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Beetles in a haystack: collecting insects via the eighteenth‐century British slave trade

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In 1766, a British ship captain in the Gabon Estuary, just north of the equator in the Gulf of Guinea, found one of the largest beetles then known floating in the river. The Goliath beetle, as it came to be called, quickly became an object of desire among natural history collectors. This talk traces the efforts of Dru Drury, a British silversmith and entomologist, to acquire a specimen of the Goliath beetle by means of the slave trade. The silversmith’s correspondence, account books, museum inventory and remarkable ledger of prospective specimen‐collectors allow us to trace how a naturalist in the mid‐eighteenth century might utilize British commercial and naval circuits to Africa in the pursuit of a particular specimen. The dramatic expansion in British participation in the slave trade by the middle of the century facilitated the efforts of naturalists such as Drury to collect specimens through the same circuits that collected enslaved Africans. Drury believed that Britain’s commercial networks would not only enable him to acquire various new African specimens but, in particular, to obtain a Goliath beetle for his own museum. To encourage mariners to become collectors, Drury provided collecting supplies, images of what he desired, directions, and cash payments for each specimen delivered to his London home. In the search for the Goliath beetle, the naturalist repeatedly articulated ways that collecting slaves might lead to collecting specimens.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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