University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > Slavery in the cabinet of curiosities: Hans Sloane's Atlantic world

Slavery in the cabinet of curiosities: Hans Sloane's Atlantic world

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The history of science has rarely if ever explored the links between making natural knowledge and the practice of African slavery in the early modern era. Science and slavery would seem to have represented opposite extremes of hierarchies of work and skill: the agency of rational ingenuity versus the regimented command of productive hands and bodies. By the eighteenth century, figurative chains of being contrasted the apex of Newtonian genius with the nadir of ‘Hottentot savagery’. The varied career of the naturalist-collector Hans Sloane (1660-1753) provides a rich opportunity to explore how worlds of slavery and science were, however, connected rather than separate. Best known for assembling the collection of natural specimens and artificial curiosities that formed the basis of the British Museum, Sloane spent fifteen months in Jamaica during 1687-1689 and, in the aftermath of this voyage, appears to have become the first person in western Europe to collect, preserve and describe artefacts pertaining specifically to slavery: nooses and whips to discipline and execute Africans; their musical instruments and culinary utensils; clothing and weaponry used by Maroon rebels in Jamaica; and also African human remains, including skin, foetal and genital material. Sloane thus anticipated abolitionist campaigners later in the century, who collected and displayed the instruments of enslavement. His career invites exploration of how slavery was made public through objects of curiosity well before abolitionist debates made such artefacts triggers of political concern. The paper aims to raise several related questions: how slavery both supported the practice of natural science and stimulated thinking about ‘race’; how natural history’s regimes of collection, description and preservation enabled invisible instruments of economic utility to become visible objects of curiosity and, ultimately, politics; and how enslaved African agency both made and contested knowledge in the Atlantic world.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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