John Edmonstone: the freed slave black who taught Charles Darwin at the University Of Edinburgh

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John Edmonstone

Several accounts of history on the life of Charles Darwin were foretold. Some of the several  theories he developed are still relevant today. But little has been talked about how he got his knowledge, who were his tutors and his closest allies. 

Charles Darwin is popular for his Theory of Evolution. According to history, he couldn’t have achieved all that without the guidance and teachings of a Black man named John Edmonstone. John was a Guyanese slave, who hailed from Demerara, Guyana. While he was still a slave to Charles Edmonstone, in a plantation in Warrows Place, Mibiri Creek, in South America, John learned taxidermy.

He learned taxidermy from his master’s son-in-law, who was a British naturalist, named Charles Waterton. Waterton usually took John Edmonstone for his expeditions and bird collecting studies, where John stored captured birds to prevent them from decomposing.

In 1817, Charles Edmonstone made John Edmonstone a free man after they had journeyed to Scotland. A decade before that, the British Empire had outlawed the purchase and use of slaves within the Empire, with the Abolition of Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Thereafter, Charles Edmonstone and his wife returned to Cardross Park, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, where he was from. John Edmonstone, now a free man, moved to Edinburgh. His apartment was not far from Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus’ apartment. Upon his arrival, he got a job at the Natural History Museum , where he made a living from stuffing birds. He also taught taxidermy to students at Edinburgh University.

At age 17, Charles Darwin was sent to study medicine at Edinburgh by his family, just like his father and grandfather before him. He soon realized that his calling was not to be a doctor. This was because he always trembled during surgery, and found the lectures very boring and uninteresting.

Darwin came in contact with John Edmonstone and hired him to teach him taxidermy. He agreed to pay him one guinea per week. As time went by, Charles Darwin learned much about Taxidermy and gradually became a professional.

While Charles was still under the guidance of John, he also taught him about the plantation life and lush rainforest filled with wildlife in Guyana.

More so, John taught him about his anti-slavery ideas. Some are of the opinions that the anti-slavery beliefs of his teacher, contributed greatly to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. This greatly added to his interest in Guyana.

At that point, Guyana was making headlines all around the globe, because of the slave revolutions going on, and how the British had crushed it. Darwin’s interest in Guyana at the era would have also been drive by a book titled “Wanderings in South America” written by Waterton, about his expeditions in Gudrive

In his memoir, Charles Darwin referred to his teacher, John Edmonstone, as “an intimate” man. He further said John Edmonston “was a very pleasant and intelligent man,” and “I spent many hours in conversation at his side.”

After gathering some amount of knowledge on taxidermy, Charles Darwin dropped out of the medical school of Edinburgh. Thereafter, he signed up as a “gentleman’s companion” to HMS Beagle Captain FitzRoy. While at work, he collected biological specimens, conversed with him, and also did other jobs for FitzRoy.

While accompanying FitzRoy, using the same techniques John taught him, Charles collected and preserved 15 finches (birds) from Galapagos.

Darwin basically thought that birds were all of the same types as the ones he captured in South America. To conclude on his findings, he sent the specimens to John Gould, who was a British ornithologist. After studying the specimens, John Gould results state that, the birds were from 12 distinct species of Finches.

After several and extensive studies, Darwin then concluded that the finches had all emerged from a common ancestor in South America, which eventually migrated to Galapagos and diversified into different species which adapted to the different islands they inhabited.

Charles Darwin, through his theory and beliefs, was against the assertion that white people were superior to black people. This belief of his also influenced his research into the theory of evolution. The beliefs are said to have been made solid by his extended family, the Wedgwoods, who was against slavery.

After teaching Charles Darwin, John continued his job at Edinburgh University. He spent the rest of his life at Edinburgh and died there without many records of his remaining achievements.

Africh Royale

Africh Royale

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