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  • The making of scientific knowledge in an age of slavery: Henry Smeathman, Sierra Leone and natural history
  • Starr Douglas

The naturalist Henry Smeathman (1742–1786) lived and worked in Sierra Leone for nearly four years in the 1770s. The fruits of his labours during this period helped not only to shape the newly-emerging scientific field of entomology, but also had a lasting impact on the way in which the histories of colonisation and philanthropy in Sierra Leone have been understood. By the time he returned to London in 1779, following a further period of residence in the Carribean, Smeathman was a seasoned traveller, a knowledgeable natural historian and an accomplished entomologist, capable of presenting a learned treatise on tropical termites to the Royal Society, and envisioning a plan of settlement based on plantation agriculture for Sierra Leone. Today, Henry Smeathman is remembered for his work in two different but connected fields of knowledge – natural history and colonial settlement – both intimately connected with the history of Sierra Leone itself.

The global networks of knowledge and influence on which the collecting journeys of naturalists such as Smeathman depended have been the subject of considerable research in recent years. The eighteenth century voyages of discovery and exploration produced an abundance of new species of plants, animals and other natural history material. This led to an enormous increase in knowledge about natural history and the adoption of classificatory methods such as Linnaeus’ taxonomy by which descriptions of zoological and botanical phenomena could be standardized – a way of ordering the world. As well as collecting specimens of flora and fauna, theories of agricultural potential and improvement were studied as plants and animals were transplanted from one region of the world to another, and botanical gardens were established in the colonies for the naturalization of specimens. Natural history material, maps, charts, measurements and ethnographic descriptions were collected in far off countries and sent to European centers, notably museums, libraries and scientific academies. By centralizing such knowledge, future explorers could draw on these accumulated resources and add to them. One such ‘center of calculation’ was created by Joseph Banks, and centered on his house at Soho Square and at Kew Gardens.1 Amassing large and prestigious collections – such as those of Banks’ – required wealth and connections. In his account of the Banksian empire, for example, David Mackay has identified a large number of natural history collectors who supplied Banks with plant and animal specimens over the period 1770 to 1820. These collectors, 126 in all, Mackay refers to as ‘agents of empire’, suggesting they were often the forerunners of colonization, directed ‘to search for new and useful species and to undertake a thorough appraisal of the potential of new lands.’2

Whilst Henry Smeathman could himself be considered a small part of the Banksian empire, he was not in fact collecting solely for Banks, nor was his sponsored journey under Banks’ control. His initial sponsors were part of another international exchange network, which I shall call the ‘Quaker network’. This network pre-dates the Banksian network and in the later part of the eighteenth century overlapped with it to some extent. In view of the attention devoted to Banks as the ‘presiding genius’ over exploration and natural history in the late eighteenth century, it is important to consider the significance of other rather different, collecting networks. In the case of the Quaker networks, moreover, the means and motives of collecting to some extent differed, and their global geography was distinct. The particular focus of this network as it emerged in the early eighteenth century was on the flora and fauna of North America. A central figure in promoting the work of the American community of naturalists during the mid-eighteenth century was the Quaker wool merchant Peter Collinson (1693–1768) who sponsored, and corresponded with, many American naturalists including John and William Bartram, and other collectors associated with the Pennsylvanian Quaker community. On Collinson’s death in 1768, his friend Dr John Fothergill (1712–1780), a wealthy Quaker physician in London, continued as patron and sponsor to the American collectors. Like many of his fellow Quakers, Fothergill adopted an antislavery stance and joined with other Friends...