Interactions between slaveholders, enslaved people, and nonhuman animals throughout the era of the slave trade shaped the expansion of slavery and Britain’s colonial settlements in the Atlantic World. My dissertation explores the environmental history of slavery between the Royal African Company’s increased engagement in the trade in 1672 until the abolition of the trade in 1808 by examining a complex web of human-animal relationships.
Factors for the African Company, who struggled to acquire human cargoes of captive “flesh, bone, and blood”, proffered enslavers on the Gold Coast with gifts of sheep for sacrifice and adopted the shells of cowry sea snails as a medium of exchange at trading castles. Planters attempted to transform enslaved people and draft animals to efficient, productive, and interchangeable “nerves” and “sinews” on sugar, wheat, and tobacco plantations from the West Indies to Chesapeake Bay. The judgment of enslaved collectors, who accumulated faunal specimens from slave depots in New Spain and British American colonies, further shaped the universal knowledge metropolitan naturalists strove to attain. Yet many animals proved difficult to harness in the interests of empire. Vermin ruined plantations, and discouraged planters who hoped to improve and master the natural world. And more importantly, enslaved people actively resisted their bondage and undermined the institution of slavery by injuring, killing, or stealing animals for their own purposes.
I argue that entangled human-animal relations generated by the slave trade constituted a decisive factor in expanding the economic, political, and scientific networks of the burgeoning British Empire. Moreover, animals and enslaved people constrained these imperial connections and ambitions in the eighteenth century. Investigating hybrid ecological and cultural networks under slavery complicates the predominantly materialist and European framework of ecological imperialism.