Meet The Freed Black Slave Who Taught Charles Darwin At The University Of Edinburgh In The 1800s

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The history of the world can not be told completely without the immeasurable contributions of the Black man to every field of human endeavor. The contributions of John Edmonstone to the works of Charles Darwin are more evidence that Black people are not an inferior race, as postulated by Euro-centric scientists and sociologists.

Charles Darwin is renowned for his Theory of Evolution. But he could not have achieved all that without the guidance and teachings of a Black man John Edmonstone. John was a Guyanese slave, who was born in Demerara, Guyana. While he was still enslaved to Charles Edmonstone, in a plantation in Warrows Place, Mibiri Creek, in South America, John learned taxidermy.

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

In 1817, Charles Edmonstone freed John Edmonstone after they had travelled to Scotland. Ten years before that, the British Empire had outlawed the purchase and use of slaves within the Empire, with the Slave Trade Act of 1807.

Shortly after that, Charles Edmonstone and his wife moved back to Cardross Park, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, where he was from. John Edmonstone, then a free man, moved to Edinburgh. He lived on the same street with Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus. He worked at the Natural History Museum, where he made a living from stuffing birds. He also taught taxidermy to students at Edinburgh University.

Charles Darwin was sent to Edinburgh by his family to study medicine, just like his father and grandfather before him. He was 17 years old when he arrived in Edinburgh. After a little while, he realized he was not cut-out to be a doctor. This was because he always trembled during surgery, and found the lectures very exhausting and uninteresting.

Darwin hired John Edmonstone to teach him taxidermy in his first winter in Edinburgh and paid him one guinea per week. As time went by, Charles Darwin learned more and more about Taxidermy and was turning into a professional.

While Charles was under the guidance of John Edmonstone, he also learned a great lot about the plantation life and lush rainforest filled with wildlife in Guyana. 

Taxidermy was not the only thing Charles Darwin learned from John Edmonstone. He also learned a lot about the anti-slavery ideas of John. And many people and historians have suggested that the anti-slavery beliefs of his teacher would have 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 world, because of the slave rebellions going on, and how the British had crushed it. Darwin’s interest in Guyana at the time would have also been sparked by a book titled “Wanderings in South America” written by Waterton, about his expeditions in Guyana.

In his memoir, Charles Darwin described his teacher, John Edmonstone, as “an intimate” man. His memoir further went on to say that John Edmonston “was a very pleasant and intelligent man,” and “I spent many hours in conversation at his side.”

After learning natural history and taxidermy from John Edmonstone, Charles Darwin dropped out of the medical school of Edinburgh. A little while after that, he signed up as a “gentleman’s companion” to HMS Beagle Captain FitzRoy. While at the job, he collected biological specimens, conversed with him, and also did other tasks for FitzRoy.

While accompanying FitzRoy, Charles Darwin collected and preserved 15 finches (birds) from Galapagos, with the same technique John Edmonstone had taught him.

Darwin initially thought that birds were all of the same species as the ones he captured in South America. To verify his findings, he had to send the specimens to John Gould, who was a British ornithologist. After studying the specimens, John Gould concluded that they were from 12 distinct species of Finches.

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

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

In the book “Darwin’s Sacred Cause”, Andrian Desmond and James Moore wrote that “How often, too, Darwin must have seen amiable John Edmonstone … in these oppressed peoples…”

Conclusion

Charles Darwin’s teachings in the field of science paved the way for other thoughts and theories that challenged the Christian theology that man was created in the garden of Eden. His works paved the way for the re-awakening of many people worldwide.

A lot is known about Charles Darwin, but little is known of the man who taught him the science that helped him develop the “Theory Of Evolution.” John Edmonstone, after teaching Charles Darwin continued his job at Edinburgh University. He lived his life and died without many records of his remaining achievements.

If anyone has more information on his life after teaching Charles Darwin, we would be glad to have it. Please reach out to us and share your knowledge.


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3 COMMENTS

  1. Dear Mr./ Mrs.,
    My name is Ringo Harrigan director of Save Our Youth Curacao Foundation.
    I want to get more information about the history of black inventors and other history. If you have documentary of DVD or digital, books and pictures, that you can share with, so i can pass this education to youth and people with disability in my country in Curacao in the Caribbean.

    We don’t have those education materials here.

    With kind Regards,

    Ringo Harrigan

  2. Hello Ringo,

    Thanks for reaching out to us. We understand there is a Vaccum to be filled when it comes to teaching our history to our young people. For now, we just have this platform with which we use to teach history. You can send your specific questions to our email ([email protected]) so we can help you with research and provide the adequate information you need.

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