Medical Involvement in the Early Modern Slave Trade

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  • Discussion
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Photo of a laptop with a video chat image of a woman in a black polo neck. On the table are a potted plant, a glass jar with stationery inside and a notepad, post-it notes and a pencil.
Medical Involvement in the Early Modern Slave Trade, Photo: Kathleen Arundell. Portrait © Charlie Hopkinson..

Hannah Murphy's event explored the practical role of medical experts in the construction of the early modern slave trade.  

Between 1440 and 1720, more than two million enslaved people from a range of African kingdoms and territories were forcibly transported to the Americas; tens of thousands more remained in Europe. From the first moments of contact between African and European peoples, medical practitioners played a key role in creating a domesticated discourse around enslaved bodies. Among their other practical duties, they provided medical treatment at every key stage in the process of enslavement: encounter, confrontation and commerce, transport, illness and injury, disembarking, inspection and processing.  

Over the course of the early modern period, their participation developed and became more formal. Using travel narratives, ship’s surgeons’ journals and printed books in Wellcome Collection, the talk will provide a broad overview of the dynamics at play as medical practitioners competed for expertise and authority over new conceptions of human difference.



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About your speaker

Black and white photographic portrait of Dr Hannah Murphy.

Hannah Murphy

Hannah Murphy is a lecturer in Early Modern History and the current Director of the Centre for Early Modern Studies at King’s College London. She works on the history of medicine and science across early modern Europe, with a special emphasis on the German-speaking lands. Her first book, ‘A New Order of Medicine: The Rise of Physicians in Reformation Germany’, was the winner of the Society for Renaissance Studies Biennial Book Prize in 2020. She is leading a project at King’s on Medicine and the Making of Race, 1440–1720, for which she was named a UKRI Future Leaders’ Fellow in 2021.