In 1771 Joseph Banks and other wealthy collectors sent a talented, self-taught naturalist to Sierra Leone to collect all things rare and curious, from moths to monkeys. Henry Smeathman’s expedition to the West African coast, which coincided with a steep rise in British slave trading in this area, lasted four years during which time he built a house on the Banana Islands, married into the coast’s ruling dynasties, and managed to negotiate the tricky life of a ‘stranger’ bound to his landlord and local customs. In this book, which draws on a rich and little-known archive of journals and letters, Coleman retraces Smeathman’s life as he shuttled between his home on the Bananas and two key Liverpool trading forts—Bunce Island and the Isles de Los. In the logistical challenges of tropical collecting and the dispatch of specimens across the middle passage we see the close connection between science and slavery. We also see the hardening of Smeathman’s attitude towards the slaves, a change of sentiment which was later reversed by four years in the West Indies. The book concludes with the 'Flycatcher' back in London - a celebrated termite specialist, eager to return to West Africa to establish a free, antislavery settlement.
Deirdre Coleman is the Robert Wallace Chair of English at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of 'Romantic Colonization and British Anti-Slavery' (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and has recently published essays in the 'Oxford History of the Novel' (Oxford University Press, 2015), the 'Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century British Women Writers' (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and 'Archives of Natural History' (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). Her research interests lie in literature, colonialism, slavery and natural history.
“This is a well-researched and engaging interpretive biography of an important, yet relatively unknown late eighteenth-century traveling naturalist. […] Smeathman is an intriguing figure whose life story deserves to be told, especially as it is contextualized by Coleman, whose marvellous eye for detail matches that of her subject. Smeathman had always intended to write a history of his “voyages and travels,” but did not live long enough to do so. Through Coleman, this story is finally being told. This book makes a new and important contribution to our understanding of eighteenth-century subaltern natural history and the history of African slavery.”
Alan Bewell, Professor of English, University of Toronto