Charles Waterton

1782 - 1865


English naturalist who managed at least three family estates in Demerara, La Jalousie and Fellowship, the estates of his uncle Christopher Waterton (q.v.)., and Walton Hall, purchased by his father Thomas just before Charles Waterton arrived in the colony in 1805.

On the death of his father ownership of the family seat, Walton Hall, near Wakefield, Yorkshire passed to Charles Waterton, while ownership of the Demerara plantation, also named Walton Hall, was passed to Charles Waterton’s siblings, but managed by Charles on the family’s behalf before being sold by 1812.

[1] Waterton’s management of the family plantations ended, according to his own letters, in 1812: "In the month of April, 1812, my father (Thomas) and uncle (Christopher) being dead, I delivered over the estates to those concerned in them, and never more put foot upon them”. It is unclear at what point the Walton Hall estate in Demerara estate was sold, possibly it was before the sales of La Jalousie and Fellowship. He acted as executor to his uncle Christopher Waterton’s will, which included the transfer of his Demerara estates.

[2] Charles Waterton received £5,000 on his 1829 marriage to Anne-Mary Edmonstone, bequeathed in the will of her father and his associate, plantation owner Charles Edmonstone, to be “entirely at [Waterton’s] disposal” if the marriage took place. Charles Waterton and Anne-Mary Edmonstone were married in Bruges on 18th May 1829. Edmund Waterton, son of Charles Waterton and Anne-Mary Edmonstone was born in 1830. Anne-Mary died of puerperal fever 21 days later.

[3] Waterton received a loan of £3,100 in 1849 from his sister-in-law Eliza Edmonstone (daughter of Demerara plantation owner Charles Edmonstone) for the purchase of land including a quarry around Walton Hall, Yorkshire, which Eliza later attempted to claim back in contestation of Waterton’s will against his son (Eliza’s nephew) Edmund.

[4] In 1861 Charles Waterton aged 78 widower Gentleman was living at Walton Hall Yorkshire with inter alios his sisters-in-law Eliza and Helen Edmonstone, aged 52 and 49, both 'Gentleman's daughter', both born Demerara.

[5] When criticised for his privilege and reliance upon enslaved and indigenous labour and knowledge to make his naturalistic discoveries, Waterton responded by claiming in an 1833 letter that “I never possessed a slave in my life, or any part of a plantation”. This attempt to distance himself from enslavement on a technicality around ownership belies his management of numerous family plantations over several years and the frequently-documented enslavement of “lent” and “hired” enslaved labourers in his own memoirs. The same letter from Waterton explained that, at the outset of an expedition he “hired six Indians, and took with me a negro belonging to my uncle”, clearly taking the position of enslaver.

[6] Waterton’s own Wanderings outlines continual instances of Waterton acting as an enslaver. He stated that his “friend” Robert Edmonstone “very kindly let me have” an enslaved man named Daddy Quashie and goes on to describe numerous incidents of threatening and intimidatory behaviour towards Quashie to force him into working for Waterton in highly dangerous situations. A second enslaved man, James “whom I was instructing to preserve birds”, was assigned to support Waterton by Edmonstone.

[7] Waterton also mentions his hiring a group of enslaved people “from a woodcutter in another creek to repair the roof; and then the house, or at least what remained of it, became head-quarters for natural history”, and hiring another two enslaved people from a Mrs. Peterson.

[8] Waterton’s position on slavery as a system was to acknowledge its inherent injustice: “Slavery can never be defended; he whose heart is not of iron can never wish to be able to defend it; while he heaves a sigh for the poor negro in captivity, he wishes from his soul that the traffic had been stifled in its birth”; while simultaneously defending his own actions and position as a member of the enslaver class, acting as an apologist for the British slavocracy and stressing the benevolence of enslavers: “A Briton’s heart, proverbially kind and generous, is not changed by climate, or its streams of compassion dried up by the scorching heat of a Demerara sun; he cheers his negroes in labour, comforts them in sickness, is kind to them in old age, and never forgets that they are his fellow-creatures”.

[9] Charles Waterton instructed John Edmonstone (who was enslaved by Charles Edmonstone, Waterton’s close associate and, later, father-in-law) in taxidermy in Demerara. John Edmonstone was brought to Scotland in 1817 and had moved to Edinburgh by 1824, where he trained Charles Darwin in the practice. Darwin would later visit Waterton at Walton Hall and commented upon the heritage of his sisters-in-law Eliza and Helen.


National Archives, T71/885: British Guiana no. 693; Walter Rodney Guyanese Sugar Plantations footnote 37 p. 8; "Charles Waterton's Demerara", Overtown Miscellany; (unverified). Yolanda Foote, ‘Waterton, Charles (1782–1865)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2008 [, accessed 14 May 2014].

  1. Email from John Whitaker 02/03/2020 sourced to Waterton's essays. PROB 11/1506/79.

  2. Will of Charles Edmonstone produced June 1827 with the inventory entered into records May 1828 Sarah Cobham, “Petticoat Patrimony part three: Anne-Mary and Charles, myth vs reality”, Yorkshire Bylines, 25th January, 2023 -

  3. Bill of Complaint, Eliza Edmonstone, Plaintiff, In Chancery, Master of the Rolls – 1867-E-No.2, Filed: 8th January, 1867. London Metropolitan Archives. Sarah Cobham, “Petticoat Patrimony part five: ‘From the Body of Helen Reid’”, Yorkshire Bylines, 8th February, 2023 -

  4. 1861 Census online.

  5. Magazine of natural history and journal of zoology, botany, mineralogy, geology and meteorology, Vol. 6 (London, 1833) p. 467 -

  6. Charles Waterton, Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the years 1812, 1816, 1820, & 1824 (London, 1879 – originally published 1825), pp. 233, 272 -

  7. Charles Waterton, Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the years 1812, 1816, 1820, & 1824 (London, 1879 – originally published 1825), pp. 209, 261 -

  8. Charles Waterton, Wanderings in South America, the North-West of the United States, and the Antilles, in the years 1812, 1816, 1820, & 1824 (London, 1879 – originally published 1825), p. 175 -

  9. James McNish, “John Edmonstone: the man who taught Darwin taxidermy”, Natural History Museum blog - Letter, Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell, 8th October, 1845, Darwin Correspondence Project -

We are grateful to John Whitaker and the Forgotten Women of Wakefield team: Helga Fox, Sarah Cobham, Catherine Clarke, Zainab Jode, and Abibat Olulode, for assisting in the compiling of this entry. 

Further Information

Stonyhurst College
Oxford DNB Entry

Associated Estates (2)

The dates listed below have different categories as denoted by the letters in the brackets following each date. Here is a key to explain those letter codes:

  • SD - Association Start Date
  • SY - Association Start Year
  • EA - Earliest Known Association
  • ED - Association End Date
  • EY - Association End Year
  • LA - Latest Known Association
1805 [SY] - 1812 [EY] → Manager
1805 [SY] - 1812 [EY] → Manager

Legacies Summary

Cultural (1)

Natural History

Relationships (6)

Son-in-law → Father-in-law
Notes →
Charles Waterton married Charles Edmonstone's daughter...
Nephew → Aunt
Nephew → Uncle
Son → Father
First Cousins
Husband → Wife

Addresses (1)

Walton Hall, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, Yorkshire, England