Exactly 200 years ago, in early 1823, John Edmonstone rented premises at 37 Lothian Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he planned to open a new business. It seemed to be a rather niche start-up; he was offering services in taxidermy, the art of preserving an animal’s body by cleaning and stretching its skin before mounting it on a frame for display.
But perhaps even more unlikely was the fact that Edmonstone was a Black man, born into slavery in the late 1700s on a timber plantation in the colony of British Guiana (present day Guyana).
The logic that encouraged him to become what he called a “bird-stuffer”, however, was beyond question. His premises were close to Edinburgh University, where students needed to learn elements of taxidermy on their scientific courses, and the nearby zoological museum and collectors required his services. Two fortuitous events in his life had prepared him for this promising role.
The first was that the plantation’s Scottish owner, Charles Edmonstone, seems to have been unusually well-disposed towards the then-enslaved John. When a friend of the Scotsman — well-known naturalist Charles Waterton — visited the Demerara plantation on his research trips through South America, a young John was allowed to accompany him on field expeditions, where Waterton would shoot and collect bird specimens. He then showed John how to chemically treat and stretch the skins of dead specimens with the speed needed to prevent decay in the tropical climate.
In 1817, Charles Edmonstone decided to move to his Scottish estate in Dunbartonshire, and brought John with him. This was a vital second opportunity, as John now became a free man — either through an act of manumission (voluntary liberation by the owner) or by paying Edmonstone; it is not clear which. In any case, he soon left the estate, heading for Glasgow and then Edinburgh, where he aimed to build a career as a taxidermist.
The business must have prospered, and in 1824 John met — and may have married (the records are unclear) — a woman named Mary Kerr, who lived in the same street. Then, in 1826, another inhabitant of Lothian Street entered John’s life; this was Charles Robert Darwin, a 16-year-old medical student who was living a few doors away at number 11.
Darwin was already aware that he was not suited to be a doctor, finding his course tedious and the regular anatomical dissections nauseating. He was already fascinated by natural history and collecting, and probably heard of Edmonstone’s skills and interests from a professor.
He asked for a crash course in taxidermy, attracted by what he thought might be useful expertise and, more prosaically, by the cost of the lessons. “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,” he wrote to his sister.
Darwin paid for 40 hours of instruction at one guinea per hour. Although we have no idea of what he and Edmonstone discussed, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Edmonstone told Darwin about his life in British Guiana and about the flora and fauna of that part of South America. “I used often to sit with him,” Darwin wrote later, “for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.”
The encounter was probably not much more than a routine assignment for Edmonstone, who taught a great many students like Darwin. But for Darwin, the time spent in Lothian Street was instrumental in shaping the course of his interests and in providing a practical skill that would prove pivotal in his most famous theoretical work.
Thereafter, details of Edmonstone’s life are sketchy, though research by National Records of Scotland has revealed that he moved his business to Edinburgh’s prestigious South St David Street, where he remained until 1843.
Darwin, meanwhile, may well have had an opportunity to discuss the taxidermist when in 1845 he visited Charles Waterton, the man who had instructed Edmonstone in British Guiana. Interestingly, Darwin described the naturalist as “the strangest mixture of extreme kindness, harshness and bigotry that I ever saw.”
Was this in response to a conversation about their mutual acquaintance, Edmonstone? What we do know is that Darwin was resolutely opposed to slavery, termed it “moral debasement”, and saw abolition as a “sacred cause”.
By the time of his meeting with Waterton, Darwin had conducted his pioneering research aboard the HMS Beagle on its five-year survey voyage around the world, and had made a name for himself.
In the course of this long and arduous journey, he studied geology, fossils and unfamiliar animal life. He collected samples of many different species dead and alive — armadillos, tortoises, and beetles among others. But it was in the Galapagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago scattered to the west of South America that the skills taught to him by Edmonstone came into their own.
As the Beagle sailed on to Tahiti after five weeks in the islands, he examined the bird specimens that had been shot by his servant and that he had then preserved. These small creatures, saved from putrefaction, had been gathered from different islands with different ecosystems within the Galapagos. Though similar in important characteristics, they displayed conspicuous and intriguing variations, most notably in their beaks.
Returning eventually to England in late 1836, Darwin hurried to pass his specimens to the acclaimed ornithologist John Gould, who concluded that Darwin had collected samples from “a series of ground Finches which are so peculiar as to form an entirely new group, containing 12 species”.
What he had discovered was that from a common ancestor, probably originating in the South American mainland, distinct species had rapidly evolved in the different islands according to environmental conditions; the variation in beak formation pointed to differing food resources — seeds, insects, nectar — on the individual islands.
Long beaks were suited to consuming nectar or picking seeds from cactus; shorter, thick ones for crushing insects or nuts. It was what evolutionary scientists call “adaptive radiation” — the creation of new species through adaptation to ecological conditions.
“Darwin’s finches”, returned intact to England after a long sea journey, were testimony to the taxidermist’s skills, taught by a hitherto little-known former slave to the world’s most famous naturalist. They played a major part in his concept of natural selection developed in his 1859 On the Origin of Species, and sparked worldwide interest in the Galapagos Islands as a unique ecological site.
Today, the small birds — still in remarkably good shape — are stored in the Natural History Museum in Hertfordshire, England, but are not usually on public display.
As for John Edmonstone, his contribution to Darwin’s revolutionary discoveries is now acknowledged after nearly two centuries of obscurity. A plaque was finally raised in his memory on the Lothian Street premises in 2009, but as Lisa Williams’ excellent blog reveals, it has mysteriously disappeared.