Henry Smeathman 'Some account of the termites, which are found in Africa and other hot climates' © Royal Society

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Hidden figures: forgotten contributions to natural history

Collectors such as Hans Sloane, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace have been celebrated for centuries for their contributions to the study of the natural world, as evidenced by streets named after them, commemorative statues, and school history books. 

Sloane, Darwin and Wallace are often credited with single-handedly changing the course of science as we know it, but their discoveries would not have been possible without the help of others.

This help often came in the form of Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, Black healers, and others whose names and contributions have been lost to history. These hidden figures, people whose stories have been overlooked or disregarded, are an important part of the study of natural history.

Discover more about the people behind the headlines, and how they have been overlooked by the history books. 

The Sloane Herbarium at the Natural History Museum

Trading points (which were often slave ports) helped collectors to easily send specimens like those in the Sloane Herbarium back to England ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

As collectors

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, slave ships were used to transport natural history specimens across the Atlantic. Enslaved people in the Americas and Africa also acted as collectors for European natural historians.

These people contributed to the advancement of natural history but can never be fully recognised. Their names have been lost to history and their contributions have been largely ignored by European historians. 

The transatlantic slave trade was key in the growth of European natural history collections, and demand for new plants was an important stimulus. In the search for these new species, some naturalists trained enslaved people in specimen collection, taking advantage of their unique knowledge about the local flora and fauna. These enslaved people are mostly uncredited though some were paid.

The British apothecary James Petiver (c1665-1718) rarely left his home in London, although he gained a reputation as a renowned collector. Petiver offered financial incentives to some in return for specimens. Of the worldwide group of collectors who sent him specimens, between 25% and 33% of them worked in the slave trade. Without these connections he would have been unable to contribute to one of the largest natural history collections in the world at that time.

Edward Bartar was a slaver in West Africa who was of Anglo-African descent. It is likely that his mother was a local African woman and his father was employed by the Royal African Company which traded in enslaved people. He was educated in England where he struck up a friendship with collectors such as Petiver. On his return to Africa, Bartar built natural history collections that he sent back to his friends in England. He most likely used enslaved people to collect his own specimens and refused to let others collect in the area, denying them access to enslaved Africans.   

Like Petiver, slavery was central to Sloane's collecting endeavours. His wife, Elizabeth Langley Rose, owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, the profits from which helped to fund Sloane's collecting. Many of the specimens that Sloane collected in Jamaica were wild but some were harvested by enslaved people, including cacao. Sloane's Jamaican specimens are a product of the institution of slavery that underpinned the island's colonial economy.

While not all collectors in the Atlantic World used enslaved people or engaged with the slave trade, for West African specimens, where precise collecting locations are given, they are often slave ports. These trading points helped collectors to easily send specimens, like those in the Museum's Sloane Herbarium, back to England.  

These specimens are not just relics of history as many are still used in research today. For example, comparing Sloane's specimens with modern ones helps scientists to understand changing levels of pollution in the atmosphere. The collection includes type specimens, that are essential for the correct naming of species and there are specimens of species that have since gone extinct. Due to the lack of labelling or records on some of these items, it is impossible to know exactly how many were collected by enslaved people or by collectors.  Changing conventions in how natural history finds were documented could push out Indigenous or black people as these were often antecdotal in style. 

Close up of Graman Quacy

The celebrated Graman Quacy, an engraving by Wiliam Blake, Stedman, 1806

As healers

Some enslaved people used their talents in healing and scouting to gain their freedom. One of them was a man called Kwasi (full name Kwasimukamba, or Graman Quassi, but also spelt Quasi or Quacy). His knowledge of botany was likely learnt from other Indigenous healers, and this knowledge-sharing with colonists was probably driven by self-preservation.

His documentation of Quassia amara, a plant which could cure internal parasites, vomiting and quell fever, was bought for a large sum of money by a European student, and named after Kwasi. Despite this Kwasi also helped to re-capture escaped enslaved people and by the end of his life even had his own enslaved workers.

If Indigenous people were not enslaved, it does not mean that the exchange between cultures was a free one. Many African people felt they had little choice but to trade objects and even people. There were probably many people like Kwasi, but with no written first-hand accounts we may never know. Instead, there are many uncredited and unknown people whom collectors mention in passing with no additional details on the role they played. Their knowledge was often dismissed as superstition or 'lesser' knowledge. Many colonists, Edward Long among them, believed that even if local cures worked well that this was luck or self-preservation - not scientific knowledge or creativity.  

Portrait of Ali

Thanks to Alfred Russel Wallace, we do have records of a Malay teenager named Ali who worked for Wallace in Sarawak.  © Alfred Russel Wallace/Wikimedia Commons

As experts

Indigenous people were critical to successful European expeditions. Their knowledge of the local area allowed them to navigate the landscape and find specimens that Europeans could not.

English naturalist Mark Catesby (1683-1749) compiled the first comprehensive survey of the flora and fauna of south-eastern North America. He was dependent on various people for help, including Indigenous guides and enslaved people. The idea of purchasing an enslaved labourer or assistant was typical of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Writing in April 1698, explorer David Krieg blamed a poor collection expedition in which he only collected 22 plants and a handful of insects on his assistant Issac (or Sancho) being unavailable. Colonel C Swinhoe wrote in 1886 how, a 'trained native' assisted him. Swinhoe refers to him as his 'subordinate'. Often colonial officials posted overseas relied heavily on the locals' time and knowledge with little credit like this or no credit at all. Small anecdotes such as those left by Krieg and Swinhoe demonstrate how local insight could be the difference between a successful expedition and an unsuccessful one.

Female naturalists also used enslaved people, Dutch-born Maria Sibylla Merian had enslaved Indigenous people from the Americas and Africans to help her locate specimens and to protect her while travelling in South America - to cut down the rainforest to allow her to pass, to garden and to paddle her and her assistants in a canoe as part of her collecting and cataloguing expeditions. She also told of taking tips from 'the Indians' - including how to use cotton and senna leaves in medicine, how to make cassava bread and how to make clothes and jewellery. She also brought an unnamed woman back to Amsterdam with her. It is unknown what happened to her. 

Entomologist Henry Smeathman had Africans open termite mounds. He acknowledged this in a plate in his paper, 'Some account of the termites, which are found in Africa and other hot climates', but left no information about the person in this picture. 

Henry Smeathman 'Some account of the termites, which are found in Africa and other hot climates'

Plate 7: Henry Smeathman 'Some account of the termites, which are found in Africa and other hot climates', (1781) © Royal Society

Thanks to Alfred Russel Wallace, we have records of a Malay teenager named Ali who worked for Wallace in Sarawak, Borneo. Ali began as a servant before working as a local guide. He taught Wallace the Malay language and collected, hunted and skinned birds, which would go on to be part of the Museum's collections.

Other individuals' stories are unlikely to ever be known. But we know that although their names are lost, their contributions to the study of the natural world are immeasurable.