There is no doubt that scientific research has led to great progress for mankind. Without the prudent minds of early scientists – known as "natural historians" – we would know little about botany, biology and entomology, and today we could live in a completely different world.
But some of the practices that helped us come here might not be so good today. Scientific historians are increasingly faced with the fact that science has partially succeeded by transatlantic trade from the 1500s to the 1800s, enabling naturalists to discover and deliver new specimens of flora and fauna around the world. To date, the museums contain such specimens that excited and inspired early scientists, but they were only obtained thanks to inhumane work.
"We do not often think of poor, miserable and inhumane slave ships as at the same time the spaces of natural history," says Kathleen Murphy, a science historian at the California State University, San Luis Obispo. William and Mary Quarterly (paywall). However, research suggests that they were just that.
Murphy studies the bond between bondage and science. She tells Science Magazine that she was surprised when she discovered that trade and knowledge were interwoven. Her paper explored the overlapping of correspondence of early naturalists, records of slave merchants and relics in museums today. It points to the efforts of James Petrover (pdf), a London-based pharmacy owner who was in contact with well-known naturalists around the world at the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries by trading ideas and specimens. His records indicate that he hired collector samples that often worked as a shipwreck for slaves and were scientifically educated. Some of these collectors have in turn trained slaves to collect samples for them, and Petiver allegedly paid for this job, but the slaves never attributed any contribution to early science.
When Petiver died in 1718, his collection of copies was redeemed by Henry Sloane, a naturalist who himself spent time gathering in Jamaica and married a family who could easily fund such efforts. When Sloane died in 1753, he left his collection to various British museums and cultural institutions, where they remain today. Murphy takes care that many people who study these objects are not aware of their questionable origin.
The first step in correcting this mistake is to talk about it, says Murphy for the Science journal. She and others in their area clearly show that their intention is not to attack museums or scientists who continue to use these specimens. But she believes it better to understand how this job was done and where the objects came from. Understanding the relationship between slaves and scientific discoveries will not only improve our understanding of history, but will make science stronger, she believes, as it provides additional details on the origins of copies.
From cultural perspectives, understanding the relationship between science and slave trade can also form debate on the legacy of slavery, notes Murphy. The contributions of people trapped and traded go deeper than their work. The slaves led the early naturalists through unknown territories and shared what they knew about local plants and animals. The time may come when these anonymous and involuntary efforts finally recognize that they have contributed to important discoveries in science.