Historians are starting to explore the dark side of science

Credit where credit is due.
Credit where credit is due.
Image: Reuters/Yiannis Kourtoglou
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There’s no denying that scientific study has led to lots of progress for humanity. Without the curious minds of early scientists—who were known as “natural historians”—we’d know little about botany, biology, and entomology, and might live in an entirely different world today.

But some of the practices that helped us get here might not sit so well today. Increasingly, scientific historians are coming to terms with the fact that science thrived in part because of the transatlantic slave trade of the 1500s to 1800s, which enabled naturalists to discover and ship new flora and fauna specimens around the world. To this day, museums contain these specimens that excited and inspired early scientists but were obtained only thanks to an inhumane business.

“We do not often think of the wretched, miserable, and inhuman spaces of slave ships as simultaneously being spaces of natural history,” Kathleen Murphy, a science historian at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, writes in the April installment of The William and Mary Quarterly (paywall). Yet research suggests that this is exactly what they were.

Murphy has been studying the link between slavery and science. She tells Science Magazine that she’s been surprised to find just how closely commerce and knowledge are intertwined. Her work has explored the overlap between correspondence of early naturalists, the records of slave traders, and the relics in museums today. She points to the efforts of James Petiver (pdf), a London apothecary owner who, in the late17th and early 18th century,  kept in touch with notable naturalists around the world, trading ideas and specimens. His records show that he hired specimen collectors who often worked as slave ship surgeons and were scientifically educated. Some of those collectors, in turn, trained slaves to collect specimens for them and Petiver purportedly paid for that work, but the slaves were never credited with any of their contributions to early science.

When Petiver died in 1718, his collection of specimens was acquired by Henry Sloane, a naturalist who had himself spent time collecting in Jamaica and had married into a slaving family that could easily fund such endeavors. When Sloane himself died in 1753, he bequeathed his collection to various British museums and cultural institutions, where they remain today. Murphy worries that many of the people who study those objects are unaware of their questionable origins.

The first step in righting this wrong is talking about it, Murphy tells Science Magazine. She and others in her field make it clear that their intention is not to attack museums or the scientists who continue to use these specimens. But she does believe there needs to be a better understanding of how that work was done and where the objects came from. Understanding the connection between slave routes and scientific findings would not only improve our understanding of history, but it would make science stronger, she believes, because it provides additional details about the origins of specimens.

From a cultural perspective, understanding the connection between science and the slave trade can also shape debates about the legacy of slavery, Murphy notes. The contributions of the humans who were captured and traded goes deeper than their labor. Slaves guided early naturalists through unknown territories and shared what they knew about local plants and animals. There may come a time when these anonymous and involuntary efforts will finally be recognized as having contributed important findings to the study of science.