The Man who taught Charles Darwin Taxidermy

Published on 2nd October 2018

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.

Charles Darwin

This October, for Black History Month, we are exploring the contributions to natural history that have been made by people of African/ Caribbean origin. A famous example involves one of the greatest natural historians of our time, Charles Darwin.

In the above quote, Darwin writes of his taxidermy lessons under the tutelage of a freed slave. According to R.B. Freeman in ‘Darwin’s negro bird-stuffer’ from the Royal Society Journal of the History of Science (1978) this gentleman was John Edmonstone, originally a slave of Charles Edmonstone from Warrows Place, Mibiri Creek in British Guyana.

John Edmonstone was taught the art of taxidermy by Charles Waterton, a 19th century naturalist. Waterton speaks of Edmonstone in his book Wanderings of South America (1825), albeit with less affection than Darwin:

Demerara River
Mbiri Creek, Demerara River. Mr Edmonstone's Wood Cutting Establishment. Thomas Staunton St Clairs, A residence in West Indes and Americas (London, 1834) Vol 2

"It was upon this hill in former days that I first tried to teach John, the black slave of my friend Mr. Edmonstone, the proper way to do birds. But John had poor abilities, and it required much time and patience to drive any thing into him. Some years after this his master took him to Scotland, where, becoming free, John left him, and got employed in the Glasgow, and then the Edinburgh Museum. ”

Edmonstone moved to Edinburgh in 1823, after six years in Glasgow, finding employment teaching the university students how to preserve animals. He lived at 37 Lothian Street until 1825 (close to both the University and where Darwin and his brother Erasmus lodged at the time), and was later recorded as living at 6 South St David’s Street (between 1832 and 1833).

Whilst little is known about him, we do know Edmonstone was teaching and influencing one of the greatest minds of the 19th century. From a letter to his sister, Susan Elizabeth, we learn that Darwin first met Edmonstone in 1826, at the impressionable age of 17.

“I am going to learn to stuff birds, from a blackamoor I believe an old servant of Dr. Duncan: it has the recommendation of cheapness, if it has nothing else, as he only charges one guinea, for an hour every day for two months.”

The Voyage of HMS Beagle 1890
The Voyage of HMS Beagle 1890
Darwin's Galapagos Finches
Darwin's Galapagos Finches

In total, Darwin spent 40 hours training with Edmonstone, not just learning this necessary skill but also hearing of the flora and fauna in distant South America. Only five years later in 1831, Darwin undertook his historic voyage on board the HMS Beagle, on which he first began to form his theory on natural selection. Darwin would have taken with him his newly acquired taxidermy skills as well as his enlightening conversations with Edmonstone. The Galápagos finches, used to support his theory on the transmutation of species, were preserved using the techniques that Edmonstone had taught him.

If not for an aside in Darwin’s autobiography, would we have ever known about the monumental contribution of John Edmonstone, a former slave from Guyana? It makes you wonder how many more significant yet undiscovered contributions people of colour have made to the study of natural history.

John Edmonstone
John Edmonstone and a Young Charles Darwin © State Darwin Museum

By Leanne Melbourne, Events and Communications Manager