It is gradually becoming a prevalent fact that every great mind or thought, must be supported or influenced by black people. The story of John Edmonstone is a testament to that fact. John Edmonstone was an enslaved black man who taught the young and inexperienced Charles Darwin the skill of taxidermy. This skill benefitted Darwin in the preservation of birds, which brought about his ideas about evolution.
Let’s dig into the life and work of Darwin’s teacher and mentor!
John Edmonstone was born on a wood plantation in Demerara, British Guiana (present-day Guyana, South America). The plantation was owned by Charles Edmonstone – the surname he adopted. John’s original birth name remains unknown. Around 1812, Charles Waterton a naturalist thinker, explorer, and equally a slave-owner, visited Edmonstone’s plantation a couple of times on his travels through Guyana. Waterton was a friend to Charles before eventually becoming his son-in-law. He had developed new methods to preserve bird skins and was keen on passing the skill to John. Therefore, Waterton taught him taxidermy or in his own words, “the proper way to stuff birds.” He will accompany Waterton on various expeditions.
Nevertheless, Waterton had a belittling mindset toward John. He believed that John “had poor abilities”, and it required much time, patience, and consistency to impart anything to him. Well, Darwin’s autobiography as you’ll see, seems to contradict and debunk that mindset.
The practice of owning slaves in Scotland was banned in 1778. As a result, when Charles accompanied John to Scotland in 1817, it meant that he was already a free man. John lived in Glasgow and by 1824, he moved to Edinburgh. He set up a shop as a “bird stuffer” at 37 Lothian Street. Fully educated and intelligent, John worked as a lecturer on taxidermy at the University of Edinburgh’s zoological museum.
JOHN EDMONSTONE AND CHARLES DARWIN
In the quest to study medicine, a boyish 16-year-old Charles Darwin went to Edinburgh in 1825. However, he displayed little interest in the subject and only stayed for two years. He disliked the feeling of sitting through surgeries, which in those days were still performed without anaesthesia. Darwin stayed with his brother Erasmus at 11 Lothian street, near Edmonstone’s quarter.
As a way of utilizing the idle time he had, Darwin decided to take lessons from John on bird taxidermy. “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”, Charles Darwin highlighted in his autobiography.
The payment was one guinea a lesson for an hour every day for two months. The two developed a healthy mutual connection and must have spoken lengthy on the typical history of South America. A topic Edmondstone knew hands-on. John also described to Darwin the ravishing tropical rainforests of his homeland and the exquisite flora and fauna. With that in mind, one may fully argue that John Edmonstone ignited Darwin’s curiosity in naturalism and intrinsically motivated him to explore the tropics.
HOW DID EDMONSTONE’s TAXIDERMY TEACHINGS HELPED DARWIN?
Medicine became a thing of the past as Darwin secured other interests. Equipped with the skills that John had taught him, he sailed aboard the H.M.S Beagle as the ship’s expert in naturalism, during its voyage in 1831. Those skills would prove effective as they helped Darwin shape and polished his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Charles Darwin momentarily took a stop at the Galapagos Islands, He meticulously noticed distinct differences between the finches on each island. He pinpointed the main difference in their beak shape, which he deduced had been influenced by the food offerings on each island. Darwin collected over 500 bird skins.
He collected and preserved specimens of each finch using the taxidermy skills he had learned from John. The samples were transported for further analysis and Darwin concluded that they represented 12 distinct species.
Darwin used those finches as a reference example to his theory of evolution, furthering the argument that they had all evolved from a common ancestor that had somehow arrived on the Galapagos Islands from mainland South America. He would then opine that through the process of natural selection, the birds then transformed into a variety of species, which adapted to the food supply on each island.
In a nutshell, John played a majorly instrumental role in promoting Darwin’s scientific research. Without the adventurous stories and the skill of taxidermy Edmonston taught Darwin, we probably may have little idea about evolution or the theories proffered.
John Edmonston may have also influenced Charles Darwin on the topic of race. Darwin professed anti-slavery ideals. This hatred for slavery may have heightened during his time spent with John. Since John Edmonston portrayed intelligence and wit, it could have convinced Darwin to dissuade the racist notions at the time, which claimed that black people were mentally inferior. Come to think of it! Darwin’s widely studied theory of evolution trace all races and species to a mutual and common ancestor. Such a theory defeated published nuances at the time, which stated that whites had a superior background and intellect to blacks.
Little is known about John’s later years and death. If it weren’t for Darwin’s autobiography, we might have never fathomed the greatness of John Edmonston.
In 2009, a plaque honouring John was commissioned and unveiled in Lothian Street, close to where he once dwelled. When next you speak of the celebrated Charles Darwin, do not forget to pay equal adulation to John Edmonstone. There won’t have been a Charles Darwin without a John Edmonstone.
Edmonstone is regarded as one of the “100 Great Black Britons.”