Natural History & the British Slave Trade

Date and Location
Monday May 09, 2022 12:00pm
Marine Science Research Auditorium and Online


Dr. Kate Murphy
Cal Poly


We rarely think about the wretched, miserable, and inhuman spaces of slave ships as having anything to do with natural history. Yet hundreds of scientific specimens were gathered by slave traders, slave ship surgeons, and others employed in the British transatlantic slave trade during the eighteenth century. These specimens were transported on the same vessels on which captive Africans endured the horror of the slave trade. Some of these specimens survive in modern natural history collections.

This talk reveals the entwined histories of Enlightenment science and the transatlantic slave trade. It argues that British naturalists exploited the routes and infrastructure of the eighteenth-century transatlantic slave trade in order to acquire specimens that otherwise would have been difficult or impossible for them to collect. Slaving mariners gathered specimens on naturalists’ behalf in each of the regions of the Atlantic World pulled into the orbit of the British slave trade: West Africa, the Caribbean, Spanish America, and British North America. The talk focuses on the example of Dr. John Burnet, a slave ship surgeon who collected specimens first on board the slave ship Wiltshire and subsequently as an employee of a slaving company in Spanish America.