A display of swarming insects, including butterflies and beetles

Early naturalists and collectors often relied on the help and knowledge of Indigenous and enslaved peoples, whose names and stories have typically been overlooked by history books. 

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Black history at the Natural History Museum

Discover the contribution of Black people to the field of natural history.

There are many people whose contributions to science remain unknown or ignored, particularly from the height of the British Empire and transatlantic slave trade.

Our curator Miranda Lowe CBE explores the colonial history of the Natural History Museum and reveals some of the untold stories from the collections we care for and the study of the natural world.

Forgotten collectors

The expertise of Indigenous and enslaved people was crucial to the expeditions of European naturalists and collectors. Their knowledge of local nature and landscapes helped these scientists to navigate and find specimens that they would have been unable to source on their own.

But their contributions were rarely recorded and, as a result, their names and stories have largely been forgotten. Find out more about the hidden figures of natural history.

Darwin’s taxidermy tutor

Charles Darwin’s finches are famous. They helped lead the naturalist to his theory of evolution by natural selection. But did you know that a formerly enslaved Black man made the collection of these specimens possible?

During his time at Edinburgh University, the young Darwin paid John Edmonstone for lessons in taxidermy. John had impressive knowledge and skill in preserving bird skins, learned during his enslavement in Guyana. The techniques John taught Darwin would become crucial just a few years later when Darwin embarked on his journey to the Galápagos Islands on HMS Beagle. 

The real origin of hot chocolate

The vast collection of seventeenth-century doctor Sir Hans Sloane eventually formed the core of the collections we now care for.

Sloane spent time in Jamaica, making notes on the island’s plants and animals as well as on local customs. He also collected more than 800 specimens there, some of which were acquired with the help of enslaved people.

It was in Jamaica that Sloane encountered cocoa. He’s often credited as using the beans to invent drinking chocolate. But historians note that Jamaicans were actually making the hot beverage long before Sloane’s arrival on the island.

Find out more about Sir Hans Sloane and his collection

Kwasi and Quassia amara

Graman Kwasimukambe - also known as Kwasi, Quasi, Quassi and Quacy - was a Surinamese freedman and natural scientist. His story is rarely told, though his legacy is in full view in the Natural History Museum.

A painting of the plant species Quassia amara is one of the 162 hand-decorated panels that adorn the ceiling of Hintze Hall. The plant was named after Kwasi, who discovered its medicinal properties and used it to make a bitter tea to treat various ailments. The sale of his medicine made Kwasi financially successful enough to buy his freedom, though he is regarded by some as a controversial figure.