A Celebration of Black Science

Explore the scientific contributions and activities of people of African and African-Caribbean descent in the Royal Society archives.

Te Tarata (1863) by Arnold Meermann (1829-1908), after and Bruno Hamel (fl. 1850s-1860s)The Royal Society

Practices of Extraction and Cooperation 

Many historians of science have argued that the development and history of modern science needs to be analysed within its context of imperial expansion and colonial activity.

One clear example of this is the way in which explorers gathered material, specimens and information from unfamiliar surroundings. While on rare occasions we can identify by name Black and indigenous individuals who contributed to early modern science, there are many anonymous others who provided information and guidance.

Title page of A letter concerning an antidote to the Indian poison in West-Indies (1742) by Edward MilwardThe Royal Society

In this letter, Edward Milward reports new information on an antidote to a poison which came ‘at a great Expence’. This much needed knowledge was not accessible to the European imperial powers without the aid of the enslaved, or formerly enslaved people, who were familiar with the land out of necessity, for survival.

Scientific interest in poisons was due not only to their potential medicinal effects but also because they could be used against the colonising forces.

This highlights how science served in large part to support the colonial project of exploration and expansion, and the necessary yet anonymous role of indigenous peoples in providing scientific knowledge.

On the physiological action of the bark of Erythrophleum guinense, generally called casca. (1877) by Thomas Lauder Brunton and Walter PyeThe Royal Society

Over 130 years later, Thomas Lauder Brunton F.R.S writes about acquiring the Casca bark.

The significance of the bark lay in its use by the indigenous people as a form of punishment.

The bark may have been obtained through coercion or worse, and the example makes clear that the information so desired by the British colonialists was only accessible through the local people.

Letter to the Editor of the Journal of Sciences, Literature and the Arts (1821-03-28) by Alexander Gordon Laing (1794-1826)The Royal Society

In this letter, Alexander Gordon Laing, Scottish explorer and colonial lieutenant, details the necessity of gaining geographical knowledge from indigenous travellers such as the Alexandrian Mahamed Misrah or an individual from Yawori (Yauri), an emirate in Nigeria. Here, he introduces Misrah.

Drawings from expedition notes to Sierra Leone (1820) by Alexander Gordon Laing (1794-1826)The Royal Society

Misrah provided detailed information on the Niger river and sub-Saharian Africa.

The manuscript gives us a glimpse into the process of erasure, as Laing himself proclaims how useful the knowledge of indigenous travellers was for foreign colonial explorers, and yet it is Laing who is described in generic accounts as somewhat successfully mapping the source of the Niger river.

Bust of Mary Seacole (1859)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Exceptional Individuals

The process of writing the historical record has largely obscured the lives and contributions of Black individuals to Western science. However, for a small number, we do have names, narratives and even images.

The following individuals have left their mark on the history of science in a much more substantial way than is usual, and suggest that the contributions of Black people to the production of Western science is far more extensive than has been assumed. A theme of medical expertise runs throughout many of the stories. British-Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, pictured here, also played a prominent role in the history of medicine, and after being somewhat lost to history, has been reclaimed as an eminent public figure. 

In the taxidermist's workshop (1948) by V.M. EvstafievState Darwin Museum

According to references in Charles Darwin’s autobiography and correspondence, the formerly enslaved Guyanese man, John Edmonstone, tutored the young Darwin in taxidermy during 1826. In a letter to Susan Darwin in January of that year, he describes his plans to learn bird stuffing ‘from a blackamoor’, and says ‘it has the recommendation of cheapness, if it has nothing else.’ In his autobiography, however, Darwin describes Edmonstone as working ‘excellently’, and as ‘a pleasant and intelligent man.’

Darwin's finches or Galapagos finches (1860) by Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882)The Royal Society

Darwin’s taxidermic knowledge was significant to his studies of flora and fauna during his H.M.S. Beagle voyage of 1831, leading to his work on the Galapagos Finches and his collections and specimens. These were crucial to the development and expansion of the theory of evolution.

Portrait of Francis Williams (1745) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Born in 1702 in Jamaica to free Black parents, Francis Williams was a polymath with political aspirations. His relatively affluent family meant that Williams received an education.

In his portrait, his hand rests on the book Newton’s Principia Mathematica. His extensive book collection also includes Locke, Sherlock, Rapin and Cowley.

These books, along with the depicted world globe, celestial globe and mathematical instruments, suggest study in mathematics, geography and astronomy. Williams has clearly been situated in a European scholarly tradition...

...as well as a Jamaican environment, as seen through the window.

Page 1 from an article in the Gentleman's Magazine (1771) by David Henry (1710-1792), edited byThe Royal Society

A Gentleman’s Magazine article from May 1771 states that Williams attended meetings at the Royal Society...

Page 2 from an article in the Gentleman's Magazine (1771) by David Henry (1710-1792), edited byThe Royal Society

...but was refused as a Fellow because of the colour of his skin.

Williams became a member of Lincoln’s Inn although there is no evidence that he became a practising lawyer. At this time young men of status commonly attended the Inns of Court as a kind of ‘finishing school’.

Portrait of Francis Williams (1745) by UnknownThe Royal Society

Details of Williams’s life continue to be debated, demonstrating the frequent difficulty in uncovering biographical details of Black people in the history of Western science, and in history more generally. Edward Long denigrated Williams in his History of Jamaica (1774), using him as part of his argument against the intellectual equality of the Black and white ‘races’. Long’s description of Williams’s education as a social experiment by the Duke of Montagu has recently been suggested to be a rhetorical device by scholar Cara Glatt (2019), but this narrative continues to be purported.

First page of a letter from Cotton Mather on inoculation in Boston (1723-05-21) by Cotton Mather FRS (1663-1728)The Royal Society

The Royal Society holds a letter describing how Onesimus, an African-born enslaved man in New England, introduced the practice of inoculation in 1716. He had been gifted to Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in 1706, to whom he described the method.

In 1721, Boston experienced a terrible outbreak of smallpox and Mather, armed with this newly acquired knowledge, was able to trial inoculation in the general population.

Page 11 of a letter from Cotton Mather on inoculation in Boston (1723-05-21) by Cotton Mather FRS (1663-1728)The Royal Society

Onesimus had undergone inoculation during his childhood in his homeland, where this was a common practice. The method included rubbing the pus of an infected person into a wound on a non-infected person, who would then experience an immune response.

Page 18 of a letter from Cotton Mather on inoculation in Boston (1723-05-21) by Cotton Mather FRS (1663-1728)The Royal Society

No further information on Onesimus himself is known, except for the fact that he was able to partially buy his freedom through giving money to Mather to purchase another enslaved person.

Smallpox inoculations. (1721) by Charles Maitland (1668-1748)The Royal Society

The story of Onesimus demonstrates how ‘traditional’ knowledge could be obtained and used by European scientists, and contributed to modern scientific knowledge.

Title page of 'A short account of the manner of inoculating the small pox' (1768) by Charles-Pierre Chais (1701-1785)The Royal Society

The outcry produced by the method however also demonstrates the simultaneous suspicion against traditional methods of healing, even when they had long histories of effective use.

Graman Quassi (1806) by William Blake (1757-1827)The Royal Society

Kwasi Graman (also known as Quassi, Gramman Quacy and Kwasimukamba) was a man originally from the Guinea coast, who was enslaved and forcibly moved to Suriname in the early eighteenth century. A healer and ‘obeah’ man, Kwasi was credited by Carl Linnaeus as discovering the medicinal properties of a plant which became his namesake, Quassia amara.

Page 2 of A Letter on the good effects of quasi root in some fevers (1768) by Donald Monro (1727-1802)The Royal Society

The Quassia amara plant was made famous by Kwasi for its uses on stomach-related ailments and fevers. Only after thirty years did the healer reveal the source of his medicine to Carl Gustaf Dahlberg, a Swedish soldier, who in turn enlightened Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’ publicisation of the plant and its potential led to it becoming a significant export from the Dutch colony.

Graman Quassi (1806) by William Blake (1757-1827)The Royal Society

Kwasi is unusual in his representation in the historical record, being a skilled and entrepreneurially savvy healer and spiritual worker. John Gabriel Stedman described him as essentially tricking the other free Black men and women into buying his charms, leading them to an unfounded sense of confidence in battle which would ultimately be beneficial to the colonial power. Kwasi did lend his assistance to the Dutch in opposing and repressing uprisings by Maroons (groups of escaped enslaved people). The memory of Kwasi amongst the Saramaka Maroon descendants of Suriname is one of a traitor.

Quassia amara (1749) by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778)The Royal Society

While Kwasi’s medicinal knowledge was depicted as exceptional in the records of European commentators, it is likely that it was the result of collaboration and a culture of information sharing among the numerous healers of African and indigenous descent in the 18th century and earlier, who have not been named in the historical record.

Page 2 of a book review of A discourse of the state of health in the Island of Jamaica (1677) by Anonymous editorThe Royal Society

Women Healers: Absent from the Record

While the aforementioned individuals are rare examples of enslaved and formerly enslaved people for whom we have details, there were many Black men and women working as healers in the British colonies and America.

For instance, women seem to have been prevalent in dealing with cases of the disease Yaws amongst enslaved men and women in the West Indies and elsewhere. The disease was not well understood or successfully treated by European doctors, and those afflicted were frequently cared for by older Black women known as ‘Yaw grandies’ whose remedies were recognised as more effective. 

Portrait of Joanna (1798) by William Blake (1757-1827)The Royal Society

One woman, Joanna, is another exception to the largely anonymous record.

She was named and described at length, in John Gabriel Stedman’s work Narrative of a five years expedition against the revolted negroes of Surinam, in Guiana (1806). The two met in Suriname in 1773 when she was aged about 15.

A Surinam Planter in his Morning Dress (1796) by William Blake (1757-1827)The Royal Society

Joanna was born to an African enslaved woman and a Dutchman. Stedman describes her use of African traditional practices to remedy him of multiple diseases and illnesses.

Portrait of Joanna (1798) by William Blake (1757-1827)The Royal Society

Joanna became the subject of fascination not only for Stedman, but also for abolitionists such as Isaac Knapp, who in 1838 published an edition of Stedman’s work focusing on Joanna.

Both works include purported quotes from Joanna herself. However, Stedman and Knapp had an editorial agenda, which means we should question how far we can actually reconstruct her voice and life from the archive.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Professionals in Colonial and Tropical Medicine

In both Africa and the Caribbean, medicine was linked to colonial activity. The British colonisation of Africa in the 19th century coincided to the development of medicine as a science and framed as a civilising mission.

The early 20th century saw a number of medical campaigns by European colonial governments, which were at times accompanied by medical research and experimentation on the indigenous peoples of the continent. Prior to the establishment of recognised medical degrees available to Black students at universities in Africa, medical students studied abroad. From the middle of the 20th century onwards, opportunities to study medicine opened up in African countries. In the British Caribbean Black people had very minimal opportunities to join the medical profession in their own countries until the middle of the 20th century. Some individuals with resources were able to qualify from esteemed universities, and as the islands moved towards independence the involvement of the local people in their health services could no longer be resisted. 

Native laboratory attendants in white (1909) by Colonel Albert Ernest Hamerton (1873-1955), compiled byThe Royal Society

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a pandemic of the fatal disease African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) occurred throughout Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda and the Congo.

The Royal Society dispatched a number of Sleeping Sickness Commissions, which reported between 1903 and 1919, in response to a 1901 epidemic in Uganda. While the names printed on the reports are those of European scientists, the images from an album in our collections shows the central role of indigenous Ugandans, most notably as laboratory assistants.

The hunt for the hidden parasites by The Wellcome TrustThe Royal Society

The prevalence of African trypanasomiasis cannot, however, be separated from the imperial activity of the European powers present in Africa in the decades preceding the outbreak.

The habitats of tsetse were transformed as a result of violent conquest as the distance between the flies and animals increased, while that between flies and humans decreased, exposing people more frequently. The disease remains a threat today, although its prevalence has considerably diminished.

Minutes of a meeting (1930-01-10) by The Royal Society Tropical Diseases CommitteeThe Royal Society

Ludlow Moody was a distinguished Jamaican physiologist and recipient of the Warneford scholarship, the Warneford Prize, the Todd Prize for Clinical Medicine and the Huxley Prize for physiology. He studied medicine at King’s College London before returning to Jamaica where he was the government bacteriologist between 1920 and 1925, and eventually set up a private practice.

Dr. Harold Moody | Celebrating Dr. Harold MoodyThe Royal Society

Moody came from a family of similar renown, with his brother Harold (also a qualified doctor) an activist who founded the League of Coloured People, and another brother Ronald (a qualified dentist) a sculptor whose works remain in the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Britain.

Minutes of a meeting (1930-01-10) by The Royal Society Tropical Diseases CommitteeThe Royal Society

In 1930, the Royal Society’s Tropical Diseases Committee discussed news from the Filariasis Commission in the British West Indies, including the approval of paying for sending a bacteriologist from Jamaica to St. Kitts. It is likely that Moody was the bacteriologist in question as the government bacteriologist for Jamaica at this time A. W. Grace is already mentioned by name in the minutes.

Despite his prestige and previously held government position, the fact that he may not be mentioned by name highlights the erasures and silences so common in these histories.

Black Scientists: Past, Present and Future (2018) by The Royal InstitutionThe Royal Society

There are many inspiring stories of Black people throughout the history of science and many more being written today. The archive too often makes them difficult to find and identify, but they are there for the telling.

Credits: Story

All rights reserved © The Royal Society 2020

The digital exhibit was curated to celebrate Black scientists as part of Black History Month 2020 by Francesca Chappell.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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