In the 1700’s, science in the western world exploded at a frantic space. There were huge advancements in science, and many new technologies were discovered. However, in work published by Sam Kean in Science magazine, we find out that a lot of these advancements were achieved in part due to slaves. We discover that scientists aligned themselves with the slave trade in order to source various specimens. Most ships visiting Africa and the Americas were private vessels engaged in slave trading. To gain access to these regions, naturalists and other types of scientists had to rely on slave ships and slave traders for food, shelter, mail and transport. Some slaves and slave ships even collected samples for scientists.
(MAP) AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE, 1500–1870/PEARSON EDUCATION, INC., ADAPTED BY N. DESAI/SCIENCE; (DATA) TRANS-ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE DATABASE/EMORY CENTER FOR DIGITAL SCHOLARSHIP
One of the most important scientists of that time was James Petiver. He was a naturalist and collected plant and animal specimens, which he stored at his research center which he called the Museum Petiverianum. Many other naturalists came to study those specimens there. However, those specimens were collected by many people who worked in the slave trade, as they carried African slaves to far flung colonies from Africa. This was the largest collection in the world of this type, and it was achieved all due to the slave trade. Petiver cultivated relations with slave surgeons who were knowledgeable and collected specimens for him, often against the instructions they were given by the government. He supplied them with kits that included jars for insects and brown paper for pressing plants. He also exploited slaves to collect specimens in areas Europeans refused to go. His plant collections alone filled more than 100 volumes. He also sold duplicates of rare specimens in his collection and ‘complete sets’ of certain species.
Another man who went even further was naturalist Henry Smeathman who travelled with slave traders to collect samples. He worked for slaving companies to gain better access to the trade . Smeathman relied on slave ships to haul the specimens to Great Britain, packing them onto the same ships as enslaved Africans. The samples went to the Caribbean then back to Africa. He thus collected samples of ostrich eggs, Goliath beetles, butterflies, sloths, and armadillos.
Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton was a great and famous scientist that discovered gravity and derived many formulas on how to calculate its effects. He too benefitted from the slave trade. He relied on the ocean tide readings to prove the gravitational pull of the moon on the Earth’s oceans. This data was hard to come by and thus Newton had to rely on others to collect data from him. Among other places, a lot of crucial data for these calculations came from French slave ports in Martinique.
Picture of Sir Isaac Newton
Astronomer Edmond Halley who discovered the periodicity of Halley’s comet, among many other contributions to astronomy, relied on observations of the moon, stars and other planets that came from far flung areas which operated as slave ports. Thus, it was the slave trade that truly was the main basis of the observations that Halley relied on for his work
Sir Hans Sloan
Sir Hans Sloan snapped up Petiver’s collections when he died. Sloane’s wealth came from his time collecting slave plantations, and he also married into a very stupendously wealthy slaving family. His wife was a widow of a wealthy Jamaican plantation owner. This wealth enabled him to collect as much as he wanted, and he amassed over 73,000 items. He handed all this over to the British Government when he died and this kickstarted the National British Museum, the British Library and the Natural History Museum, London.
Similarly, The National Gallery began due to the contributions of John Julius Angerstein. He made his wealth via plantations in the Caribbean and worked at Lloyds insuring slave ships in the Atlantic. He invested this wealth in a Pall Mall home, and a collection of 38 of the finest arts. When he died, he bequeathed these to the British government and the National Gallery began.
Dr.Hunt and the London Anthropological Society
Dr Hunt travelled to Newcastle to attend the annual meeting of the British Association for the advancement of Science. Dr. Hunt presented a paper, called ‘On the Physical and Mental Character of the Negro’. The paper said that Africans were a separate species that were closer to apes than the Europeans. He was not the only one to do so. John Crawfurd, a slave governor, also presented a similar paper. However, Dr Hunt’s paper carried with it the aura of a scientist and not a slave governor. He suggested that Africans could never be as intellectually developed as Europeans. He wrote that Africans thought of rebellion as much as “cows”, and that any African in a position of responsibility had European features.
Joseph Banks was a botanist and a naturalist. He was also president of Royal Society and an adviser to King George III, involving in setting up the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. He was passionate about plants and collected many samples both personally and via slavers who visited Latin America and Africa to indulge in the slave trade. His collections later became part of the Natural History Museum . Banks also influenced government policy and advocated for the import of breadfruit to the Caribbean as a cheap way of feeding slaves. This is just one of many examples of his works benefitting the slave trade or being taken via samples obtained due to the slave trade.
King George III, King of Great Britain and Ireland
Maria Merian was a naturalist and an artist. She travelled to Suriname for her research, which was a slave colony in South America. She spent two years studying insects in the region and published a book called Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium which was highly detailed and has earned her the moniker of “mother of entomology,” for her contribution to the study of insects. She also described many plants, one of which was Flos Pavonis, also known as the Peacock flower. It was used both by indigenous peoples and slaves from Africa to cause abortions and to commit suicide.
Picture of Maria Sibylla Merian
Dru Drury was a collector of natural history and a blacksmith. He published three volumes of Illustrations of Natural History, relying mainly on work collected by Henry Smeathman. He also used slave ships to collect spices and plants, along with insects for his works.
Picture of Dru Drury
Kwasi  is one of the few Africans whose name is recorded, and he contributed massively to scientific advancements. He was transported from Guinea to South America as a child. He was skilled in medical knowledge and treated both African slaves and European slave traders. He used a root which was later named as Quassia Amara to treat fever and strengthen the stomach. He also helped the Dutch crush rebellions and was remembered as a traitor by the Saramaka. He contributed to medical science, while also being a part of the slave trade.
Joanna  was the daughter of an enslaved African woman. She had knowledge of African healing and herbal remedies. She married a man named Stedman who she cured of illnesses on many occasions. He wrote, “‘I was seized suddenly with a dreadful fever; and such was its violence, that in a few days I was no more expected to recover… had it not been for the happy intervention of poor Joanna, who… by her unremitting care and attention had the good fortune so far to regain my health and spirits.” She also knew the cure for chigoe, a sand flea.
A lot of knowledge was transferred because of the slave trade from Africans to the Europeans, with African rice growing being one such thing. African rice is different from Asian rice, and only Africans knew how to properly cultivate it. Sloane wrote in one of his volumes that:
‘Rice is here planted by some Negros in their own Plantations, and thrives well, but because it requires much beating, and a particular Art to separate the Grain from the Husk, tis thought too troublesome for its price, and so neglected by most Planters.’ (Sloane, vol 1, 1707, pxix)
Another contribution was the knowledge of many different drugs coming from enslaved Africans who lived in the Americas and discovered the efficacy of many plants and herbs. On the cassava root, we have one writing saying:
‘The negroes boil and eat the leaves as a green.’ (Long, quoted in Lunan, vol 1, 1814, p163)
Other types of medicines and plants with health effects included:
- Treatments for yaws (inoculation; Majoe bitters, Picramnia antidesma)
- African healers (self-heal, Ruellia paniculata)
- Kola (Cola nitida)
- Worm-grass (Spigelia anthelmia),
- Fit weed (Eryngium foetidum),
- Velvet leaf (Cissampelos pareira),
- Allspice tree (Pimenta dioica)
- Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus)
- Soursop (Annona muricata)
- Aloe (Aloe vera)
- Physic nut (Jatropha curcas)
- Commercial plants (tobacco, sugar etc.)
Bryan Edwards described how the knowledge of inoculation, particularly inoculation against yaws, was brought to the Americas by slaves from the Gold Coast:
‘Clara, a most faithful well-disposed woman, who was brought from the Gold Coast to Jamaica the latter end of 1784, relates, that she was born in a village near Anamaboo;… She informed me also, in answer to some other inquiries, of a remarkable fact (i.e.), that the natives of the Gold Coast give their children the yaws, (a frightful disorder) by inoculation; and she described the manner of performing the operation to be making an incision in the thigh, and putting in some of the infectious matter. I asked her what benefit they expected from this practice? She answered, that by this means their infants had the disorder slightly, and recovered speedily, whereas by catching it at a later time in life, the disease, she said ‘got into the bone,’ that was her expression.’ (Edwards, vol 2, 1819, p80–1)
Picture of Cocoa plant specimen, Theobroma cacao, collected by Hans Sloane in 1687, from a voyage to Jamaica
There are many more drugs that slaves developed for which they received no academic credit. Due to written evidence, we can now share these facts with you. (see the additional reading.)
Many scientific discoveries, along with many advancements in agriculture, came directly as a result of the slave trade. It was not just economically, but also in terms of science that Europeans benefitted from the slave trade. These Africans are not named but played a huge part in the collection of specimens for European scientists, in the dispersal of knowledge to European scientists, or in the collection of readings for European scientists.
- Kean, Sam. “Historians expose early scientists’ debt to the slave trade” https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/04/historians-expose-early-scientists-debt-slave-trade
- Natural History Museum. “Slavery and the natural world” Accessed 23 Mar. 2021. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/slavery-and-the-natural-world.html
- Reville, William “Did early scientists owe a debt to the slave trade?” https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/did-early-scientists-owe-a-debt-to-the-slave-trade-1.3940432
- Novoa, Adriana. “Book Review: The Intertwined Paths of Science, Slavery, and Race.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, vol. 45, no. 2, 2015, pp. 348–356. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hsns.2015.45.2.348. Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.
- Eltis, David, and Stanley L. Engerman. “The Importance of Slavery and the Slave Trade to Industrializing Britain.” The Journal of Economic History, vol. 60, no. 1, 2000, pp. 123–144. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2566799. Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.
Andrew Curran, The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in the Age of Enlightenment (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)
David Lambert, Mastering the Niger: James MacQueen’s African Geography and the Struggle over Atlantic Slavery (University of Chicago Press, 2013)
Dorit Brixius, ‘From Ethnobotany to Emancipation: Slaves, Plant Knowledge, and Gardens on Eighteenth-Century Isle de France’, History of Science 58 (2019)
Elizabeth Green Musselman, ‘Plant Knowledge at the Cape: A Study in African and European Collaboration’, International Journal of African Historical Studies 36 (2003)
James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew, eds., Science and Empire in the Atlantic World (Routledge, 2007).
James E. McClellan and François Regourd, ‘The Colonial Machine: French Science and Colonization in the Ancien Regime’, Osiris 15 (2000)
James McClellan III, Colonialism and Science: Saint Domingue and the Old Regime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010)
Judith Carney and Richard Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (University of California Press, 2011)
Karol Kovalovich Weaver, ‘The Enslaved Healers of Eighteenth-Century Saint Domingue’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76 (2002)
Kathleen S. Murphy, ‘Translating the Vernacular: Indigenous and African Knowledge in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic’, Atlantic Studies 8 (2011)
Kay Dian Kriz, ‘Curiosities, Commodities, and Transplanted Bodies in Hans Sloane’s “Natural History of Jamaica”’, The William and Mary Quarterly 57 (2000)
Londa Schiebinger, Secret Cures of Slaves: People, Plants, and Medicine in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Stanford University Press, 2017)
Nicholas Dew, ‘Scientific Travel in the Atlantic World: The French Expedition to Gorée and the Antilles, 1681–1683’, The British Journal for the History of Science 43 (2010)
Rana Hogarth, The Medicalization of Blackness: Making Racial Differences in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017)
Raymond Phineas Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of America (University of Illinois Press, 1970)
Seymour Drescher, “The Ending of the Slave Trade and the Evolution of European Scientific Racism,” Social Science History 14 (1990)
Starr Douglas, ‘The Making of Scientific Knowledge in an Age of Slavery: Henry Smeathman, Sierra Leone and Natural History’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 9 (2008)
Suman Seth, Difference and Disease: Medicine, Race, and the Eighteenth-Century British Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2018)
Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (University of North Carolina Press, 2006)
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