John Edmonstone was a Guyanese-born enslaved person and taxidermist who later became a taxidermy teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland. Edmonstone was born into slavery on a wood plantation in Demerara, British Guiana (now Guyana, South America).
Little is known about John Edmonstone’s early life, until he met with the naturalist and explorer Charles Waterton (1782-1865), during Waterton’s travels in South America. Waterton, a friend and later son-in-law of Charles Edmonstone, is known as a conservationist and for introducing curare to Europe, a paralyzing plant extract that was subsequently an anaesthetic used in surgical operations.
A true eccentric, Waterton also talked to insects he encountered and even rode an alligator. During a visit to his friend Charles Edmonstone’s plantation around 1812, Waterton began gathering and studying specimens from the surrounding jungle. To preserve as many examples of exotic birds as possible, Waterton taught ‘John, the black slave of my friend Mr Edmonstone, the proper way to do birds’ (Waterton, Wanderings in South America). Waterton describes teaching John the art of taxidermy as a lengthy task, as the latter did not take up the practice easily.
In 1817, Edmonstone relocated to Scotland with his master while serving the Edmonstone family at the Cardross Park estate, near Dumbarton. He would later gain his freedom and take employment in Glasgow, Scotland.
In 1823, he moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he set up shop as a bird-stuffer at 37 Lothain Street. Edmonstone taught taxidermy to students at the University of Edinburgh. One of his students was Charles Darwin, who was 15 at the time. Darwin came to the University of Edinburgh initially to study medicine but began taking lessons from Edmonstone on bird taxidermy, paying one guinea a lesson. During the sessions, Edmonstone told Darwin stories about tropical rainforests in South America.
Edmonstone influenced Darwin’s interests in naturalism and encouraged him to explore that area of knowledge. Edmonstone later helped Darwin during the second voyage of HMS Beagle to South America from 1831 to 1836. Despite Edmonstone’s influence on Darwin’s early education, the now increasingly famous naturalist failed to mention him by name in his research or his memoirs.
Much of Edmonstone’s life after 1836 is unknown as is the date of his death. What is known that he worked for the Royal Museum of the University (now the National Museum of Scotland) in Edinburgh, Scotland. He also prospered enough to be able to move his taxidermy shop to Edinburgh’s main commercial district, first 29 and then 66 Princes Street. In the 1840s he moved his taxidermy shop again, this time to 10 South St David’s Street.
In 2009 John’s life was commerorated with the installation of a plaque at the location of his Lothian Street shop, just a few doors down from the plaque marking the achievements of his own one time student, Charles Darwin. John’s plaque, however, has since disappeared, presumed stolen, but we hope these new insights into John’s life bring more awareness of his story and place in Scottish history.