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Science's debt to the slave trade

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Science  05 Apr 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6435, pp. 16-20
DOI: 10.1126/science.364.6435.16

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Summary

At the dawn of the 1700s, European science seemed poised to conquer all of nature. Isaac Newton had recently published his monumental theory of gravity. Telescopes were opening up the heavens to study, and Robert Hooke and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek's microscopes were doing the same for the miniature world. But one of the most important scientists alive then was someone few people have ever heard of, an apothecary and naturalist named James Petiver. And he was important for a startling reason: He had good connections within the slave trade. Petiver set up a museum and research collection of animal and plant specimens collected by ship surgeons and captains, many of them in the slave trade. Today, by examining scientific papers, correspondence between naturalists, and the records of slaving companies, historians are ferreting out connections between science and slavery and piecing together just how deeply intertwined they were. "We do not often think of the wretched, miserable, and inhuman spaces of slave ships as simultaneously being spaces of natural history," writes one historian. "Yet Petiver's museum suggests that this is exactly what they were."