Charles Darwin made reference to many people in his writings. Most were correspondents who sent him pieces of useful information. Others were writers whose work he used, promoted, or criticised. In his 1871 book, Descent of Man, Darwin included an oblique reference to an unnamed person, or as he wrote, “a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate”. (Darwin 1871: 232) On the BBC Radio3 programme, Free Thinking, hosted by Matthew Sweet, this month, I was asked who Darwin was referring to. I said I did not know, and I thought this person was lost to history. I said I thought there was a story here to tell, and I thought there was a book project to write about him. I was mistaken to suggest that person was entirely lost to history. That’s nearly correct, but importantly, what is known is a fascinating story. The person referred to was John Edmonstone.
One Recollection from Charles Darwin about John
Near the end of his life, Darwin drafted autobiographical notes, but these remained unpublished at the time of his death in 1882. They were published in 1887 by one of his sons, Francis Darwin, in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. In a section of the autobiography where Darwin described his student days living in Edinburgh (Oct 1825-April 1827), he wrote,
“By the way, a negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with [Charles] 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.” (Barlow 1958: 51 )
Numerous historians have linked this oblique reference to John Edmonstone or Edmonston, a man enslaved in Demerara (now part of Guyana) on the timber plantation of Charles Edmonstone (hence the surname association for John; sadly John’s independent identity is lost). According to Desmond and Moore (2009: 18-26), John travelled with Charles Edmonstone from Demerara to Scotland in 1817, arriving in Glasgow. On arrival in Scotland, John was emancipated by law. Charles Edmonstone died in 1827. John moved to Edinburgh by 1823, taking employment as a servant for Professor Andrew Duncan (the elder), a physician and professor at the University of Edinburgh. This employment brought John into association with the university. It’s not known what happened in John’s life following his interaction with Darwin.
The original detective work on Darwin’s autobiography to identify John was published by RB Freeman in a 1978 communication to the Royal Society, “Darwin’s negro bird-stuffer”. Freeman first identified John Edmonstone as the person noted in Darwin’s Autobiography. Most 21st century descriptions about this connection ultimately derive from Freeman.
Darwin knew John for a short period while he attended University of Edinburgh. He paid John for private instruction in the art of bird taxidermy. John reportedly did the same for other medical students at the university. He also reportedly sold some specimens to the University Museum and worked in a room provided (the terms are unknown) by the museum. (Some evidence of possible specimens created by John are noted by Wakefield Museums.) It is not known for how long John did this work, nor is it known what else he did for income following retirement as Professor Duncan’s servant. Desmond and Moore (2009: 18-26) expertly argue John traded on his reputation as a one-time role field companion for the white naturalist Charles Waterton, well-known in Britain during the 1820s for immersive collecting trips across Guiana as described in his 1825 book, Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the years 1812, 1816, 1820 and 1824. With original instructions for the perfect preservation of birds, etc., for cabinets of natural history. (Also see Overton’s study of Waterton’s collecting.)
John is mentioned in Waterton’s book, in his descriptions of his third journal, which commenced in 1820.
“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 1825: 158)
Waterton contrasted John’s capability’s with Mr Robert Edmonstone, nephew to Charles, whom he described as “a fine mulatto capable of learning anything.” Waterton added praise for Robert’s skills, noting “…he was with me all the time in the forest…” (Waterton 1825: 158). His intention in drawing this comparison is not clear from the passage.
Desmond and Moore (2009) also provide a rich description of abolition and anti-slavery sentiment in the social circles occupied by Darwin and his family as well as by Darwin while he lived in Edinburgh. The clear implication is that, for Darwin, John provided an attention-grabbing intersection combining some technical tuition on how a genteel shooter such as himself might stuff trophy birds with stories about Waterton, about the adventures of collecting (Darwin’s favourite sport), and about Demerara’s awful culture of enslavement. Darwin was turning seventeen at the time. He was on his first long period away from home. He was an amateur naturalist in need of an occupation. His sisters were focused on the moment’s peaking interest in abolition. The prospect of a voyage on HMS Beagle was years off in the future. Browne (2009) captures Darwin’s adventurous imagination during his youth.
In a letter dated 29 January 1826 to his sister, Susan, Darwin mentions the start of his association with John.
“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.” (29 January 1826 Charles Darwin to Susan Darwin)
Darwin’s letter fed his sister’s passion for the abolition cause. It also was aimed to sooth father’s penny-pinching thriftiness while paying the bills for a second son who seemed to lack ambition and industry.
A Second Recollection from Charles Darwin about John
Far less often, writers note a different recollection of John from Charles Darwin. This is located in Darwin’s (1871) Descent of Man. He is discussing the unity of all human races within a single species. The full paragraph reads as follows:
“Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc., yet if their whole structure be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature, that it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The same remark holds good with equal or greater force with respect to the numerous points of mental similarity between the most distinct races of man. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Fuegians on board the ‘Beagle,’ with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.” (Darwin 1871: 231-232, emphasis added)
Of the several things this shows, one is Darwin’s commitment to anti-racist monogenist thinking: all humans are one species.
I think when he was writing in Descent of Man about “a full-blooded negro,” Darwin was referring again to John. Desmond and Moore (2009: 18-26) concur. So do other Darwin scholars, such as Browne (1995: 66). As I was writing this post, another confirmation arrived unexpectedly on my doorstep. For information on what must be nearly everyone in Darwin’s recorded life, a new reference volume by van Helvert and van Wyhe (2021) offers an excellent resource. It gives this information on John:
Amongst the many references made to a connection between Darwin and John, I can name only a few that identify both printed references to John by Darwin: his autobiography and the Descent of Man.
Note the coded language of “full-blooded” in Darwin’s text and compare it with Waterton’s (1825) contrast of “black” vs “mulatto” when comparing John and Robert. These racialised terms were used to imply a distinction between “pure” and “mixed” race individuals. In Waterton’s case, he was trying to communicate a claim about seemingly contrasted innate abilities: a “pure” person being slow to learn and hard to train; a “mixed” person being quick to learn and adaptable. Waterton has placed John in a category seemingly disadvantaged by nature. Darwin uses the same racialised coding when describing John as “full-blooded,” but he does so to highlight opposite conclusions: innately similar, not innately different.
John Edmonstone’s biography
Sadly, it is true John’s biography is mostly lost to history. We know so very little about him as a person. Darwin’s and Waterton’s assessment alone merely two grains of sand from which we must try to infer a long coastline that is a person’s whole biography. To my knowledge, we have nothing in John’s words. Perhaps a few taxidermy specimens survive. Misidentified photographs circulate online. Yes, let’s try. But let’s also be aware of the limitations.
Accounts in the 21st century tend to exaggerate John’s importance to Darwin as distinct from the many other people in his orbit. He’s presented as “the man who taught Darwin” and the person who inspired him to look towards South America for its amazing natural history. In comparison, we must balance this with reflections on what Darwin said about other people, such as Robert Edmond Grant for inspiration while in Edinburgh (Desmond 1984); Alexander Humboldt for imagining the “entangled bank” of the South American rainforest (Wulf 2016); and Syms Covington for teaching specific technical skills in taxidermy (MacDonald 1998). The amplification of John’s role in Darwin’s work surely is an example of heritage’s impact on historical study. Likewise, seeing John only through the lens of Darwin’s seeming eminence does him a disservice. He has his own story to tell, such as in the history of taxidermists and taxidermy as a skilled trade. Likewise, Desmond and Moore (2009) point to Edinburgh in the 1820s as an important location for once-enslaved, now-emancipated men. There is much to learn.
Accounts in the 21st century also exaggerate the supposed “hidden” nature of the association between John and Darwin. To me, John’s story seems an exemplar for the “invisible technician” role so well known and long studied in history of science, technology, and medicine. In 2009 a commemorative plaque to John Edmonstone was installed near the site of his home in Edinburgh, though it was later stolen and has not been replaced. (I would like to see a replacement installed, and I’ll help raise the money to do it. I’ve asked Historic Scotland.)
While narratives of John as Darwin’s mentor seem exaggerated, it is absolutely clear Darwin believed John was highly skilled, knowledgeable, and intelligent. His admiration is plain to read. Darwin craved learning from skilled people, and his interaction with John fits into a pattern of respect for expertise present throughout Darwin’s career. It’s also certain the teenage, amateur shooter and collector, Charles Darwin, living through his first university experience, also drew connections to his family’s abolitionist and monogenist beliefs from his association with John. We should take the view advocated by Rees and Sleigh (2020) towards “imhumanism” (not “inhumanism”) and consider the importance of their interaction as a default interpretive position.
Finally, I find notable the fact that Darwin – who mentioned innumerable people throughout his writings, often for small contributions and communications – failed to specifically name John in his publications. This inconsistency is surprising and notably asymmetrical. Benign interpretations are possible. But malignant ones are possible, too.
In my view, Desmond and Moore (2009) provides the best overall account of the association between Darwin and John. The relationship is mentioned in Browne’s (1995) biography of Darwin, too. It features in the Darwin Correspondence Project. These three sources are standard points-of-first-contact for research on Darwin.
Barlow, Nora, Ed. (1958). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809-1882, with Original Omissions Restored. Edited with Appendix and Notes by His Grand-Daughter. London, Collins. <http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F1497&pageseq=1&viewtype=text>.
Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin: Voyaging. New York, Knopf.
Browne, Janet. 2009. Darwin the Young Adventurer. Humanities: The Magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities 30. <https://www.neh.gov/humanities/2009/mayjune/feature/darwin-the-young-adventurer>.
Darwin, Charles Robert. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London, John Murray.
Desmond, Adrian. 1984. Robert E. Grant: The Social Predicament of a Pre-Darwinian Transmutationist. Journal of the History of Biology 17: 189-223. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/4330891>.
Desmond, Adrian and James R. Moore. 2009. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins. London, Allen Lane.
Macdonald, Roger. 1998. Mr Darwin’s Shooter. London, Penguin Random House.
Rees, Amanda and Charlotte Sleigh. 2020. Human. London: Reaction Books. <Reaktion Books>
Wulf, Andrea. 2016. The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander Von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science. London, John Murray.
Note on surnames: John is variously listed as “John Edmonstone” and “John Edmonston,” reflecting spelling inconsistencies in the records. With no records yet known in John’s own hand, we don’t know about his self-description. I’ve avoided use of Edmonston(e) as much as I thought allowable in an attempt to treat his own choice of surnames as an open question.