This exhibition uses the collections of the John Carter Brown Library to explore the relationship between early modern scientific knowledge, the Atlantic slave trade and the African diaspora in the Caribbean islands. While historians have long stressed the importance of travel in the making of early modern natural history, the relation between the natural sciences and European interactions with Africans through the slave trade has only recently received attention. Examining the intersection of science and slavery allows us to see how Africans in diaspora both contributed to European sciences and maintained their own knowledge traditions in opposition to them.

The exploits of Hans Sloane (1660-1753) during and after his voyage to Jamaica provide a rich opportunity to see how the slave trade and emergent plantation systems created possibilities for new scientific knowledge. The son of a colonial official, Sloane was born and raised in Ulster, Ireland, and trained in London and France as a physician and botanist, eventually establishing himself as a leading member of British society and the republic of letters. In 1719, he became President of the Royal College of Physicians; in 1727, succeeding Isaac Newton, he was elected President of the Royal Society. He also became the pre-eminent collector of his time, amassing many thousands of books, manuscripts, specimens and objects, gathered by numerous hands from around the world. In line with his will, the British Museum was posthumously created to house this collection as a national public trust, opening its doors for the first time in 1759.

Sloane forged shrewd links to England’s West-Indian colonies early in his career, in particular Jamaica, where he spent fifteen months as physician to the governor during 1687-1689. He undertook this journey to improve his knowledge of Caribbean species and discover useful and profitable new drugs. Traveling to the West Indies was already an established itinerary for naturalists, but the number of specimens Sloane transported (including 800 plants, currently held by London’s Natural History Museum) and the precision of his documentation was unprecedented. Although he never returned to the island, it played a decisive role in his personal and intellectual life thereafter. In 1695, he married Elizabeth Langley Rose, widow of the planter Fulke Rose, whose plantations brought his family substantial income. In 1707 and 1725, Sloane published his lavishly illustrated two-volume Natural history of Jamaica, and he enjoyed extensive correspondence with Caribbean planters and merchants throughout his life.

Jamaica’s importance increased dramatically during Sloane’s lifetime due to the profitability of sugar harvested by West African laborers and the slave trade itself. These laborers, seized and forced to work under threat of violence, were brought to Jamaica from the Gold Coast, West Central Africa, the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra, initially under the monopoly of the Royal Africa Company. In 1673, Jamaica’s white population was approximately 7,800, already outstripped by an estimated 9,500 enslaved Africans. A century later, Africans outnumbered colonists by some 200,000 to 18,000. The free black Maroons who escaped when the English took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, and successfully resisted enslavement, also numbered several thousand people. Sloane witnessed a relatively early stage in the island’s transformation from pirate base to plantation economy.

The exhibition is divided into two parts. The first considers the contexts of Sloane’s voyage and the techniques through which he translated its different facets into an authoritative published natural history. The second explores the uses of plants, animals and objects by enslaved and free Africans, for example in shamanistic and healing practices such as Obeah and Myal, as well as the adoption of camouflage and ambush tactics by Maroons. Sloane’s voyage allows us to reconsider both the variety of knowledge produced through natural history and the purposes natural knowledge served for different communities. What we often think of narrowly as western scientific objects – herbarium specimens, species illustrations, classification systems and ethnographic objects – should be recognized as artifacts of cross-cultural exchange and contest over landscapes, their uses and their histories.


This exhibition was curated by James Delbourgo, with assistance from Susan Danforth.