John Edmonstone

Born: Unknown

Died: Unknown

Birth Place: Guyana

Known for: Taxidermist and University teacher (taught Charles Darwin)

He learned taxidermy from an explorer called Charles Waterton

He taught many pupils his skills including Charles Darwin

His tales of travel and rainforests inspired Darwin to travel which lead to him developing the theory of evolution

John Edmonstone

Life story

John Edmonstone was born in British Guiana (now Guyana). Little is known about his life, such as his date of birth, his later years, or his place of death and burial.  



It is known, however, that he grew up enslaved on a plantation in Guyana, South America. 



John travelled to Scotland with the owner of the plantation in the 1800s. At that time, a man called Charles Waterton, who was an explorer and family friend, shared his knowledge of taxidermy with John. Together they went on several expeditions into rainforests.  



In 1807, it became illegal to enslave people in the British Empire and so John was freed.



He moved to Edinburgh to live, working as a taxidermist at the Natural Museum and earning extra money by teaching his skills to students. Interestingly, in 1825, Charles Darwin, then a 17 year-old student who was later to become a world famous naturalist and explorer, lived just a few doors away.  



Darwin decided to take lessons from John, who would have been forgotten had Darwin not written fondly about his time with his teacher, saying:



“He gave me lessons for payment and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.”



Whilst they were working together, Edmonstone would often tell Darwin tales of beautiful tropical rainforests, colourful birds and strange animals he had seen in his native Guyana. Many experts believe that these stories inspired Darwin in his future explorations. Interestingly, Darwin had been described as hating the idea of slavery. We now know why: his friend and teacher was the amazing John Edmonstone. 

Where was John Edmonstone born and how did he end up in Scotland? What was John Edmonstone’s job in Edinburgh? How did John Edmonstone inspire Charles Darwin?

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