In 1771, an idealistic British naturalist named Henry Smeathman set sail for Africa on a collecting trip. The 29-year-old’s destination was Sierra Leone, famed as a center of the colonial slave trade. Smeathman hoped not only to amass a treasure trove of insect specimens—his particular area of interest—but also, along the way, to better educate his fellow Englishmen about Black Africans, whom he saw as a “little-known and much misrepresented people.” He would fail on both counts.
Much of Smeathman’s collection was lost to transportation disasters. His ideals, meanwhile, were worn away by financial desperation and by the company he kept with friendly, cash-rich slave traders. By 1773, Smeathman was trafficking enslaved people to support his collections. He was far from the only naturalist to become entangled with slavery and its handy shipping routes, notes Sam Kean in The