Henry Smeathman

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Henry Smeathman (1742–1786) was an English naturalist, best known for his work in entomology and colonial settlement in Sierra Leone.

In 1771 the Quaker physician John Fothergill, along with two other members of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks and Marmaduke Tunstall, sponsored Smeathman to spend four years in and around the Sierra Leone peninsula studying its natural history,[1] specifically its insects.


Sierra Leone[edit]

Smeathman made his voyage to Africa aboard a trade ship called the Fly, which was transporting barrels of rum to the West African coast. The Fly arrived at Sierra Leone on December 12, 1771. Smeathman was given some key contacts in West African coast including African-European slave trading families, presumably from Drury, Fothergill or Banks.[2] With these contacts, Smeathman was first granted permission to stay in the Banana Islands, where he settled on December 17, 1771 and stayed for more than three years. Upon arrival, Smeathman presented himself to King James Cleveland, an African-European slave trader who helped him settle and explore by taking him in through negotiating terms with other members of the local ruling elite (referred to as "kings" or "chiefs" by the traders in the region). In exchange for gifts, Smeathman was given permission to settle on the islands, and he was also given help in his research. He relied on the locals to assist him in constructing a house and he bartered with them in order to obtain local resources. This dependence came about due to the lack of European settlement in his location of residence. Shortly after his arrival, Smeathman contracted a case of what he described as malaria. Though he claimed that he had cured himself with Dr. Fothergill's advice and his medical books that he had brought along, he suffered from symptoms of the disease until his death from a fever, which was fifteen years after initial exposure.[3]

Although his voyage was sponsored in large part by anti-slavery Quakers like John Fothergill, Smeathman relied on individuals involved in slave-trading networks, such as British slave-trader Miles Barber, for support and assistance.[3] He and Andreas Berlin, his botanist assistant, also frequently socialized and played golf with slave-trading merchants and agents.[3] In fact, Smeathman seems to have regarded slave traders as 'gentlemen' and tried to refashion himself as one of them.[2]

Smeathman travelled and gathered specimens throughout the Sherbro area, the Kamaranka River, and the Sierra Leone River estuary. In addition, he visited Bunce Island to ship out his specimens. Smeathman relied on assistance from indigenous people in his collections and research, particularly with the examination of termite mounds, but was often reluctant to accept their entomological knowledge.[3] He initially encountered problems with preserving his specimens during oceanic transport, but discovered that placing boxes of specimens atop opened rum barrels effectively prevented their destruction.[3]


Smeathman married his first wife on July 21, 1772, to an African woman who was the daughter of "the King of a Country up the River Sherbro," and at one point may have had three wives simultaneously. Marriage with local women, especially daughters of influential persons, was one of the most significant chances for strangers to settle down.[2] He openly wrote about his wives very frankly and appeared to treat and view African wives as a necessary commodity in comparison to his books. Though he took on multiple spouses and wrote about spending very little amounts of money on his wives, he also denounced the slave traders for having too many wives and for treating their wives poorly.[3]

According to John C. Lettsome, Smeathman married first the daughter of King Tom and later the daughter of King James Cleveland; however on both these occasions his spouse died.[4]

Departure from Africa[edit]

Smeathman departed Sierra Leone in 1775 via a slave ship. However, he was delayed in the Caribbean by illness and the American War of Independence while en route to England. Hence, Smeathman supplemented this work with a further four years spent in the Caribbean.

Andreas Berlin, one of the apostles of Linnaeus, was among Smeathman's associates.


  • Smeathman, H. (1781) Some Account of the Termites, which are Found in Hot Climates. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. 71: 139-192,
  • Smeathman, H. (1785?) Elocution and Polite Literature
  • Smeathman, H. (1786) Plan of a Settlement to be Made near Sierra Leone, on the Grain Coast of Africa


  1. ^ Braidwood S. (1994) p. 6
  2. ^ a b c Starr Douglas; Douglas, Starr. "The making of scientific knowledge in an age of slavery: Henry Smeathman, Sierra Leone and natural history". Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. 9 (3). doi:10.1353/cch.0.0029. ISSN 1532-5768.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Starr Douglas; Douglas, Starr. "The making of scientific knowledge in an age of slavery: Henry Smeathman, Sierra Leone and natural history". Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History. 9 (3). doi:10.1353/cch.0.0029. ISSN 1532-5768.
  4. ^ Braidwood S. (1994) p. 7


  • Braidwood, Stephen (1994). Black Poor and White Philanthropists: London's Blacks and the Foundation of the Sierra Leone Settlement 1786 - 1791. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-0-85323-377-0.

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