Slavery and the natural world: resources for Science and History educators

Natural History Museum logoIn 2007, to commemorate the British bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, The Natural History Museum, London embarked on an ambitious project in partnership with local community groups. They commissioned new research into the collections, ran a series of public events and created online educational resources.

The Museum took a unique angle to the dialogue on the transatlantic slave trade by focusing on natural history – especially the use of plants in everyday life, as food, medicines and poisons.

The Museum collections were founded within the context of empire, colonisation and exploration and the research uncovered powerful and complex histories of enslaved people and natural historians.

The project is described in detail in a series of downloadable chapters on themes such as: Commercial plants; Everyday life; Diet and nutrition; Resistance; Medicines and Transfer of knowledge at

Slavery and the natural world events © The Natural History Museum, London





Developing lessons for schools

Out of the research and consultation came the call for specific school resources.

Some educationalists see slavery as a subject solely to be studied in History. Other programmes of study do suggest cross curricular approaches, bringing in Citizenship and other thematic approaches including English (for example through the study of African-American literature).

The Natural History Museum took the innovative step to develop ideas for lessons in Science using the context of slavery.

The lessons for Key Stage 3 use diet and nutrition, which is a core part of the Science national curriculum as well as being familiar and interesting subjects for students. They meet the curriculum requirement for students to develop their understanding of how scientific thinking can be applied in different cultural and historical contexts and begin to explore how science has roots in many cultures.

The activities encourage students to use real-life examples as a basis for finding out about science, studying science in local, national and global contexts, exploring contemporary and historical scientific developments and making links between science and other areas of the curriculum.

Focusing on food

As examples, students are asked to look at foods across different cultures, especially staples.

CassavaSome staple foods have interesting origins and uses that relate to slavery. Cassava originated in South America but at the time of the slave trade became widely grown in Africa and then the Caribbean. It had to be carefully prepared to remove the poisons before eating – although they could also be used deliberately in poisoning, a known act of resistance during enslavement. Plantains also became a staple food in the Caribbean at the time of slavery although they originated in southeast Asia.

Throughout the lesson, students are introduced to foods that were available at the time of the transatlantic slave trade, especially salt fish, breadfruit, ackee, corn, dried meat, okra and peanuts. The opening PowerPoint presentation provided puts these in the wider social context of enslavement, and supports science teachers by providing the historical background.

The transatlantic slave trade had a significant influence on the movement of foods around the world, for example, early Portuguese explorers took peanuts from South America to Africa where they became a central part of the west African diet and then they travelled back to America as essential parts of the diet of enslaved Africans on slaving ships.

Students are encouraged to analyse the paucity of the diet of enslaved Africans – graphing the nutrients, debating the nutritional value of foods that were both given to enslaved people and sourced additionally by them, and investigating the links between diet and disease.

The links between slavery and science as well as the legacies today are also evident and very accessible to young people.

For example, the arrival of chocolate in Europe is closely related to the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Spanish colonisers introduced cacao plants (Theobroma cacao) to the Caribbean from South America. It was in Jamaica that Hans Sloane, a physician, natural historian and the founder of the Natural History Museum saw chocolate drunk medicinally.

Sloane's trade card'I found it in great quantities, nauseous, and hard of digestion… though Children and Infants drink it here, as commonly as in England they feed on Milk.' (Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of… the Last of Those Islands, vol 1, 1707).

Hans Sloane mixed cocoa with milk rather than water to make it less sickly, and then sold his recipe for drinking chocolate as a medicine to a London apothecary. Cadburys (a Quaker company that was against slavery) later made drinking chocolate using Sloane's recipe.

The story of breadfruit and ackee is also a good example of the direct impact of slavery on the transfer of plants around the world.

Breadfruit treeBreadfruit originated in Tahiti in the Pacific and is high in carbohydrate. It was taken by William Bligh to the Caribbean to feed enslaved people cheaply. His first journey ended in the mutiny on the Bounty and he only succeeded on his second voyage. Breadfruit was initially rejected by enslaved Africans, but it is now a popular food in many tropical regions.

AckeeWhen Bligh left Jamaica he took hundreds of plants back to England for the botanist Joseph Banks. One of these was the fruit ackee, which had come to the Caribbean on the slaving ships from Africa, and as a result of slavery went on to become part of the national dish of Jamaica, 'ackee and saltfish'.

Many people, students as well as elders, are familiar with these foods but have not previously appreciated the significance of slavery in their use in different cultures. The poisonous quality of ackee is often cited, but the fact that it originated in Africa is not widely known.

Brixton MarketMany other plants moved around the world as a consequence of colonisation from the 1600s. Rice, sorghum and okra were all established in west Africa and were introduced to the Americas as a result of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as African cooking methods. Today, soul food is the traditional cooking of African-Americans in the Southern United States where slavery was common, and its origins can be traced back to Africa.

Educational outcomes

Students engaging with this subject matter and participating in the activities will gain a greater understanding of scientific thinking in different cultural contexts, develop their knowledge of diet and the historical context of the transatlantic slave trade and consider the wider effects of diet on health.

Teachers will have opportunities to use engaging cross-curricular resources that will be a valuable resource in History as well as Science lessons, and will interest students in a relevant context that links the past with the present.

The research is already available at and the lesson plans are online at

Slavery and the natural world events, The Natural History Museum, London

Dr Katherine Hann
Museum and Heritage Consultant, commissioned for the
Slavery and the Natural World project by The Natural History Museum

© 2010 The Natural History Museum

copyright © Runnymede Trust and individual authors.