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A humane naturalist

Updated Monday 5th October 2009

Ruth Padel reads extracts from her book, ‘Darwin: A Life in Poems.’ She sheds light on a man whose curiosity was laced with compassion.

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A humane naturalist

Darwin disliked his school so, at sixteen, his father sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine. But the one thing he could not stand about this, apart from some rather boring lectures, was watching the operations. And this, I think, is one of the most important things behind a lot of Darwin’s thought; he could not bear the idea of suffering.



He tried numb. He was good at that, once,
But the assault of the operating theatre was off the Richter scale of self-deception.
The amputation table had drawn out sobbing yell,
The smells, bowels opening, sawn bone, long before the blessed days of chloroform.
Next time it was a boy screaming, blood fell from an opened brain.
'I rushed away before the operation was completed, nor did I ever attend again.'
Pity, all those boring Greek lessons and
Fear, pounding up from earth’s tragic core with no skin in between.
Outside in iron rain and the scent of dog shit, he leaned against bricks of the hospital and stared at a torn up world, at the phantasmagoria of
'The cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.'

Hangs out with a taxidermist

In Edinburgh, up the same street he was living in, was the first black person he had ever met. He was called John Edmundston and he was a freed slave from Guyana, and Darwin paid him a guinea an hour to teach him how to stuff birds.

"He hangs out with a taxidermist.
John Edmundston, the first black gentleman he’s ever seen
And in the same street, number 37.
'I used to sit with him often for he was a very pleasant, intelligent man.'
Sublimate mercury, brittle feathers, avian anatomy,
The scalpel tease and settling of wings.
As he leaves for number eleven he sees a harvest moon, a shadow-bruised melon as over the Amazon.”

One of the things that marked him out very much, which I was very intrigued to notice as I went though the letters and the diaries, is how he did not believe in hierarchy. And when he was at Edinburgh he went out with the oyster fisherman and asked them questions about all the marine life which is really when he began interest in marine biology at Edinburgh when he was supposed to be doing medicine. Also at Edinburgh, a few doors up the road in Lothian street, where he lived, was John Edmundston, who was ranked actually as one of the first great black Britons, and he was a freed slave from Guyana. He’d gone with Charles Waterton who had inherited his uncle’s plantation in Guyana and who’d gone ornithologising and exploring in the jungles of Guyana, and had taught John Edmundston taxidermy, to stuff birds, because it was very important when you were collecting to be able to stuff the birds on the spot otherwise they’d rot. And then Waterton brought John Edmundston to Edinburgh and freed him. And so there, there was this man up the road and Darwin went to him and said 'I used to sit with him often, he was a very pleasant, intelligent man,' and it must have been from him that he first heard about jungles, tropical jungles first hand, what it was like to walk in jungles, and I’m sure that that actually stirred his excitement to go to tropical places and be a naturalist there.

A quarrel in Bahia harbour

When Darwin first came to Brazil on the Beagle he was absolutely horrified at the slavery he saw there, and this was the cause of his first big quarrel with Captain Fitzroy. They were sharing a very small cabin and Fitzroy felt fine about the slavery, Darwin was appalled.

He heard how it felt to walk in jungle first from John Edmundston, his teacher, the freed slave.
Now, in this city on a pink lit bay, lightning snaps beneath his feet. He sees the slaves themselves, auctions, blows, humanity betrayed.
His waistcoat crackles with static.
In the mile of a river-crossing to make sure the ferry pilot, a tall, black slave, knows where he needs to go, he explains a little louder, as you do, and waves his hands.
Terrified, the fellow shuts his eyes.
'He thought I was in a passion and meant to strike.
I shall never forget my shame and my surprise at seeing a great, powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow directed, he thought, at his face.
He was trained to degradation lower than the most helpless animal.'
But captain Fitzroy thinks different.
He’s seen a plantation owner ask his slaves if they wanted to be free and they said 'No.'
'Does saying it to their master’s face prove anything?'
'We cannot live together if you doubt my word!'
The captain bangs out of the cabin and curses him on deck all evening.
Will he have to leave the boat?
Fitzroy sends apologies,
They never speak of slavery again.





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