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The Extraordinary Life of the Freed Slave Who Taught Darwin Taxidermy

John Edmonstone was a mentor to the budding teenage naturalist.


John Edmonstone was born a slave, died a free man, and somewhere along the way taught Charles Darwin all he knew about skinning and stuffing a bird.

Edmonstone grew up in the late 1770s on a plantation owned by Scottish politician Charles Edmonstone in Demerara, a region of South America in what is now Guyana. There, the politician often entertained his son-in-law, Charles Waterton, who would later become a famed naturalist and conservationist. While in Demerara, Waterton frequently traveled into the rain forest to observe the jungle and collect bird specimens. These journeys could be perilous alone, so he had John Edmonstone accompany him, and taught him to skin and stuff creatures on the spot, before they had a chance to decay in the humidity of the jungle, according to a story on Ozy.com. Waterton had a distinct preservation strategy that he passed on to Edmonstone, to soak his specimens in a sublimate of mercury and hollow them out so they appeared more lifelike. During these expeditions, Edmonstone also gained an expansive working knowledge of the flora and fauna of South America.

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