coffee which being articles of which there is constantly an increasing demand would soon give an impulse to commerce [.]

The only regular plantations are those in the neighbourhood of Pará, cultivated [[20]] principally or entirely by Slaves -- Sugar cane is the usual general crop from which Sugar and large quantities of the rum of the country are manufactured[.] The slaves are generally heirlooms in the families descending with the land, but there is no doubt that their labour reckoning the first cost comes much dearer & less profitable than free labour -- The people say the Indians never work regularly, there is no dependence on them & without Slaves many kinds of business could not be carried on -- But as it is many persons having an insufficient number of Slaves employ an equal number of free labourers of whom there seems no complaint.

The Portuguese & Brazilians themselves seem to work at nothing but commerce[.] But in this country as in every other There must be Agriculture to sustain and extend commerce -- A few hundreds of American back woods men who would push into the forests -- clear & cultivate by themselves at first would soon draw [[21]] villagers around them and do more to improve & populate the country than all the Brazilians & Portuguese in it -- The people here are exceedingly & universally polite, they are generally temperate and peacable -- The streets of Pará are more free from drunkeness quarrelling and rows than those of any Town I Know in England or Wales -- In fact I have never yet seen any disturbance of the slightest kind -- This partly arises from the disposition of the people & partly from numerous Police ----

Fearful of exhausting your patience I will now conclude hoping some day to make you acquainted with many interesting details impossible to mention in a letter, I have been most highly gratified to hear from my Brother that the Institution progresses favorably[sic] and that the new building answers the purposes for which it was erected ----

With my my best wishes for your happiness and welfare | I remain your sincere friend │A R Wallace48


1. The words "of them" have been inserted at a later date.

2. The word "beauty" has been crossed out and replaced by "interest" at a later date.

3. The word "do" has been replaced by "almost" at a later date.

4. The word "sometimes" has been inserted at a later date.

5. This text has been later altered to read "There is however one thing the beauty & grandeur".

6. The word "laying" has been replaced with "which lie" at a later date.

7. This has been revised at a later date to read "It is here too, that".

8. Correctly spelt "Marajo".

9. The words "or open country" have been added at a later date.

10. The words "lowest temperature of the night" have been crossed out at a later date.

11. The words "I have been" have been added at this point at a later date.

12. The word "never" has been crossed through at a later date.

13. The words "vegetables" has been replaced by "vegetable products" at a later date.

14. The second "large" has been replaced by the word "broad" at a later date.

15. The word "which" has been inserted after "pith" at a later date.

16. The word "little" has been deleted at a later date.

17. This sentence has been heavily amended at a later date to read "The household utensils are furnished by fruit of the Calabash tree, & various kinds of Gourd, while earthen jars and cooking pots are made everywhere."

18. The word "their" has been crossed out and replaced by the word "his" at a later date.

19. The word "Indian" has been changed to "India" at a later date.

20. The word "smocking" has been corrected to "smoking" at a later date.

21. The word "United" has been inserted at this point at a later date.

22. The words "Cocoa nuts" has been amended to "Coco nuts" at a later date.

23. The words "the Oranges is" have been amended to "Oranges are" at a later date.

24. The word "Pine" has been altered to "Pineapple" and the comma preceding it has been changed to a full stop at a later date.

25. The word "road" has been replaced by "country" at a later date.

26. The words "somewhat similar to a leopard" have been inserted at this point at a later date.

27. The words "the island of" have been inserted at this point at a later date.

28. The word "our" has been changed to "the" at a later date.

29. The words "the large islands of" have been inserted at this point at a later date.

30. The word "everywhere", followed by a comma, has been inserted at this point at a later date.

31. The words "and is" have been deleted at a later date.

32. The whole sentence "With some remarks on the Inhabitants &c I must conclude." has been deleted at a later date.

33. The word "the" has been inserted before "Indians" and "Negroes" and a comma has been added after "Indians" at a later date.

34. The words "mixed races" have been deleted and replaced by "half-breeds" at a later date.

35. The word "their" has been deleted at a later date.

36. The word "for" has been inserted here at a later date.

37. The word "Brazill" has been corrected to "Brazil" and quote marks added at a later date at this point.

38. The words "he from" have been deleted at a later date.

39. The word "tortured" has been deleted at a later date.

40. The words "& wants" have been deleted and the word "all" inserted at a later date.

41. The word "will" has been underlined at a later date.

42. The words "in every land" have been deleted at a later date.

43. A full stop and paragraph have been added at this point at a later date.

44. The words "all the only" have been crossed through and replaced by "all the" at a later date.

45. The word "scarcely" has been amended to "Scarcely" at a later date.

46. "Mandioc" should be "Manioc". The words "and the Cacao Tree," have been inserted at this point at a later date.

47. The word "half" has been deleted at a later date.

48. The original letter has been copied into a notebook, apparently by Wallaces mother, so this is not Wallaces actual signature.

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