Darwin’s Uncle Josiah

On Darwin’s mother’s side of the family lies the famous Wedgwood Pottery business. You can still find Wedgwood dinnerware sold at your local store or online. But the Wedgwood family were also founders of the British abolitionist cause. In 1787, Josiah Wedgwood (Darwin’s maternal grandfather) helped to start the first abolitionist society in England. In 1792 he brought together his pottery skills and his political cause by creating the famous “Am I not a man and a brother” medallion, showing a Black man in chains. Josiah paid for the cost, and hundreds were distributed for free so that people who wanted to show their opposition to slavery could be visible.

Josiah Wedgwood II, the son of the pottery factory founder, was also a strong abolitionist. In 1831, his nephew, Charles Darwin, had a dilemma. Charles had received an offer to go on board a ship, The Beagle, as the naturalist collecting specimens for museums. But his father told him that he could not go, unless young Charles could find some established person of good repute who approved. So Charles went to his uncle Josiah. In his journal, Charles writes that he gained his uncle’s approval, and that his uncle sent him along with “a bit of pottery” as well. No one knows what this pottery might have been, but what do you think would be sent along with Charles to help him remember what his family stands for?