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gift o B.14. Swalis Menis fit
PREFACE TO THE SECOND EDITION.
In the recently published “ Life and Letters of Charles Darwin,” edited by his son Mr. Francis Darwin (vol. iii. p. 188), the following passage occurs :
“In the spring of this year (1874) he (Mr. Darwin) read a book which gave him great pleasure, and of which he often spoke with admiration, The Naturalist in Nicaragua,' by the late Thomas Belt. Mr. Belt, whose untimely death may well be deplored by naturalists, was by profession an engineer, so that all his admirable observations in natural history in Nicaragua and elsewhere, were the fruit of his leisure. The book is direct and vivid in style, and is full of description and suggestive discussions. With reference to it, my father wrote to Sir J. D. Hooker :—Belt I have read, and I am delighted that you like it so much ; it appears to me the best of all natural history journals which have ever been published.'”.
Praise so high, from a critic so competent, renders any apology for the publication of a second edition of the work referred to by Mr. Darwin, needless.
Moreover, apart from the intrinsic merits of the book, the great interest which is now generally displayed on all subjects connected with Central America and the circumstance that this book has now for some time been out of print-render it desirable that a new edition should be issued from the press. In so doing it seems fitting to say something of the life and work of the author, whose death occurred only four years after the first publication of this book. The following account is reprinted from the Quarterly Journal of Science of January 1879:
“THOMAS BELT, F.G.S. “In the obituary of the year, and amongst the list of scientific men who have loved science for itself, and sought truth for truth's sake, few will leave a brighter or happier memory with their friends than Thomas Belt.
“Born in Newcastle in 1832, he was an early member of the Tyneside Naturalists' Club, and there began that love of nature and nature's ways that ever remained fresh with him throughout his life.
“In 1852 his adventurous nature took him to the Australian gold diggings, and there (the leading spirit of a family of four brothers located in the colony) from 1853 to 1860 he successively visited, as a miner, the districts of Friars and Forest Creeks, Maryborough, Mount Molingul, Kingower, Korong, Mount Egerton..
“In this rough school of mines' he acquired that practical knowledge which not only served him so well in after-life in his profession, but gave him that insight into the building-up of the earth's crust which enabled him, not seldom, to put forth novel theories in geology and natural phenomena. Unorthodox as they were when first promulgated, yet, silently and solidly, they commended themselves to those who studied the facts and the inferences he drew from them. Amid real hard work in Australia, he found time to speculate on the flight of birds, and to show that
the mechanical action of the birds' wings is not always the prime mover, but that the force of the wind, particularly in the albatross, is the real agent that carries them sweeping over the ocean with the rapidity of the wind itself. Further, that this force is utilised by the faculty the bird has of balancing itself against the power of the wind. It is the equivalent of the string of the boy's kite, and almost overwhelming proof of this theory is afforded by the fact that the albatross is helpless in a calm, and cannot—from a level surface, as the deck of a ship—raise itself or fly so well as a domestic goose.
“His theory of whirlwinds—viz., that the upper strata of air pressed upon the lower rarefied and lighter strata, till a casual opening or thinning out in the upper layer leaves the lower strata free to fly upwards, and to form the circular whirlwinds common even in this country—was an outcome of his actual experience acquired in the dreadful dust storms of Australia. It is a curious fact that the paper on this subject, sent to a Melbourne scientific society, and put aside as unworthy of notice, was sent by Mr. Belt to the present Astronomer-Royal, and then, as communicated by the Astronomer-Royal to the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, was accepted and read in Melbourne, in December 1857. The paper itself will be found in the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine for January 1859.
“The boldest of his speculations, and one of the soundest, as after-events proved, was his plan for crossing the Australian continent. He proposed, at the time the Government expedition was mooted, to replace the costly plans of the Government by the following scheme :—That he and his brother Anthony (who was unfortunately lost in the Royal Charter), should be conveyed to the Gulf of Carpentaria, with about twenty pack-horses loaded with provisions and water; that an escort should protect them for some twenty miles from the coast, and that then the two voyagers only, with their pack-horses, should make their way to Cooper's Creek, the farthest known accessible point from the Victorian settled districts. Belt argued justly: ‘If we fail, only two lives will be lost, but all the chances are in our favour; we are provided with water and food more than ample to cover the distance we have to travel. Every step of our road carries us homewards and to safety. If we never find a drop of water on the road, our animals have enough to carry those who have to bear the whole journey to their goal, and as the animals succumb they will be shot or turned adrift. The event showed Belt's sagacity. The unfortunate Government expedition left Melbourne loaded with camp followers and impedimenta, and by the time they reached a few stages beyond Cooper's Creek were well-nigh exhausted. Burke, the leader of the expedition, in desperation started with his two men, Wills and King, and bravely struck out for the Gulf of Carpentaria. Through desert and fertile plains, not altogether destitute of water, they reached in safety the northern shore of Australia ; but the energy, the courage, and the strength that took them this long, weary journey did not suffice to carry them back over double the distance to their camp. Brave hearts ! they struggled on; but King only, and as a worn-out man, ever saw Cooper's Creek again. Belt's plan would have solved the problem without loss of life, and at a tenth of the cost. His ideas were in advance of his time, and he had that belief in his own powers which should have won his plan the attention its merits deserved. The writer knows the fact, that had Belt then possessed the means, he would have spent them all in his endeavour to carry out this scheme of crossing the Australian continent.