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Black History MonthFrancis Williams and John Edmonstone: working in the background

Francis Williams Francis Williams, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries a number of black scientists had close involvement with the Royal Society, though were not recognised at the time.

Francis Williams, pictured, is shown in a contemporary portrait to stand amongst objects of his learning; books, a globe, a telescope. He is also fashionably and expensively dressed, every bit the eminent man of culture and science. If we look closely, Williams is resting his hand on a book entitled “Newton’s Philosophy”.

Francis Williams was born in 1702 to John and Dorothy Williams, a free black couple living in Jamaica. This was an increasingly unusual category as the sugar industry, which relied on slave labour, expanded during the 18th century. Their relative wealth and stability meant that Francis was able to receive an education.

It has been suggested that Williams was a social experiment by the Duke of Montagu, who wanted to demonstrate that a black student could match the intelligence and achievements of whites. Francis was later able to attend Cambridge University; however, this does not appear in the university’s records.

Francis was also a popular poet of Latin verses and odes, as well as having political aspirations in Jamaica. His aspirations were, however, frequently denied; his election to the Royal Society – appearing as a single line in the archives – was refused. In an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine from May 1771, an unnamed author wrote that the refusal was "on account of his complexion".

"[Williams] was admitted to the meetings of the Royal Society, and, being proposed as a member, was rejected solely for a reason unworthy of that learned body, viz. on account of his complexion"Gentleman's Magazine, May 1771

Unfortunately there is no more information surrounding this proposed election than in these two sources; the article and the Royal Society archives.

Edward Long, author of the two volume History of Jamaica (1774), used his book to undermine Williams as well as the education of black people more widely. Noting that Williams had established a school in Spanish Town, Jamaica, he suggested that a black pupil had been sent "mad", where "the abstruse problems of mathematical intuition turned his brain". He used this as an example to put across his racist belief that "every African head is not adapted by nature to such profound contemplations". Long goes on to attack Williams personally, arguing that "he was haughty, opinionated, looked down with foreign contempt on his fellow Blacks", as well as accusing him of "cruelty".

William’s successes in mathematics and verse earned him recognition amongst his supporters. At the same time, there were deep prejudices held against him, against the colour of his skin, that would prevent him from taking up his deserved place in science and society.

A similar story, of an important black scientist ‘working in the background’, is that of John Edmonstone.

John Edmonstone teaching DarwinJohn Edmonstone teaching Darwin

John Edmonstone: teaching Darwin

Between February and April 1826, the young Charles Darwin received tuition in taxidermy from a freed Guyanan slave, John Edmonstone.

Edmonstone had himself been taught taxidermy by the naturalist Charles Waterton. Edmonstone worked both in Glasgow and Edinburgh, providing tuition to students at the university. Darwin had written to his sister that, “I am going to learn to stuff birds from a blackamoor”.

Darwin later wrote in his autobiography about Edmonstone while a student at Edinburgh (October 1825 – April 1827):

“a negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Warton, and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently; he gave me lessons for payment and I often used to sit with him for he was a pleasant and intelligent man”.

Edmonstone talked fondly of the tropics, which may well have been an influence in Darwin's decision to conduct his pioneering fieldwork there.

Darwin’s knowledge of taxidermy was an important influence in his study and record of bird and animal life during his voyage with the H.M.S. Beagle in 1831. This would lead famously to his study of the Galapagos Finches (or Darwin’s Finches), noting “this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds (pp. 403-420), as well as contributing to the significant collections that he made while travelling. These would inform to a great extent his theory of evolution.

Darwin, Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the voyage round the world of H.M.S. Beagle, revised edition, Henry Colburn 1845.

Darwin’s observations were critical in establishing the principle and mechanics of evolution; showing that physical differences could emerge through evolution, and were not stable, inherent products of creation. Darwin’s research, supported by the ornithologist Gould, would demonstrate that the concept of “species” was also more complicated than had been assumed.

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