John Edmonstone, the black taxidermist who taught and inspired Charles Darwin

John Edmonstone and Charles Darwin

Celebrated for his contribution to natural science, botany and evolution, Charles Darwin was initially working towards becoming a doctor to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. He, however, grew in natural science while learning taxidermy from a freed black slave who had moved from Guyana to the UK to help his former master and start a life of his own.

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Charles Darwin. Photo

Born a slave in Guyana, John Edmonstone, as he was named by his owner, worked for Charles Edmonstone, a Scottish politician and plantation owner. Charles Edmonstone owned plantations in Demerara, modern-day Guyana which was then known as British Guiana. At the time, Charles Edmonstone lived in British Guiana to ensure that work on his plantations was properly regulated and supervised.

According to an article on OZY, while working as a slave for Charles Edmonstone, John exhibited great intelligence and was, therefore, allowed to learn to read and write.

John would eventually learn taxidermy from an English naturalist and explorer, Charles Waterton, who happened to be the son-in-law of Charles Edmonstone after he married 17-year old Anne Edmonstone when he was 47.

Waterson would later request that John accompany him on a bird collection expedition in which John’s main task was to stuff the birds before they rot.

It is highly likely that John worked as a domestic servant for Charles Edmonstone rather than a plantation worker because only enslaved Africans who worked in the homes of their masters were able to learn to read ,write and gain their freedom.

John gained his freedom after Charles Edmonstone decided to move back to the United Kingdom, and relocated with his former master, hoping to start a new life while offering services to his master.

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Depiction of John Edmonstone and Charles Darwin

In 1807, John successfully moved to the UK with the help of his former master, Charles Edmonstone, and settled in Edinburgh where he lived very close to his former master and Charles Darwin. Darwin was then living with his brother, Erasmus Darwin.

With his great skill in taxidermy, John soon began to earn a living by teaching several students of the University of Edinburgh who hired him to take them through the course. Some articles explain that John was actually a teacher at the university, but there are no facts to prove that yet.

Aside from teaching, John also made a living by stuffing captured birds for the Natural History Museum.

While having a huge argument with his father over his career, Charles Darwin heard of John and immediately hired him to take him through taxidermy.

During Darwin’s interaction with John, he developed a keen interest in natural science and learnt from John about plantation life and rainforests, as well as, skills on how to preserve fossils which Darwin used during his Voyage of the Beagle.

In his memoir, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Darwin makes mention of John, stating that “I spent many hours in conversation at his side” and that John “was a very pleasant and intelligent man”.

The two often discussed Charles Waterson’s books and human development as well. He writes: “By the way, a negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Waterton and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently; he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man”.

Personal details about John, like who he married , his children or information about his death have still not been dug up.

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: April 7, 2020


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