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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 Henry Smeathman, the Flycatcher, 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 pity for the slaves, a change of sentiment which was reversed by four years in the West Indies.
The book concludes with the flycatcher's celebrity in London as a termite specialist, eager to return to West Africa where his natural history knowledge had shaped his plan for a free, antislavery settlement in West Africa.
AcknowledgementsList of IllustrationsIntroduction: Smeathmania Chapter 1: Metamorphosis Chapter 2: ProspectsChapter 3: ResidenceChapter 4: Housekeeping Chapter 5: CurrencyChapter 6: DoldrumsChapter 7: AntislaveryChapter 8: Prodigal ReturnsConclusion: Legacies Appendix: Proposals for printing by subscription, Voyages and travels in Africa and the West-Indies, from the year 1771, to the year 1779 inclusive [London, 1780]. `Oeconomy of a Slave Ship'. `Mr Smeathman's Useful hints for those who intend to visit or settle in Africa and other hot Climates'. `Some Account of the Termites, which are found in Africa and other hot climates. In a Letter from Mr. Henry Smeathman, of Clement's Inn, to Sir Joseph Banks, Bart. P. R. S.', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London vol.71 (1781).BibliographyIndex
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 UP, 2005) and has recently published essays in the Oxford History of the Novel (2015), the Cambridge Companion to Eighteenth-Century British Women Writers (2015), and Archives of Natural History (2017). Her research interests lie in literature, colonialism, slavery and natural history.