The Darwin Correspondence Project is a database of 5,000 letters written by and to the great naturalist Charles Darwin. The database, which was compiled by researchers at the University of Cambridge, has just gone online. It includes all the letters written by Darwin during his voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, as well as all those written around the time when On the Origin of Species was published. It also includes summaries of 9,000 other letters, some of which were written when Darwin was 12 years of age.
Below is the text of a letter to Darwin from John Stevens Henslow, a professor of botany. Henslow taught Darwin at Cambridge, and later became his friend. It is from this letter, which is dated 24th August, 1831, that Darwin first learns about the expedition of the H. M. S. Beagle.
My Dear Darwin,
Before I enter upon the immediate business of this letter, let us condole together upon the loss of our inestimable friend poor Ramsay of whose death you have undoubtedly heard long before this. I will not now dwell upon this painful subject as I shall hope to see you shortly fully expecting that you will eagerly catch at the offer which is likely to be made you of a trip to Terra del Fuego & home by the East Indies. I have been asked by Peacock who will read & forward this to you from London to recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt. Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America. I have stated that I consider you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation. I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History. Peacock has the appointment at his disposal & if he can not find a man willing to take the office, the opportunity will probably be lost. Capt. F. wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector & would not take any one however good a Naturalist who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman. Particulars of salary &c I know nothing. The Voyage is to last 2 yrs. & if you take plenty of Books with you, any thing you please may be done. You will have ample opportunities at command. In short I suppose there never was a finer chance for a man of zeal & spirit. Capt F. is a young man. What I wish you to do is instantly to come to Town & consult with Peacock (at No. 7 Suffolk Street Pall Mall East or else at the University Club) & learn further particulars. Don’t put on any modest doubts or fears about your disqualifications for I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of – so conceive yourself to be tapped on the shoulder by your Bum-Bailiff* & affecte friend.
J. S. Henslow
The expedn. is to sail on 25 Sept: (at earliest) so there is no time to be lost.
*Bum-Bailiff: A sheriff’s officer, who arrests debtors; so called perhaps from following his prey, and being at their bums, or, as the vulgar phrase is, hard at their a-ses. Blackstone says, it is a corruption of bound bailiff, from their being obliged to give bond for their good behaviour. (From The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose.)