To William Thiselton-Dyer   1 January 1881





In first instance, dear Mr Dyer, let me offer my felicitation to the new year; may it be to you and your family one of health and happiness. Next let me in justice remark, that some few grains of the first lot sown at a friends place of the Pannicum2 seeds from tropical Africa have germinated; so among the flowers are also a few seedgrains,3 and we will be able to add thus this species to the rural flora of Australia. On careful examination I find however, that these flowers (and seeds) do not respond to the description of Pannicum spectabile. Possibly the Negros comprehend several species of Pannicum under the appellation Coapim. It will be well worth while for Kew, to follow up this matter more fully.4

As I have occasion thus to write to you, I must send you some reply to your letter of the 15 September,5 as evidently you have no clear idea about my official position here, such as it is now.

Whoever may be the distinguished "Statesman" with whom you are befriended or acquainted; I must say, that in extra-political matters such as science he evinces a singular want of competency of judgement, that is to say, if he endorses the dictum, that my scientific position was merely maintained out of consideration to myself or some similar ideas enunciated by him. Of course we can stop at any time the phytographic work, of which Victoria was rather proud, and let other colonies get the adscendency. But that from a Victorian does not evince enlightened statesmanship and every high minded man should set himself against such crude notions. Selwyn was driven out of Victoria to Canada, where he is now glorified, while the geologic work of our colony here was stopped.6 Why does Britain not follow the example?! — according to such ideas.

You refer to the monetary question; that throughout has had no consideration with me, as regards salary. What I had as income & private property I have cheerfully spent on my bot. service, but a salary represents only a small fraction of departmental endowment, of which at the slightest reflection you will be cognisant at Kew. Nominally my salary may be equal to that of such illustrious men as Owen, Hooker & Huxley. But who in the whole world would compare a Victorian emolument to one in Britain? The most ordinary vitals may in retail be cheaper here than in England, but rent and nearly everything else is so very much dearer, that it is useless to institute comparisons of this kind; this would however say, that the positions of your leading men of science are monetary much undervalued. In my own case remember, that I have not even an office room left, and that for a series of years £120 annually had to be paid out of my Salary for office rent!

Do me the justice to spend a holiday in reading my Directors Reports on the garden from 1857-1869;7 you will not regret having read them and you will then see how helpless I am now for that work, which the Colonists ask from me, whether investigations on Phylloxera, or Oidium,whether tests of growth of trees or the applicability of their timber; whether jurors work at Exhibitions or to prepare articles of vegetable sources for them, whether the introduction of new fodder plants or their chemical analysis &c &c. Say at any rate one kind word of sympathy, such as your regret[,] that even my laboratory was pulled down and my apparatus taken from me, when the whole administration of the Laboratory even in this expensive city cost only £150 annually. — Certainly, merely for descriptive botany no Government in the world would keep up any Department; hence I am forced to bring out utilitarian works mainly for the colonists and have little opportunity to advance even the Australian flora by new researches, being since I left the garden even unable to keep a collector in the field and required like you to work for purposes of practical handicraft with this wide difference to others: = without a Department, worthy of such a name, and left behind helpless in the race even with the other Austral. colonies.

You are mistaken, my dear Mr Dyer, when you say my present position was created for me when I left the Garden. It was created by Latrobe in 1852 in the garden; outside of it, it has no meaning of reasonable extent. Why was I driven out of the garden, the richest in plants in these southern colonies in my time and the largest in extent? with about 20 buildings of one sort or the other to which out of £90000 since I left only 2 have been added because I resisted vulgar intrusion of ignorant so called "landscape gardeners" on my position, whose proper provinces were the well endowed parks & reserves of great extent under the Government around Melbourne. Moreover I was enveyed of the treasures, brought together by myself in half a life's toil, shameless assailed by a misled press by traducers, who wanted a sinecure, while under the rigor of the Civil services I could not defend myself, and then I was methodically so reduced in the garden-vote, that on dry silurian clayslate over 300 acres and without means for irrigation and the most scanty supply of hand watering only I could not make green lawns or keep them, and had no money to grow flowers on a more extensive scale than I did, though all bazaar & church-festivals & tea-meeting had baskets or even cartloads full after all. This has ceased since I left; so the growing of hundreds of thousands of trees, which as pines &c are now towering up at every town and village in Victoria on cemeteries, ecclesiastic & educational buildings of this young land of mere Eucalypts.

How am I to shake off my responsibilities for Exhibitions? Here I am for many weeks as a professional expert among the jurors, without adequate means to do justice to such position by independent tests, though of course I can refer to my library, such as it is, and which I have no means to keep even approximately complete for my purposes.

New colonies want new cultures and new industries; they do not care for strictly botanical books. I have fully explained this in the long address, which I was forced to deliver at the opening of the section for Agriculture, Horticulture and pastoral pursuits at our Social Science congress in connection with the present international exhibition.8

How could you for a moment compare my position to Benthams! He is independent as a rich man, while I must from year to year earn my Salary, which is not safe, if I cannot do substantial good for the colonies. Bentham need not keep up an official correspondence of 2000 or 3000 letters a year, nor has he any responsibilities whatever. But more! What has made Bentham great? Kew! Princely endowed Kew! Without Kew garden there would have been no Kew Herbarium; without Kew Herbarium there would not be a Bentham of such high fame; without Kew Garden & thereby Kew herbarium Bentham would not have done half the work he did. The Gov Botanist of Britain has his position as an effective one in Kew Garden, not even in the British Museum. You say [esteem]ed Sir, I should establish a botanical Institute for all Australia! How? The jealousies of the other colonies would forbid to bear their share of the expenditure. None of the Directors of the bot Gardens in the other colonies would help in that.

Scripture truly says we can serve only one Master.9 As for Victoria; up til lately, when the peoples eyes became more opened, the most reckless expenditure has gone on in lawn-making & other unproductive work at the bot garden, but I, perhaps because I am a foreigner, have only one single herbarium room built in 1857 and nothing added to it since, while South Australia has devoted even out of its far lesser means 6000£ in two years to a bot. Museum!

Excuse my frankness & let me remain

regardfully your

Ferd. von Mueller.


The Garden was the Centre of Social life; with it I lost all social Standing. The Governors Palace is in it. (in the reserved ground all planted by me.

My 60 or 70 species of Eucalyptus, largely destroyed, since 1873 cannot now as formerly watch for observation, nor even have I a place to watch the germination of their seeds, & the experiments on the timber must be instituted in the open air. So much for my position!



Pannicum spectabile

'Private' is also written on the top of f. 293; it is not repeated in this transcription.
Panicum ? The spelling Pannicum was frequently used as a common name for a fodder grass, probably not the species being discussed in this letter, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, especially in Queensland; see, for example, The Queenslander, 1 January 1887, p. 30, where it is identified to as Setaria germanica.
See M to W. Thiselton-Dyer, 26 November 1880.
M continued to refer Coapim (the Angolan name) to Panicum spectabile in B88.12.01 and 95.08.04.
Letter not found; but see M to W. Thiselton-Dyer, 7 July 1880.
See Darragh (1987).
B58.11.02, B60.01.01, 61.02.01, B62.03.01, B63.05.01, B65.10.01, B69.07.03 .
Matthew 6:24.

Please cite as “FVM-81-01-01a,” in Ɛpsilon: The Ferdinand von Mueller Collection accessed on 27 July 2021,