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Natural History, the Curious Institution

We do not often think of the wretched, miserable, and inhuman space of slave ships as simultaneously being spaces of natural history. . . . The collections of these naturalists bear witness to the deeply intertwined histories of the slave trade and early modern science in the Atlantic.
—Kathleen S. Murphy, “Collecting Slave Traders: James Petiver, Natural History, and the British Slave Trade,” The William and Mary Quarterly vol. 70, no. 4

TWO months to the Caribbean,
our hold crammed tight
with cargo still breathing.

                 In Lisbon after eight weeks in the bowels 
                 of a slave ship: samples of CARMINE and INDIGO,
                 preserved SCALE INSECTS, the dye’s DRIED FLOWER.

FIFTEEN HUNDRED blocks iron ballast
to steady our galley with Negroes loaded, hull 
plangent in rough seas’ throes and tortures.

                 The right to sell slaves in New Spain accords 
                 with our grand scheme—imagine the returns 
                 in American HERBS, the CURES and REMEDIES!

ELEVEN of us tried to starve ourselves, 
but with a metal tool, the ship’s surgeon prised 
 our mouths open, pouring gruel down our throats.

                 On picking up Jamaican FISH preserved in spirits, I met strident
                 abolitionists at the harbor. Yes, their treatment is abhorrent, 
                 but a civilizing yoke can only be best for the African.

TWENTY percent of our Africans 
written off to the squalor below deck: 
diarrhea, fever, chains’ wounds gangrened.

                 Yesterday arrived a most diverse assortment of SEASHELLS 
                 in the hold of a new-built slaver; I detest the trade 
                 and pity their cargo, but science nonetheless must progress.  

TWO HUNDRED AND TWELVE slaves salvaged 
while rescuing people from our Guineaman 
foundered amid reefs off the Swahili Coast.

                 While leaving the Bight of Benin, a squall downed the ship 
                 fully loaded—truly a tragedy—the crew and captain lost 
                 along with specimens of RHINOCEROS, ANTELOPE, and BATS. 

SIXTY-FOUR slaves staged a mutiny—we hailed 
them with lead from our barricade, dispensing 
viperous man, woman, and child overboard.

                 En route to New Orleans, the slaves, I learned, 
                 mutinied, escaping to some small isle; with deepest 
                 displeasure I write that your MALACHITE nodules are lost.

THIRTY at a time they rowed us out to their great  
and stinking ship, our bodies then chained 
to planks stacked one atop another, coffin tight.

                 Along with an array of DRIED LEAVES and SEEDS, 
                 my collector surprised me with a section of CARVED IVORY, 
                 showing the heathens’ fancy and hand at detail.

FIVE HUNDRED AND TEN, we marched them down 
to the shore, from the fort’s white walls atop the hill, 
the chaplain come down to bless our ship’s sailing.

                 With the captain having lost on the journey only five 
                 percent his Africans, and the safe arrival of these NESTS 
                 and EGGS, we can both delight in a profitable enterprise.

A DOZEN jetsam corpses to bait the sharks— 
we put on a show for the blacks, dissuading
any uprising with the terror of bloodied waves.

                 Enclosed is an enormous SNAKE from Suriname, a gentleman 
                 by the name of De Jong generously loaned me a troop 
                 of his blacks to procure the beast and prepare its SKELETON.

THREE HUNDRED AND ONE of our number passing on
 with no return; in subsequent weeks’ chains, 
the iron savored our blood and entered our souls.

                 Upon stowing the chains for those wretches away, fill 
                 the hold with the sugar, rum, and cotton, and find some 
                 room for these crates, BONES for some naturalist in Paris.

FORTY lashes to stripe the back of that nigger
flashing a bold eye: we’ll not have him abuse 
our kind ration of sun and air above deck.

                 Six SPECIES named in the last years, all received 
                 through the safe care of the forts and their garrisons 
                 that stock ships calling along the Slave Coast.

ONE African wench brained 
dead amid the crew’s night whoring: 30£ 
her price docked from their wages.

                 The accounts of HARPY VULTURE and SLOTH are remarkable, 
                 but the loathsome vessel for this knowledge bottoms on 
                 the question: are our morals to be the price of discovery?

ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-TWO sick and infirm 
the defendants pitched to the waves; dire 
straits did not impel them, but rather insurance.

                 Five skins of fabulous PURPLE FEATHERS—having delivered 
                 your slaves to port, I trust bringing these and other 
                 articles back to Liverpool shall not burden you.

TWO minds broken, one left, one right of me, 
their every breath a wail in the ship’s dark, where 
vermin nipped and crawled over our shackled bodies.

                 A simply unacceptable matter—fifty percent 
                 the BUTTERFLIES gnawed down to tatters, no doubt 
                 from the vermin and filth homed in that ship’s belly.

THREE children—Nos. 8, 19, 46—we put 
into the thumbscrews, to force the betrayal
of the Negroes that led the quelled revolt.

                 Just this week, I catalogued my latest curiosities— 
                 CRABS and CORALS brought by the Guineaman 
                 Navigator from Barbados, vibrant in their color.

THREE THOUSAND miles between Whydah
and Salvador, COUNTLESS the ocean’s 
tears purling back to homelands severed.

                 Having the captain as my guest over dinner, I extolled 
                 to him his role in advancing NATURAL HISTORY— 
                 to our benefit, his contributions number COUNTLESS.

 

 

 

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, naturalists in Europe relied upon ships traveling across the Atlantic to bring, if not additionally source and collect, specimens from Africa and the Americas. One of the larger components of transatlantic sea traffic was slave ships bringing enslaved people from Africa to the New World, and in turn bringing goods and materials, either in small or large quantities, back to Europe—the so-called triangular trade. From surviving records and correspondence, we know that the English naturalists James Petiver and Hans Sloane greatly relied on the slave trade to acquire new specimens. Though records have not survived for other European naturalists, it seems unlikely that only these two naturalists would have co-opted the slave trade for their benefit.

The choice to include a given species or organism in this poem was based primarily on when a species received its binomial name. If a species received its name prior to 1808, the year the transatlantic slave trade ended, it means that the species was known to naturalists formally, and before that anecdotally, before the end of the slave trade. Species native to West Africa and the Americas are included, as a single slave ship could have brought specimens back from both geographic regions.

The voices in the poem are not found texts but are based upon the documented realities of the slave trade and historical events, such as the wreck of the São José-Paquete de Africa (stanza 9) and the Zong massacre (stanza 25). An exception to this is “the iron . . . entered our souls” (in stanza 19): this line quotes an enslaved man named Caesar, whose story is told in John Riland’s 1827 Memoirs of a West Indian Planter.