John Edmonstone: Formerly Enslaved Black Man Who Taught Charles Darwin At The University Of Edinburgh In The 1800s

Without the incalculable contributions of the Black man to every field of human endeavor, the history of the world would be incomplete. More evidence that Black people are not a lesser race comes from John Edmonstone’s contributions to Charles Darwin’s publications.

The Theory of Evolution by Charles Darwin is well-known. But none of this would have been possible without the advice and teachings of John Edmonstone, a Black man. John was a Guyanese slave who was born in the Guyana town of Demerara. John learned taxidermy while enslaved to Charles Edmonstone on a farm in Warrows Place, Mibiri Creek, South America.

His master’s son-in-law, Charles Waterton, a British naturalist, taught him taxidermy. Waterton frequently accompanied John Edmonstone on his bird-collecting adventures, when John stuffed trapped birds to keep them from rotting.

After they had traveled to Scotland in 1817, Charles Edmonstone released John Edmonstone. By passing the Slave Trade Act of 1807, the British empire had forbidden the purchase and usage of slaves within the Empire ten years prior.

Charles Edmonstone and his wife returned to Cardross Park, Dunbartonshire, Scotland, where he was born, not long after. When John Edmonstone became a free man, he relocated to Edinburgh. On the same block as Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus, he lived. He was employed at the Natural History Museum, where he stuffed birds for a living. At Edinburgh University, he also taught taxidermy to students.

Charles Darwin, like his father and grandfather before him, was sent to Edinburgh to study medicine by his family. When he landed in Edinburgh, he was 17 years old. He understood after a while that he wasn’t cut out to be a doctor. He did this because he trembled a lot during surgery and found the lectures to be exceedingly tiring and uninteresting.

At his first winter in Edinburgh, Darwin hired John Edmonstone to teach him taxidermy for one guinea per week. With the passage of time, Charles Darwin gained a greater understanding of Taxidermy and began to develop into a professional.

While Charles was under John Edmonstone’s tutelage, he learned a lot about plantation life and Guyana’s lush rainforest, which was teeming with wildlife.

John Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin a lot more than just taxidermy. He also learned a lot about John’s anti-slavery beliefs. Many individuals have speculated that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution would have benefited significantly from his teacher’s anti-slavery convictions. This piqued his interest in Guyana even more.

Guyana was making news all over the world at the time because of the slave rebellions that were taking place and how the British had suppressed them. Darwin’s interest in Guyana at the time would have been piqued by Waterton’s book “Wanderings in South America,” which detailed his travels in the country.

Charles Darwin described his teacher, John Edmonstone, as “an intimate” man in his memoir. John Edmonston “was a very charming and clever man,” according to his memoir, and “I spent many hours in conversation at his side.”

Charles Darwin dropped out of Edinburgh’s medical school after learning natural history and taxidermy from John Edmonstone. A short time later, he joined HMS Beagle Captain FitzRoy as a “gentleman’s companion.” He collected biological specimens, conversed with FitzRoy, and assisted him with various activities while on the job.

Charles Darwin captured and conserved 15 finches (birds) from Galapagos while accompanying FitzRoy, using the same approach John Edmonstone had shown him.

Initially, Darwin believed that all of the birds he obtained in South America were of the same species. To confirm his findings, he had to send the specimens to British ornithologist John Gould. After examining the specimens, John Gould determined that they belonged to 12 different finch species.

Darwin hypothesized that the finches all developed from a single ancestor in South America, which subsequently traveled to Galapagos and diversified into diverse species that adapted to the many islands they inhabited, based on his comprehensive research.

Through his theories and views, Charles Darwin questioned the idea that white people were superior to black people. His investigation into the theory of evolution was also impacted by this viewpoint. His opinions are said to have been solidified by his extended family, the Wedgwoods, who were abolitionists.

Andrian Desmond and James Moore noted in their book “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” that “How frequently, too, Darwin must have recognized amiable John Edmonstone… in these downtrodden peoples…”

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