There is the Sea, Vast and Spacious: Slavery, Natural History, and Collections of Marine Life in the 18th-Century British Atlantic

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:50 AM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Christopher Blakley, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
This paper questions how individuals engaged in the slave trade and plantation slavery in the British Atlantic world exploited their position, and access to enslaved collectors, to accumulate specimens and descriptions of marine animals throughout the eighteenth century. Collecting animal curiosities below the waterline for wealthy noble patrons offered agents of the slave trade, such as clerks and surgeons, routes to status as respected naturalists. Such individuals often coerced enslaved people, especially those with a reputation for diving, to capture distant and dangerous fauna. For others, including clergy and poets, gathering sea creatures presented opportunities for cultivating friendship with slaveholders, leisure, and literary celebrity. Through case studies ranging from the Gambia River, Río de la Plata, and the West Indies, this paper investigates collectors who amassed a variety of animals such as sea lions, corals, jellyfish, electric rays, and murexes to gratify and intrigue their patrons and audiences in Britain. Asking how these individuals accumulated these animals reveals how commercial, scientific, and literary networks assembled under and bolstered by slavery produced and circulated knowledge in natural history. Using travel accounts, natural histories, and an unpublished manuscript journal, I ask how aquatic animals in particular came to be central to natural history as objects of curiosity, beauty, and mercantile projecting. Moreover, the paper highlights the hazardous and at times invisible labor of enslaved assistants in producing these collections. Uncovering exchanges of fauna between elite collectors at the metropole and individuals at slave trading forts, during expeditions for slaving companies, and on plantations in the colonies demonstrates how slavery facilitated transatlantic networks of information and the multiple ways in which animals appeared in passages to fame and credit in early modern science.