John Edmonstone: The Moorish Genius who Schooled Charles Darwin – by Jide Uwechia
Darwin wrote home that “I am going to learn to stuff birds, from a blackamoor … he only charges one guinea, for an hour every day for two months”. These lessons in nature and taxidermy were provided to him by a black man named John Edmonstone. Here is his story:
There are many unrecognized masters in the Ethiopian/Muurish family. Many of them are only discovered as a result of some oblique references in some vague and dated book in the remotest sections of the library.
Yet, it remains a cardinal truth that many of these masters of science of arts laid the very foundation for the development of western civilization. Numerous advances and gains of science could not have been possible without the contribution of those wise elders.
Among the pivotal figures of the western scientific establishment one finds the large and looming figure of Charles Darwin. He was almost larger than life in his impact on scientific thinking.
It is not debated that Darwin’s achievement in science was made possible by his encounters with teachers, academics and curators in and outside the University. See http://www.ed.ac.uk/news/darwin/edinburgh
One of those men who had some of the most significant impact on the life of Charles Darwin was his unknown but very real Black teacher named John Edmonstone. Mr. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the very basics of the natural science that was to launch his international fame.
According to the Patrick Vernon’s 100 great Black Britons
“John was a freed black slave from Guyana, South America, who made his living in Edinburgh teaching University students the art of taxidermy. He lived at 37 Lothian Street in Edinburgh, just a few doors down from where Charles Darwin and his brother, Erasmus, lived. John learned his trade from Charles Waterton, an early 1800’s British naturalist.”
John was also a naturalist, and keen observer of the natural world. He was initmately familiar with the jungles of Guyana with its wide range of fauna and flora. He had a huge compendium of knowledge about animals of the South American forests as well as the powers of the many jungle plants. His long years spent in the forests of Guyana helped him develop and hone his skills in taxidermy.
John Edmonstone passed on this knowledge to University students who needed extra tutoring to supplement what was available at the University, as well as to those who wanted advanced knowledge of natural studies.
While Darwin was a student at Edinburgh University he studied with John Edmonson to supplement what was available in his University curriculum. John taught Darwin many subjects and skills including taxidermy, natural studies, scientific information about the flora and fauna of the South American continent. He also sensitized Darwin to the boiling political and social problems of the day not the least of which were the evil institution of slavery and racism of which he was a victim.
These sessions occurred regularly and frequently over slightly more than one year before Charles Darwin finally left Edinburgh. Patrick Vernon’s 100 great Black Britons opin that “These pleasant conversations with John may have later inspired Darwin to dream about exploring the tropics. In any event, the taxidermy skills Darwin learned from him were indispensable during his voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle in 1831.” See http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/john_edmonstone.html
Darwin’s Black Teacher
Charles Darwin testified in his autobiography (1,2) that when he was a student at Edinburgh (1825 Oct – 1827 Apr) “a negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Warton, and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently; he gave me lessons for payment and I often used to sit with him for he was a pleasant and intelligent man.” This quotation is provided by R.B. Freeman, in his article “Darwin’s Negro Bird-Stuffer” @ http://www.jstor.org/pss/531678, although one must discount the insolent and racist tone of the title as it is simply a sick manifestation characteristic of some European so-called academics.
John Edmonstone as well helped disabused Darwin’s mind from the barbaric racist presumptions that polluted the social environment. He demonstrated to him the ancient wisdom of Africa and South America, which would not die and still live. Darwin was struck by the keeness of this man’s mind. A genious unjustly denied by a cancerously hateful society.
Charles Darwin spent the rest of his live from then on a committed anti-slavery activist. The scientific teachings he learnt from Edmonton took him way ahead of the narrow thoughts of his fellow naturalists. It was clear that he had a message that the rest did not. Why was Darwin different than thousands of students who passed through the halls of Edinburgh University at that time? Simple. It was because of the lofty and mighty ancient teachings that Edmonton had from his Ethiopian-American teacher, John Edmonson.
August 05, 2009