He helped advance Darwin’s theories of evolution through his skills in taxidermy and knowledge of the South American tropics, but few will have heard of freed slave John Edmondstone. The extraordinary story of how he began working with the young Darwin after moving into the same Edinburgh street as him in 1823 is told in Before Windrush: West Indians in Britain, the latest book to emerge from husband and wife team Martin and Asher Hoyles.
“Edmondstone was a skilled taxidermist and taught Darwin how to preserve vertebrate specimens for his research,” says Martin. “Thanks to Edmondstone, Darwin also learned about the tropical rain forests of Guyana, where he was born, and this encouraged Darwin to dream about travelling to South America to find out for himself.”
From former slaves and servants to campaigners and writers, the book is an attempt to cast light on the pre-Windrush generation. It was prompted by the Windrush scandal of 2018, Martin tells me, when there was an explosion of interest in those who arrived from the Caribbean in the decades after the Second World War to make Britain their home.
“It made everyone think that the arrival of the Empire WIndrush in 1948 was the beginning of West Indian migration, whereas it went way back,“ he says.
“We wanted to explore the lives of all those who’ve made a significant contribution to British society over the centuries, particularly women who, even if they are known, have been largely neglected, like Amy Ashwood Garvey.”
Ashwood, former wife of Marcus Garvey, settled in London in 1935 and opened up the Florence Mills Social Club at 50 Canarby St, where African and Caribbean political dissidents would meet against the backdrop of cutting edge jazz music and good home cooking. Among its frequent visitors was CLR James who, aside from admiring Ashwood’s culinary skills, described her as “one of the brightest women I have known”– great praise from one of the foremost intellectuals of the day.
St Vincent-born Annie Brewster, who forged a successful nursing career at the London Hospital in Whitechapel towards the end of 19th century, is someone I’d never heard of. “I hadn’t either,” Martin admits. In charge of the hospital’s ophthalmic wards for 14 years, the hospital’s archives reveal how she was much admired for her nursing skills and kindness.
Here’s two other names that had also passed me by, Guyana-born footballer Andrew Watson who played for Scotland in the 1880s and is said to have help revolutionise the style of the game, and Trinidadian John Alcindor, Harrow Road GP and influential member of the British Medical Association at the turn of the last century.
Among the better known figures is the white Dominican novelist Jean Rhys, whose response to Jane Eyre, Wide Sargosso Sea, depicts the suffocating racial and sexual divide of the Caribbean, and the legendary cricketer Learie Constantine, who took Nelson to the top of the Lancashire league in the 1930s and became the UK’s first black peer.
The book is the fruit of two years’ research, much of it carried out at the British Library. “I would be down there every day, spending the whole day at the desk. But I enjoyed every minute of it,” recalls Martin, a retired university lecturer.
There are 28 biographies in all, beginning with Dr Johnson’s servant, Francis Barber, each a few hundred words long and accompanied by a portrait. Asher, a performance poet, contributes with a series of poems to accompany each section, including Stolen Identity and Don’t Attack Iraq.
It is the fifth title the Gospel Oak-based couple have brought out for independent black publishers Hansib since 1999, this one coinciding with Hansib’s 50th anniversary. Succinctly written and in a simple style, it is an excellent introduction to the subject, particularly for young adults, and would serve as a valuable educational resource.
Before Windrush: West Indians in Britain by Asher and Martin Hoyles is published by Hansib at £9.99
This article first appeared in The Review on December 10, 2020