In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Slave Trade and Natural Science

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Atlantic Slavery and Natural Science
  • Plantations, Science, and Improvement
  • The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Natural Science
  • Abolitionism and Natural Science
  • African and African American Knowledge
  • Natural Science and Ideas of Race
  • Botanical Legacies

Atlantic History The Slave Trade and Natural Science
Kathleen S. Murphy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0266


Separately, the natural sciences and the slave trade have been the subject of extensive scholarship, yet only recently have scholars begun to examine them together. Such research reveals that slavery and the transatlantic slave trade shaped the science of the Atlantic world as deeply as it influenced its economy and demographics. The unfree migration of 11 million enslaved Africans via the transatlantic slave trade also led to the movement of plants, animals, diseases, and natural knowledge throughout the Atlantic basin. Encounters between diverse groups of people and with unfamiliar environments engendered new natural and medical knowledge. Enslaved Africans made significant contributions to Atlantic science as specimen collectors, guides, and informants. Specimens collected in slave societies and along the routes of the slave trade became part of European museums and thus the raw materials upon which much European natural science was based. Although colonial and European naturalists frequently disparaged and feared the natural knowledge of enslaved Africans, they also eagerly sought it out, believing that blacks had special access to certain categories of knowledge. The knowledge and practices of Atlantic science also bolstered colonialism and the institution of slavery. Naturalists, especially those interested in economic botany, sought new natural commodities to increase the profitability of the colonial project. Other naturalists were engaged in explaining the causes of physical differences between groups of people. The hardening of racial categories in the late 18th century was often framed in the language of the natural sciences and supported through references to scientific texts. Scientific texts and scientists themselves were also involved in late-18th- and early-19th-century debates over the abolition of the slave trade and slavery. Apologists on both sides marshalled evidence from natural histories, travel accounts, medical treatises, and other scientific texts in support of their arguments.

General Overviews

Only a handful of works provide an overview to this topic and none adequately do so for the non-Anglophone Atlantic. The single best introduction to primary sources available in English is Slavery and the Natural World, which was produced by London’s Natural History Museum in conjunction with nationwide efforts in 2007 to mark the two-hundred-year anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. Since the project’s objective was to explore connections between the museum’s holdings and slavery, the sources included are necessarily selective and focused on those produced by British authors. Despite these limitations, it is the most extensive introduction available to the range of relevant sources and potential topics that might be explored using them. Delbourgo 2012, an online exhibit about Hans Sloane, broadly contextualizes the naturalist within the Atlantic world. It is a useful introduction to the interconnections between the natural sciences and slavery. The exhibit’s high-quality images, drawn from the collections of the John Carter Brown Library, make it particularly suitable as an introduction for undergraduates. Schiebinger 2004 similarly focuses on the pursuit of natural history in Atlantic slave societies. One of the first sources to address this topic, Govier 1999 takes an institutional approach, tracing the overlapping membership and institutional links between the Royal Society of London and the Royal African Company, as well as examining the Royal Society’s involvement in the early history of English Jamaica. Compared to the other sources in this section, it is more focused on the metropole.

  • Delbourgo, James, with Susan Danforth. “Voyage to the Islands: Hans Sloane, Slavery and Scientific Travel in the Caribbean.” Online exhibit, John Carter Brown Library, 2012.

    Provides an excellent introduction to the varied connections between the slave trade, plantation slavery, and natural science. Although focused on Sloane, the exhibit is international in scope. Includes excellent images from the JCB’s collections.

  • Govier, Mark. “The Royal Society, Slavery, and the Island of Jamaica: 1660–1700.” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 53.2 (1999): 203–217.

    DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.1999.0075

    An early analysis of the interconnections between the Royal Society, the slave trade, and English plantation societies, especially Jamaica, in the late 17th century.

  • Schiebinger, Londa. Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    Although the stated focus is on the non-transfer of knowledge about the abortifacient peacock flower, is more useful as a general overview to key people, methodologies, and objectives of imperial botany in the 18th-century Atlantic. Highlights the importance of African and indigenous natural knowledge and the context of plantation slavery.

  • Slavery and the Natural World. Directed by Tracy-Ann Smith, written and edited by Katherine Hann, document research by Katherine Prior and Mabintu Mustapha. London: Natural History Museum, 2007.

    Highlights connections between the museum’s collections and the slave trade, slavery, and abolition. Intended for a general audience so best used as an overview. Provides brief summaries for and extended quotations from a wide range of relevant texts, especially by British authors. Each chapter includes a useful bibliography.

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