Friday, October 9, 2020

Black History Month: John Edmonstone

For Black History Month 2020, Wakefield Museums & Castles are exploring four stories related to British slave ownership in the early 1800s. This week, we are focusing on the life of John Edmonstone (179? - 1833?): Taxidermist, teacher, slave.

The lives of individual enslaved people are difficult to learn about - their stories are underrepresented in schools and in society as a whole. Documented stories of individuals are also few and far between. They were treated as property, used for the service and profit of others. John Edmonstone, named by the man who enslaved him, is a rare story. His life began in enslavement in South America and ended as a respected teacher and skilled taxidermist in Edinburgh.

The first known reference to John is in ‘Wanderings in South America,’ a famous book written in 1825 by Charles Waterton of Walton Hall near Wakefield. During a third expedition to Demerara in British Guiana in 1820, he returned to Mibiri Creek, ‘the former habitation of my worthy friend Mr Edmonstone’. His ‘worthy friend’ was Charles Edmonstone, a close friend and future father in law. Charles Edmonstone owned a wood cutting business that used an enslaved workforce, including John Edmonstone.

Mr Edmonstone’s Wood Cutting Establishment

Mibiri Creek, Demerara River

Thomas Staunton St Clair, sketched around 1808

A Residence in the West Indies and America (London 1834, Vol 2)

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Waterton was highly skilled at preserving birds for display in his museum in Wakefield. The skins he acquired had to be preserved very quickly in the heat of South America and he needed help to do it. He writes:

"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 anything 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.”

Waterton, Charles, Wanderings in South America, the north-west of the United States, and the Antilles in the years 1812, 1816, 1820 and 1824, London, 1825, pp 153 - 154

Waterton was a difficult man, known to have a quick temper, was very argumentative and rarely praised people  - John was no exception. Although Waterton described him as having ‘poor abilities,’ it’s very likely that John accompanied him on numerous expeditions into the rainforests of Guiana and learned valuable taxidermy skills.

Waterton stated that, once freed, John began an independent life in Scotland. The Edinburgh Post Office Directory for 1824 – 1825 lists John Edmonston (missing an ‘e’) as a bird-stuffer, living at 37, Lothian Street. This address is close to Edinburgh University and he had found employment teaching students how to preserve birds. One of his students would become one of the world’s greatest naturalists – Charles Darwin.

Darwin and his brother lodged a few doors away. In his autobiography he confirms Edmonstone’s connections with Waterton:

'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.’

Darwin, Francis, Editor, The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter, 3 vols. London, 1887, Vol 1, p.40.

Edmonstone’s lessons cost Darwin ‘one guinea, for an hour every day for two months’. For that bargain price he learned skills that would last him a lifetime. It’s possible those 40 or so sessions inspired the impressionable young student to quit medicine and become a naturalist. 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. The Gal├ípagos finches, used to support his theory on the transmutation of species, were preserved using the techniques that Edmonstone had taught him.

Artist impression of John Edmonston teaching a teenage Charles Darwin in Edinburgh, 1825

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Edmonstone was a celebrated taxidermist in his day; along with teaching, some his work was bought by Edinburgh’s zoolological museum. The museum register shows the acquisition of a 15ft skin of a boa constrictor in 1822 – 23, presented by a Mr Edmonston. In October 1823 the weekly report books state that two swallows, one water ouzel and one chaffinch were bought from John Edmonston, and fishes in 1825.

Waterton’s boa constrictor on display at Wakefield Museum

Was the boa preserved by John Edmonstone similar?

Very little more is known about him. The Edinburgh Post Office Directory lists him living in 1832-33 at 6, South St David’s Street, Edinburgh. It is shameful that most stories of enslaved people are only known through the writing of those in a position of white privilege. We do not have John’s point of view of his enslavement or even whether he had any choice in joining Waterton on his expeditions. All we know is that after he gained his freedom, he became a highly respected teacher and craftsman in the art of taxidermy (soon to become a Victorian obsession) and a mentor to one of the most important thinkers of the 1800s.

Today he is regarded as one of the '100 Great Black Britons'.

Throughout October we will be sharing three further articles focusing on the connections between Charles Waterton of Walton Hall and the practice of slavery in the early 1800s. 

Find out more:

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