The Collected Letters of Sarah Maria Smythe: Communicating Darwin’s Coral Growth Theory to Belfast Readers, Ten Months in the Fiji Islands (1864)

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Abstract Summary
In Ten Months in the Fiji Islands (1864) Sarah Maria Smythe narrated her military husband’s recent evaluation of the strategic and economic feasibility of British plans to annex the Fiji archipelago. Her published letters described her own contributions to concurrent Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew-sponsored explorations of the islands’ floral resources. Her drawings of coral reefs, however, document her application of the science of geology, and Charles Darwin’s theory of reef growth, to explain configurations of Fijian marine regions. Sarah Maria Smythe’s correspondence in Ten Months in the Fiji Islands (1864) has been briefly studied under the genre of Victorian women’s Pacific-region travel narratives (Claudia Knapman 1997). Keeping with the HSS conference theme “Telling the Story of Science,” I situate Smythe’s illustrations of reef architecture, rendered as chromolithographs by the celebrated Vincent Brooks, within the public education on the science of geology during a robust schedule of public lectures in Belfast. I argue that Smythe, member of a prominent household in Protestant Northern Ireland, engaged with theoretical geology during Belfast’s self-identification as active participant in networks of British colonial-region resource management. More broadly, the Belfast education series framed Darwin’s coral research to general audiences in the context of environmental change, themes subsequently conveyed to the public as Origin of Species (1859) circulated in Ireland through lending libraries and in printed reviews. Smythe’s volume demonstrates the nineteenth-century public embrace of contemporary geological theory and field research as one element in a Victorian-era scientific toolkit used to evaluate resources in changing imperial environments.
Abstract ID :
Submission Type
Organized Session
Abstract Topic
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Chronological Classification :
19th century