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Around the year 1854, a mass of iron was discovered in the Australian colony of Victoria. Subsequent testing and excavation revealed it to be a massive 3.5-ton meteorite and, at the time, the largest known meteorite in the world. Shortly after its recognition, a scientific dispute erupted over where the meteorite should reside. James Bruce, a nobleman and one of the people at the center of this controversy, purchased the meteorite with the intent to donate it to the British Museum. However, the director of the National Museum in Melbourne wanted it to remain in the colonies. A public tug-of-war ensued between colonial and British scientists to secure the meteorite for their respective museums; so far as to include the appointment of a commission devoted to keep the meteorite at the National Museum in Melbourne. But in the end, Bruce's meteorite ended up where he originally intended. Today the 3.5-ton main mass of Cranbourne still resides at the Natural History Museum, London, and is synonymously recognized in history as "The Bruce" meteorite.

Copyright 2019 - M. Bandli - Photos may not be used without written permission

1864 JAMES BRUCE LETTERS.
With content on the Cranbourne meteorite of Australia

Offered here are three individual letters from James Bruce, addressed to his brother, dated March 21, 22, and April 20, 1862. Each letter deals with various different topics, from the meteorite, family member's health, fear of the Aborigines, being near-death from thirst, his dying herd of sheep, a sunken steamer ship, and more. They offer a rare glimpse at the hardships and daily life in the Australian colonies during the mid-19th century.

Of special interest is Bruce's first letter of March 21, which speaks of the meteorite and shows Bruce's candid feelings about his 3.5-ton meteorite and what he thought should happen to it:
 
"The Meteor at last got to Melbourne after some stickings on the road including smashing a timber waggon - it will not be at the Exhibition although its smaller sister may - it is not decided yet whether it is to be devided [sic] or sent home whole it will depend on the decision of the Authorities & the British Museum there has been some correspondence about it amongst our scintific [sic] men & the whole including one letter from me I think will be sent home to show the opinion here as to whether it should be devided [sic] almost everyone including some turncoats are for a devision [sic] as it would show the inside structure this has been my opinion all along & I had to fight it against some that were then of a different opinion but who have turned round now & the only reason that it is not devided [sic] at once was because I made a promise of the whole to the British Museum & unless they or their representative give it up of course it will go home whole as a matter of course the British Museum is a much fitter place for it but I think if devided [sic] both parties would be saved & the meteor would at the sametime be more interesting."

 

This is the oldest meteorite-related letter I have ever had the pleasure of offering. To put things in perspective, these letters were written while the American Civil War was being fought half a world away. As an interesting aside, the Civil War also happened to have far-reaching implications in the Australian Colonies. Bruce even refers to "our Yankee cousins playing the bully" in his first letter.

All letters are on the same light grey-blue paper, 12mo in bifolium, and are in good condition, with light signs of age. As a lot, there are a total of 12pp with the concluding 2pp of one letter on both sides of a half-leaf crudely torn by Bruce. A wonderfully rare set of letters with connections to one of the most important stories in 19th century Australian science.

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