T. H. Huxley
Letters and Diary 1846

Some sketches by T. H. H. appear in his letters. Those that do not appear in the letters themselves, but are attached are separated by horizontal lines; all of his art-work is captioned in PINK; pictures of him in RED Text and illustrations from:

Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley
Julian Huxley, Diary of H. M. S. Rattlesnake
John, Narrative of the Voyage of H. M. S. Rattlesnake
National Library of Australia
Library of New South Wales
Huxley Archives, Imperial College of Science and Technology.
The Elgin Museum

Among many other sites of letters are, the American Philosophical Society, the University of Oklahoma, Duke University, the Huntington Museum, the Houghton Library, the National Library of Scotland. All text in standard 12 point are from sources, bracketed items supplied by source editor; items in 9 point are supplied by present editors. All letters and notebooks are signaled by TEAL.

Lieutenant Surgeon T. H. Huxley

J. Huxley, Diary

Tailor Bill

April 1846
J. Huxley, Diary

May 24, 1846


[To Mrs. Elizabeth Scott]

. . . As I see no special queries in your letter, I think I shall go on to tell you what that same way of life is likely to be–my fortune having already been told for me (for the next five years at least). I told you in my last that I was likely to have a permanency here. Well, I was recommended by Sir John Richardson, and should have certainly had it, had not (luckily) the Admiralty put in a man of their own. Having a good impudent faith in my own star (Wie das Gestirn, ohne Hast, ohne Rast), I knew this was only because I was to have something better, and so it turned out; for a day or two after I was ousted from the museum, Sir J. Richardson (who has shown himself for some reason or another a special good friend to me) told me that he had received a letter from Captain Owen Stanley, who is to command an exploring expedition to New Guinea (not coast of Africa, mind), requesting him to recommend an assistant surgeon for this expedition–would I like the appointment? As you may imagine I was delighted at the offer, and immediately accepted it. I was recommended accordingly to Captain Stanley and Sir W. Burnett, and I shall be appointed as soon as the ship is in commission. We are to have the Rattlesnake, a 28-gun frigate, and as she will fit out here I shall have no trouble. We sail probably in September.

New Guinea, as you may be aware, is a place almost unknown, and our object is to bring back a full account of its Geography, Geology, and Natural History. In the latter department with which I shall have (in addition to my medical functions) somewhat to do, we shall form one grand collection of specimens and deposit it in the British Museum or some other public place, and this main object being always kept in view, we are at liberty to collect and work for ourselves as we please. Depend upon it unless some sudden attack of laziness supervenes, such an opportunity shall not slip unused out of my hands. The great difficulty in such a wide field is to choose an object. In this point, however, I hope to be greatly assisted by the scientific folks, to many of whom I have already had introductions (Owen, Gray, Grant, Forbes), and this, I assure you, I look upon as by no means the least of the advantages I shall derive from being connected with the expedition. I have been twice to town to see Captain Stanley. He is a son of the Bishop of Norwich, is an exceedingly gentlemanly man, a thorough scientific enthusiast, and shows himself altogether very much disposed to forward my views in every possible way. Being a scientific man himself he will take care to have the ship's arrangements as far as possible in harmony with scientific pursuits–a circumstance you would appreciate as highly as I do if you were as well acquainted as I now am with the ordinary opportunities of an assistant surgeon. Furthermore, I am given to understand that if one does anything at all, promotion is almost certain. So that altogether I am in a very fair way, and would snap my fingers at the Grand Turk. Wharton Jones was delighted when I told him about my appointment. Dim visions of strangely formed corpuscles seemed to cross his imagination like the ghosts of the kings in Macbeth.

    What seems his head
The likeness of a nucleated cell has on.

October 6, 1846

My dearest Lizzie–At last I have really got my appointment and joined my ship. I was so completely disgusted with the many delays that had occurred that I made up my mind not to write to anybody again until I had my commission in my hand. Henceforward, like another Jonah, my dwelling-place will be the "inwards" of the Rattlesnake, and upon the whole I really doubt whether Jonah was much worse accommodated, so far as room goes, than myself. My total length, as you are aware, is considerable, 5 feet 11 inches, possibly, but the height of the lower deck of the Rattlesnake, which will be my especial location, is at the outside 4 feet 10 inches. What I am to do with the superfluous foot I cannot divine. Happily, however, there is a sort of skylight into the berth, so that I shall be able to sit with the body in it and my head out.

Apart from joking, however, this is not such a great matter, and it is the only thing I would see altered in the whole affair. The officers, as far as I have seen them, are a very gentlemanly, excellent set of men, and considering we are to be together for four or five years, that is a matter of no small importance. I am not given to be sanguine, but I confess I expect a good deal to arise out of this appointment. In the first place, surveying ships are totally different from the ordinary run of men-of-war. The requisite discipline is kept up, but not in the martinet style. Less form is observed. From the men who are appointed having more or less scientific turns, they have more respect for one another than that given by mere position in the service, and hence that position is less taken advantage of. They are brought more into contact, and hence those engaged in the surveying service almost proverbially stick by one another. To me, whose interest in the service is almost all to be made, this is a matter of no small importance.

Then again, in a surveying ship you can work. In an ordinary frigate if a fellow has the talents of all the scientific men from Archimedes downwards compressed into his own peculiar skull they are all lost. Even if it were possible to study in a midshipmen's berth, you have not room in your "chat" for more than a dozen books. But in the Rattlesnake the whole poop is to be converted into a large chart-room with bookshelves and tables and plenty of light. There I may read, draw, or microscopise at pleasure, and as to books, I have a carte blanche from the Captain to take as many as I please, of which permission we shall avail ourself–rather–and besides all this, from the peculiar way in which I obtained this appointment, I shall have a much wider swing than assistant surgeons in general get. I can see clearly that certain branches of the natural history work will fall into my hands if I manage properly through Sir John Richardson, who has shown himself a very kind friend all throughout, and also through Captain Stanley I have been introduced to several eminent zoologists–to Owen and Gray and Forbes of King's College. From all these men much is to be learnt which becomes peculiarly my own, and can of course only be used and applied by me. From Forbes especially I have learned and shall learn much with respect to dredging operations (which bear on many of the most interesting points of zoology). In consequence of this I may very likely be entrusted with the carrying of them out, and all that is so much the more towards my opportunities. Again, I have learnt the calotype process for the express purpose of managing the calotype apparatus, for which Captain Stanley has applied to the Government.

And having once for all enumerated all these meaner prospects of mere personal advancement, I must confess I do glory in the prospect of being able to give myself up to my own favourite pursuits without thereby neglecting the proper duties of life. And then perhaps by the following of my favourite motto–

    Wie das Gestirn,
Ohne Hast,
Ohne Rast–

something may be done, and some of Sister Lizzie's fond imaginations turn out not altogether untrue.

I perceive that I have nearly finished a dreadfully egotistical letter, but I know you like to hear of my doings, so shall not apologise. Kind regards to the Doctor and kisses to the babbies. Write me a long letter all about yourselves.–Your affect. brother,

T. H. Huxley

December 10, 1846

Plymouth Sound

Thank God! fitting out is at last over. We have no more caprices to fear but those of the wind–a small matter after having been exposed to those of the Admiralty. I can at length sit down and form some clear idea of the things to be done and the plan I must pursue so as to turn to the utmost advantage the opportunities this expedition will afford me. Not that past experience gives me much reason for believing that I shall ever steadily adhere to a given plan–but still it is well to have such a guiding thread–be it but for the purpose of fixing the thoughts steadily on the main points and not allowing the mind to be frittered away on whatever falls across it.

I must keep two points in view, 1st. that I am simply a student; 2nd. from the peculiar circumstances in which I am placed, care and caution in observation may enable me to become a teacher with regard to particular points. And on my success in this latter matter my future prospects and my usefulness in this appointment clearly depend.

Not only my previous habits and tastes but the nature of the accommodation and opportunities afforded by the ship, clearly point to the study of the habits and structure of the more perishable or rare marine productions as that most likely to be profitable. Naturalising for systematic purposes is not à mon gré. My memory is not sufficiently selective of these facts to give me any hope of attaining profound systematic knowledge–and furthermore all the naming and determining of place is far better done by those who sit in museums at home.

But what I can do and they cannot and where therefore the chief value of my position is: I can observe 1. the "habits" of living bodies, 2. their mode of development and generation, 3. their anatomy by dissection of fresh specimens, 4. their histology by microscopic observation.

But here again if I take these points in all their generality it is a field far too vast for me to hope to work out my plans –I must restrict them still more narrowly. After much thought I do not think I can do better than take the following points for special investigation.

1. The procuring of as many as possible of the brains of fishes, as suggested by Prof. Owen.

2. The dissecting as many as possible of the Mollusca for the purpose of ascertaining whether their structure (especially of the Nervous System) is not reducible to some unity, such as that shown to exist by Mr [G?] in the Acephala alone. The structure of the shells might be left to a future opportunity but their development should especially be looked after.

Histology also must not be forgotten here although the thorough working out of this part of the subject might well be left till one's return.

3. The anatomy and especially the mode of generation of the large Cirripedes and Annellids [sic].

4. Diligent search after new Epizoa upon the gills, eyes, etc., of fishes.

5. Careful dissections of the large Radiata, especially of the Trepang.

6. Zoology–Anatomy–Histology of the Acalephae with especial care and for the purpose of being fully acquainted with this subject study carefully the works of Lesson and Will.

7. Careful study of all matters relating to coral and corallines, especially to the animals of the latter.

All these are things which I can attend to myself and in which I neither interfere with nor need the assistance of any one else. I shall strive after nothing else, but if opportunities are set before me, e.g. with regard to dredging matters, I shall by no means neglect them.

What on earth shall I need?

Sketch by T. H. H. at Port Stephens, 1847.
National Library of Australia

December 1846

From Plymouth, to his mother

You will be very glad to know that I am exceedingly comfortable here. My cabin has now got into tolerable order, and what with my books–which are, I am happy to say, not a few–my gay curtain and the spicy oilcloth which will be down on the floor, looks most respectable. Furthermore, although it is an unquestionably dull day I have sufficient light to write here, without the least trouble, to read, or even if necessary, to use my microscope. I went to see a friend of mine on board the Recruit the other day, and truly I hugged myself when I compared my position with his. The berth where he and seven others eat their daily bread is hardly bigger than my cabin, except in height–and, of course, he has to sleep in a hammock. My friend is rather an eccentric character, and, being missed in the ship, was discovered the other day reading in the maintop–the only place, as he said, sufficiently retired for study. And this is really no exaggeration. If I had no cabin I should take to drinking in a month.

"Am I not a man & a brother?"

Lieutenant Huxley in hulk of prison ship quarters.
Huxley Archives

H. M. S. Rattlesnake

J. Huxley, Diary

December 26, 1846

A fair wind is carrying us fast away from Madeira. What has a week's stay enabled me to say about the place? But little, if we leave out notes of admiration, for the feelings produced by the rival beauties of its scenery would require for their fit expression more eloquence than I possess. Nature is a true tragedian–her most painful throes, her wildest struggles have all within them some element of beauty–even in death she covers her face, like Caesar, with a graceful mantle. [Rather sublime than otherwise, I calculate. Jany. 1849] So in this island, a huge monument of some awful volcanic phenomenon–made up of wild peaks with intervening deep gullies and ravines, often carrying within them clear evidence of the ravages of mountain torrents. Nature has so kindly and artistically arranged the various parts: has so softened the variegated brightness of the hills, with here a soft white cloud resting on its summit, here a deep unfathomable-looking valley, and there a patch of vegetation; putting in by way of frame a sky and sea of the bluest blue, and at times as it were in pure wanton sport half decking, half hiding the mountain scenery with rainbows, that the whole produces a soft and harmonious scene on which the eye dwells without tiring. Much of my own pleasure of course arises from mere novelty. Mountain scenery is new to me, and the semi-tropical vegetation, the bananas, the cactuses and the palm trees, call to mind all that I have ever read of foreign countries and give me a foretaste of the far south. But that cursed Master at Arms has come, with his "Three bells, sir".

December 31, 1846 Sat.: at Mid-day 21° 12'.

Within the tropics: but the weather by no means so warm on the whole as it was at Madeira.

To finish my record of the latter place: the town of Funchal is a regular whited sepulchre–fair to look upon but all stinks within. The style of architecture of the houses strikes one at once as something foreign and brought up in my mind the pictures of an old French edition of Gil Blas . As to the public buildings it is quite impossible to say to what style they belong–Portuguese Gothic, I imagine. The cathedral is a most tawdry affair, by daylight at any rate. I visited it on Christmas Eve wh. I understand to be a great festival among the inhabitants, and heard some chanting of a most vile description. Add to this that it would be difficult to say who evinced more indifference as to what was going on–the choristers or the people and Santa Maria! What a stink there was. I was glad to get away, even at the risk of being walked off by some of the Portuguese pimps who [? hail] you at every step.

So far as interiors go I can only speak as to the house of our kind and hospitable friend at the American Consulate. This was very comfortable and well fitted up, the beautiful tropical plants in the little courtyard in front giving it a most pleasant appearance. We tasted his wine in all stages of development from the raw new stuff up to the delicious "Poison" of ten years old.

I made two excursions into the country–one to the famous Corral [Curral, MacGillivray], the other to the Camera de Lobos [l’Obos, MacGillivray]. The ride to the Corral I shall not soon forget. The road is bad enough in itself and it needed not my indifferent horsemanship to throw the stimulus of danger into the general excitement. How we scuttled along those narrow pathways, Brady and Park and I, with a perpendicular rock on our right and an equally perpendicular precipice on our left, our hold on terra firma being entirely confined to some five feet of rough stones called a road, between these two.

What surprised me most was that though altogether unused to doings of this kind, the idea of danger never entered my head. On the contrary I cried "Vamos" and whacked my good steed with the lead. Extreme hunger produced by the keen mountain air was the only drawback on my enjoyment of the sublime and beautiful. Shall I confess it–that a crust of brown bread would have been worth much to me, even on the top of that glorious peak which looks into the Corral–and an orange much more.

(The new year has just come in, accompanied by one drum, one accordion, and a whistle.)

Letters of 1847

Letter Index



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden