John Edmonstone was a black man who used his knowledge to directly affect scientists who had a huge influence on the western world. Little is known about him as a man or his personal life, but we do have information about his professional life. Professionally, he was able to leave a legacy most former slaves wouldn’t imagine. A Scottish politician named Charles Edmonstone owned a plantation in Demerara, Guyana, the plantation that was said to be John Edmonstone’s place of birth. While living on the plantation, John Edmonstone befriended Charles Edmonstone’s son-in-law Charles Waterton. The two shared a love of nature; Carles Waterton was knowledgeable about the plants and animals of the rain forest. He used his knowledge to capture and expertly preserve the bodies of various birds. Because of the humid conditions of the rain forest, Charles Waterton quickly prepared and beautifully preserved the birds he captured. John Edmonstone was intrigued and spent as much time as he could learning about the Amazon Rain Forest and an expert form of taxidermy.
John Edmonstone received a first-hand education about the plants and animals of Guyana, he also gained an understanding of the science of biology that would help him later in life. Around the year 1817, Charles and John Edmonstone traveled to Scottland after the passing of the 1807 Slave Trade Act, an act that banned slavery throughout the United Kingdom. John Edmonstone was able to take advantage of the passing of The Slave Trade Act and gained his freedom. Shortly after becoming a free man, John moved to Edinburgh, Scotland finding a residence close to the University of Edinburgh at 37 Lothian Street. He began working at a local museum as a Taxidermist, he also began teaching the art of Taxidermy at the University of Edinburgh. John was a successful teacher and Taxidermist. He was known for preserving various animals from across the world. He preserved a fifteen foot-long Boa Constrictor that gained a lot of attention from his peers and students.
John Edmonstone is widely known within the world of biology and taxidermy as the mentor of Charles Darwin. Darwin began learning from John Edmonstone at the age of seventeen, he eventually hired John to teach him taxidermy paying him the equivalent of one hundred and sixty dollars a week. John had an enormous influence on Darwin, even influencing his professional decision to become a naturalist, geologist, and biologist. Unfortunately, we don’t know much about the birth or the death of John Edmonstone, the majority of what we do know about him comes from Darwin’s memoirs. But from the information we have, we can see how brilliant and iconic John was. He was fortunate enough to be able to learn as a slave, he was able to earn his freedom via traveling to Scotland where slavery was abolished. He then used the information he learned about biology and taxidermy to earn a living as a University professor and Taxidermist at the local museum. Stories like these need to be told so we can see the continuous perseverance of our ancestors, as well as, how they were able to influence the industries that would shape the western world. Mr. John Edmonstone, we stand on your shoulders.
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