Black Lives in the Linnean Society Collections: Amelia Newsham

To coincide with Black History Month, we explore the lives of black and minority ethnic people through evidence found in the Linnean Society's historic collections

Published on 19th October 2020

In June 2020, in a blog exploring how Black Lives Matter in our Collections, I highlighted how essential it was to draw out the hidden narratives of black and ethnic minority people’s lives within our collections, to shine a spotlight on the individuals who may have been regarded as minor actors but who nonetheless made vital contributions to the history of natural history: these collectors of specimens, keepers of local knowledge on plants and animals, and ‘go-betweens’ ensured that natural historical knowledge was shared within the walls of the Linnean Society. Research to uncover their lives, scarcely acknowledged by the well-known naturalists whose research and collecting depended on them, can be painstaking and is generally best done by academic historians who have the background knowledge, funding and time. But it is also the duty of archivists and curators to make that research possible, when they are cataloguing material.

To coincide with Black History Month, we would like to highlight a few examples of such lives, from research undertaken by staff of the Linnean Society. We would like to use these posts, which we will continue beyond Black History Month, as an invitation to authors, researchers, academics, historians and people of all backgrounds to discover our collections which may seem, at first, like the epitome of white colonial archives.

In this post, I would like to focus on a series of letters in the Linnaean correspondence, which relate to the classification of Homo troglodytes and an enslaved albino girl.[1]

In search of 'Homo troglodytes'

Linnaeus had a number of correspondents in the British Isles, several of whom resided in London. In particular, the cloth merchant and botanist Peter Collinson (1694–1768) and the linen merchant and naturalist John Ellis (1710–1776) both exchanged books, specimens and news on a regular basis with the Swedish naturalist.[2] In 1758, Linnaeus published the 10th edition of his Systema naturae, and most of his correspondents in London either received or bought a copy. This edition of Systema naturae deepened his classification of humans into several several species of the genus Homo, including Homo sapiens and Homo troglodytes. While Linnaeus divided Homo sapiens into varieties derived from skin colour and geographical origins, Homo troglodytes was 'the counterpoint to Homo sapiens', a species based on ancient literature, which Linnaeus was keen to verify.[3]

Linnaeus, Anthropomorpha
Linnaeus, 'Anthropomorpha', four figures becoming progressively less human-like, and more ape-like, with Homo troglodytes on the left..

Thus in February 1758, when Linnaeus heard that ‘A troglodyte can be seen in London’, he mobilised his London correspondents to verify the rumour. On 8 February 1758, he wrote to John Ellis, via Peter Collinson, being ignorant of Ellis's address:

I learn by letters from London, that a Troglodyte, or Homo nocturnus, figured in Bontius (…) is arrived in your capital. (...)

I therefore most respectfully beg of you to examine this animal with attention (…). The points on which I chiefly want information are the following:

1. Is the body white, walking erect, and about half the human size?
2. Is the hair of the head white, though curled and rigid, like a moor?
3. Are the eyes orbicular, with a golden iris and pupil?
4. Do the eye-lids lie over each other (incumbentes), with a membrane nictitans?
5. Is the sight lateral, and is it only nocturnal?
6. Is there any whistling voice?
7. Is there any space between the canine teeth and the others, either before or behind?
8. What is peculiar in the organs of generation, whether male or female?

I wish the excellent Mr. Edwards would make a drawing of this individual, as there is no more remarkable animal, except man, in the world.

Also involved in this quest was Pehr af Bjerkén (1731–1774), a young Swedish physician who had studied medicine in Sweden with Linnaeus, who was spending some time in England, studying at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and practicing medicine in London hospitals. He wrote twice to Linnaeus in the space of a few months about his encounter with a 'strange white negro'. The first letter was dated 1 March 1758, and is now lost, but it was copied by Daniel Solander, another of Linnaeus’ students (or ‘disciples,’ as he was fond of calling them). This extract, kept by Linnaeus, made its way into the Linnaean manuscripts and can be translated from Swedish thus:[4]

… a girl of just 10 years, completely white in body like a European, but the hair as on black people,[5] namely no hair but a fine, frizzy wool, completely stiff, but notably snow-white. The face with all the lineaments as on a proper black person. The eyes were pale yellow, more light than usual anywhere else, each of them in a curious position in relation to the nose, almost as with our squint-eyed.[6] The pupil was round and she could not keep the eyes still for a moment. She was not capable of looking someone in the eyes, neither through bribes nor coercion. When she was supposed to look up with the head and face, the eyes turned inward and almost entirely back to front. She did not suffer daylight well but could see in order to sew, among other things, but best in the dark. She was born and stolen very young in Jamaica. Is now a reasonable human being; speaks, sings and reads English.

Solander copy of af Bjerken letter to Linnaeus

A few months later, on 14 June 1758, af Bjerkén wrote again from London, telling Linnaeus that unfortunately, he had not been able to see the real Homo troglodytes. He had, however, seen the albino girl twice since he got the description from the new Systema naturae from Daniel Solander, although so far he had failed to see her without clothes. af Bjerkén added that he had agreed with John Ellis that he would negotiate with the owner to pay a considerable amount of money to see her naked, in order to send Linnaeus a full description. He also communicated information from Peter Collinson and others that they had seen and heard of other examples of 'white negroes', born from black parents, and also other variations with black and white spots.[7]

af Bjerkén, in contact with both Collinson and Ellis, was clearly excited by both these encounters, and both his letters make for uncomfortable reading by today’s standards. The girl, under his pen, is nothing more than a ‘strange’ specimen of the human kind, to be examined naked as any other animal, in a rather cold scientific way. The mention of ‘bribes nor coercion’ in the first extract gives an unpleasant indication of how such examinations were undertaken. John Ellis, as mentioned by af Bjerkén, also visited the girl in company of his Swedish colleague, and in turn wrote to Linnaeus on 21 July 1758 to describe this visit. His letter is rather more humane:

I have seen M[iste]r Bierken, whom I find to be a very polite and ingenious young Gentleman. I call’d at the place where the young Woman, that you think is a Troglodyte, is kept. She is in all respects like a Negro, but white like us; her hair is frizzled as the Negro’s is, but very white, she is near-sighted, and holds the book very close to her eyes, when she reads, she is constantly moving her eyes to and fro, sideways, but this imperfection I have seen in other people; she cannot read in the dark, nor does the sunshine prevent it, she speaks English very well, She is near 5 feet high, & about 14 years old; so that if she lives, she will be the common size of women of her own country.

Ellis to Linnaeus, 21 July 1758

In John Ellis’s letter, the ‘strange white negro’ is a ’young woman’ who speaks English well, and who can read. No longer simply a specimen, she is afforded the dignity of a human being.

Amelia Newsham

The girl seen and described by Linnaeus’ correspondents, examined by gentlemen of the Royal Society and gawped at by Londoners for the price of 1 shilling in the spring and summer of 1758 is known to historians. Her name was Amelia Newsham, or Lewsham. Born in Jamaica around 1748 from black enslaved parents, she was sent to England in 1753 and sold to John Burnett, who kept a bird and beast shop off St Martin’s Lane in London. Amelia, who toured the country as a curiosity for most of her life, was baptized in Exeter Amelia Harlequin. Believing her baptism made her free, she left John Burnett, exhibiting herself for her own account. Souvenir coins were struck with the likeness of the ‘White Negress’ and sold at fairs like Bartholomew fair, in Smithfield, London, where she exhibited herself.

1795 coin celebrating Amelia Lewsham or Newsham
1795 coin celebrating Amelia Lewsham or Newsham, Wikimedia Commons

She married an Englishman, Mr Lewsham or Newsham, and had at least six children. She attracted the attention of medical men throughout her life, and it is possible that in 1788 she was painted, at the request of the surgeon John Hunter, by the painter Johann Zoffany, along with her husband, and two of their children.[8]

The letters kept at the Linnean Society shed more light on the complex and devastating transatlantic story of Amelia Newsham. They show the fate of a young girl, born with albinism, transported thousands of miles, sold to be exhibited as a subhuman species and subjected to the examination of naturalists and medical men trying to make sense of her; they show the different types of reaction this young girl provoked, from Linnaeus puzzling about her place in his classification system (did she represent the species Homo troglodytes?), to John Ellis seeing her as a young woman whose ‘imperfections’ did not prevent her from reading. From other sources, we know that Amelia Newsham thereafter took her destiny into her own hands, turned her contemporaries' curiosity for the exotic and strange to her advantage, and became a shrewd businesswoman, a wife and a mother.

Isabelle Charmantier, Head of Collections


Banner illustration: An albino woman of African descent, with white instead of black skin. Engraving by C. Guttenberg after de Sève, 1777. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

[1] This post complements another blog on the subject: Cat Bohannon, 'The Curious Case of the London Troglodyte. Carl Linnaeus searches for a missing link', Lapham's Quarterly, 15 June 2013.

[2] See the Linnaean correspondence online, both on the Linnean Society website, and the University of Uppsala website, which hosts the Linnaean Correspondence Project. For more archives related to Peter Collinson and John Ellis, see the Linnean Society archives catalogue.

[3] Christina Skott, 'Linnaeus and the Troglodyte', Indonesia and the Malay World (2014), 42:123, pp. 141-169.

[4] I am grateful to Dr Staffan Müller-Wille for a transcription and translation of this manuscript.

[5] Note of the translator: the original uses the Latin word for black, niger. At the time, there was no word for black people in Swedish. We translate this as “black people or person”, to indicate that the word is used to designate a group of people.

[6] Note of the translator: wåra windögde. Vindögd is also used metaphorically for persons with a wrong or distorted mindset (see Svenska Akademiens Ordbok, The “our” is curious, and it may be that this is a reference to people with Downs syndrome.

[7] Summary from The Linnaean Correspondence Project, University of Uppsala.

[8] Kathleen Chater, ‘Lewsham [Newsham], Amelia’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies (2011). See also Temi Odumosu, ‘Burthened Bodies: the image and cultural work of “White Negroes” in the eighteenth century Atlantic world,’ American Studies in Scandinavia (2014), 46:1, pp. 31–53.