The five participants in this conversation have followed different paths to the intersection of labor history and the history of science but share common research questions regarding the relationship of coercion, colonialism, and scientific knowledge production. Collectively their scholarship is global in scope and offers the opportunity to think comparatively across a range of colonial regimes, populations, scientific disciplines, and modes of labor mobilization. Their inquiries emphasize the importance of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to the structures of knowledge and power that continue to organize the modern world, while also suggesting that historians of more recent periods might gain theoretical insights from studies of a more distant past. This conversation began in Philadelphia in June 2022, unfolded diachronically in early 2023, and has been edited for clarity. An appendix contains citations for scholarship mentioned in the text.

1. How—or even when—did you find yourselves, as historians interested in science, addressing coerced labor as a research topic? In other words, what makes the history of labor important to your history of science?

Jody Benjamin: I come to this conversation as a historian of West Africa whose research on the history of textiles and dress led me to explore questions of labor, craft, and specialized knowledge. A central concern has been to contend with the ways African knowledge practices have been both appropriated within and excluded from narratives of Western science-making. This is not simply a matter of historical recovery for me but rather a gesture toward thinking beyond epistemologies and practices of knowledge production attached to colonial extraction.

Nicholas B. Miller: I first came to the history of science through the global and comparative history of indentured labor during the long nineteenth century. Having trained as a social and intellectual historian, I wanted to identify actors who left substantial written testimony about the operative political and social ideas in emergent plantation settings. This brought me to a cohort of globe-trotting European botanists who participated in the propagation of indentured labor in contexts like Hawai‘i and the Malay Sultanate of Johor prior to formal imperial overrule. These botanists drew on their scientific networks to share knowledge relating to plantation production, including draft indentured labor contracts. Ultimately, I found that to understand the history of plantation labor, I needed to know more about the history of plantation science.

Zachary Dorner: Tracing the business of medicine across the eighteenth-century Anglo-Atlantic world brought me to science and labor's intersection. The ways medicines were produced, moved, sold, and consumed and who did the producing, moving, selling, and consuming are fundamentally considerations of labor from across the spectrum of coercion and dependency. Approaching the history of medicine in this way frames the laboratory and pharmacy as sites akin to the cotton mill or plantation, where globally distributed labor enabled the production and distribution of scientific and medicinal goods, such as new pharmaceuticals. The early modern world is an essential setting for this story because it featured the hardening of ideologies, such as racial difference, empire, or even empiricism, before the legal regimes of the nation-state and industrialized society. Understanding how science as an economic arena of labor, profit, and trade contributed to these transformations drives my work.

Kate Mulry: My attention to labor history emerged from my research into early modern medical practitioners and colonizers’ interests in examining and controlling laboring and productive bodies. My current project tracks a series of exploitative claims made by English colonial physicians about how to sustain physical labor and boost reproductive labor in plantation economies. They sought new colonial drugs and distillations that would power the daily work of servants and the enslaved and that would cure sterility and enhance fertility. Their bioprospecting activities were linked to their investigations into the human body and were framed as a means of securing and extracting labor.

Patrick Anthony: The spatial field of coercion drew me here. I study a set of environmental sciences that performed a double act of displacement around the turn of the nineteenth century: the practices by which Europeans delocalized observations as “universal” matters of fact were viciously linked to the practices by which they evacuated Indigenous lands for expropriation by white settlers. Scientific itineraries were also routed into the forced migrations of enslaved and exiled populations. In particular, I trace the movements of central European agents who served foreign empires as mercenaries of a kind by surveying mineral resources and climatic conditions. At stake here is an understanding of how science as mercenary-craft not only intensified particular forms of coercion—from Ibero-American slavery to penal colonization in Siberia—but also advanced global capitalism through techniques meant to quantify, compare, and coordinate disparate commodity frontiers.

2. Two hallmarks of historical eras prior to, say, 1900 were the ubiquity of regimes of coerced labor—such as slavery, peonage, and penal transportation—alongside the rise of new ways of understanding the world and acquiring knowledge. What might be gained by examining sites of coerced labor as spaces where knowledge production took place?

NBM: I think the plantation is a good place to start, given its character as perhaps the paradigmatic site of early modern coerced labor. A focus on how plantations served as places where knowledge was gathered, deployed, and negotiated—and how plantations served to instigate the collection and development of knowledge—can help historicize the field of concerns and insights that have lately coalesced around the Plantationocene. Coined about a decade ago by Donna Haraway, the concept posits “that large-scale, export-oriented agriculture dependent on forced labor has played a dominant role in structuring modern life since the insertion of European power in the Americas, Asia and Africa,” to use Wendy Wolford's recent definition. Proponents of the concept have expanded the notion of forced labor, extending it beyond humans to encompass animals, insects, and plants. Building on this insight through the prism of knowledge production, we could study the dynamic process by which human actors pursued new tactics for squeezing maximum yields from these most diverse forms of laborers in the spaces and places of the plantation. I term this field of inquiry “plantation knowledge,” or the types of expertise, experience, and information processing that have made and continue to make plantations possible.

KM: The production of scientific knowledge about the natural world relied on various forms of coercion in many sites around the early modern Atlantic, and the desire for that knowledge shaped the kinds of labor myriad individuals were forced to perform for colonizers’ financial and political gain. Through threats and violence, colonizers exploited the intellectual and physical labor of Indigenous, African, and African-descended people. Colonial naturalists’ letters and travel accounts are full of anecdotes about their reliance on knowledgeable Native and enslaved guides and healers when conducting bioprospecting activities. The naturalist John Lawson urged Carolina's proprietors to encourage colonizers of a “lower rank” to “Marr[y]” Native residents as a “Method” of extracting “Indians Skill in Medicine and Surgery” from them and for gleaning information about “the Situation of our Rivers, Lakes, and Tracts of Land.” Lawson's proposal echoed those of other colonial scientists who encouraged white men to form intimate connections with Indigenous women to compel them to reveal botanical and medical knowledge. Attention to racial and gendered power dynamics highlight the coercive nature of such relationships. The pursuit of science was laced with violence and sexual exploitation. Scholars such as Judith Carney also reveal how planters sought to enslave West African people who could transfer entire “African knowledge systems” about rice cultivation to help develop colonial plantation economies in the Carolinas. In other words, Indigenous and African knowledges, often held by women, were mobilized by colonizers and slaveholders to develop colonies and plantation economies.

ZD: Kate's point about the exploitation of physical and intellectual labor in colonial spaces is important, and one I would like to extend by adding that Caribbean plantations (and South Asian trading company outposts, for that matter) were also sites of medical knowledge production through human testing. Information generated under such conditions, as Londa Schiebinger has shown, informed standards of experimentation at the turn of the nineteenth century and shaped the bulk purchasing of medicines in those places. The medical care provided in response to the institutionalized violence and deprivation of plantation slavery also generated more quotidian observations about medicines, anatomy, and the human body's capacity for work. From this vantage, not only is the plantation or trading company outpost a site of knowledge production, but so too is the human body itself. As I am exploring in a new project, health care was routinely provided in exchange for work that had damaged the body, often beyond repair. This exchange had significant implications not only for labor and science but also for state power and political economy.

JB: In my work on early nineteenth-century Senegal, I am attentive to the presence of multiple sites of knowledge production, from the French colonial plantation to the mosque or Quranic school, the blacksmith's shed, the indigo dyers’ compound, and the spaces where village potters fired their clay vessels. In each of these, a different type of person held authoritative knowledge, and the modes of transmission were also distinct. We are confronted with multiple regimes of coerced labor at play, not all of which are tied to Euro-Atlantic commerce. But when we focus on the production of knowledge that underpinned colonial society, we see that this involved not only the invisibilizing of the labor and labor struggles that produced its findings but also the dismissal and erasure of sites and forms of knowledge production outside colonial control.

The hierarchies of social status and knowledge active on plantations become evident when considering how work was organized and data recorded. Botanists enjoyed a place of privilege on the colonial farms, most notably Baron Roger, who even served as governor of the Saint Louis colony (1822–27) while overseeing agricultural projects in the interior floodplains of Waalo. His role makes evident the function of power over laborers in producing scientific knowledge in this period, indicating how agricultural experiments initially conceived as an alternative to Caribbean slavery in some ways reproduced the social logics of the slave plantation, as Kate and Zack have described them.

PA: It is also worth considering tensions and connections between different sites and modalities of coerced labor, since knowledge was not only produced in but also across geographies of dependence. As Kate notes above, forced migration was itself a “site” in which colonizers violently reassembled and recirculated horticultural and medical sciences. One site where colonial agents “reproduced the social logics of the slave plantation,” as Jody notes, were the alluvial gold and diamond mines of Brazil. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, technicians came from the silver-mining hubs of central Europe to manage enslaved Afro-Brazilian miners. Yet as these agents also worked across mineral empires, they attempted to render Atlantic World slavery commensurable with, for instance, the Russo-Siberian system of serf- and convict-based mining. Their dehumanizing calculations of labor power across hemispheres were underpinned by a global geological survey of precious metals, which one Prussian, Alexander von Humboldt, described as a “universal chain-linkage.” This example suggests how the institutionalization of violence and deprivation that Zack has described at the plantation could be exported and intensified through mediation or translation. In attempting to translate across different coerced labor regimes, there was also an attempt to bind and “link” the world into a single, commensurable economy of dependent labor.

3. The history of coerced labor is also a history of mobility: of forced migrations, resettlement, or convict transportation. Similarly, travel and circulation are major themes in the history of colonial and globalized sciences. What can we learn by bringing these histories into a common frame? How can we theorize the intersection of free and forced itineraries?

PA: This brings to mind James Clifford's prompt to rethink travel in a capacious sense, as a comparative concept that allows for “(problematic) translation” between people compelled by indenture, enslavement, or exile and the apparently unencumbered travels of colonial scientists. More recently, Linda Andersson Burnett urges attention to the “multiple mobilities of colonization,” recognizing how European naturalists moved through the same circuits as pressed sailors and enslaved laborers. Indeed, colonial scientists frequently depended on unequal exchanges with Indigenous actors whom colonizers aggressively targeted with removal or sedentarization policies. Yet by attending to these frictional crossings and encounters we see that traveling savants and settler-scientists were themselves subject to controlled migratory channels, moving through what Clifford calls “highly determined circuits.”

NBM: Like Pat, I think that, for the mid- to late nineteenth century at least, bringing the “free” itineraries of colonial scientists into a common frame with “forced” itineraries of laborers and convicts suggests that we understand mobility along a spectrum. Colonial scientists in this period certainly experienced “freer” itineraries than indentured migrants, but their movements could be constrained and compelled by political factors. It is unclear whether the German botanist, medic, and immigration commissioner that I have studied for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, Wilhelm Hillebrand, was forced to leave Germany in 1848 due to liberal political convictions. However, it is clear that many of his early botanical associates—including in Australia, the Philippines, and Hawai‘i—were ’48ers who had left for precisely that reason. In its prevailing legal sense today, political persecution is included in the category of forced migration along with enslavement and convict transportation. However, as these nineteenth-century scientific refugees show, there is no necessary conjuncture between forced migration and forced labor.

ZD: Early modern mobilities generated new “problems”—for example, high mortality and morbidity—in search of scientific “solutions,” which in turn facilitated yet more mobility and new ideas about all sorts of things. As I argue in Merchants of Medicines, transoceanic movement hastened a turn toward viewing individuals as interchangeable patients who could benefit from similar remedies. Within such an ontological framework, a particular medicine could have the same effect on anybody in any location suffering the same affliction, regardless of age, sex, skin color, or rank. Consider how much simpler it would be for a ship's surgeon to identify an ailment across a crew and prescribe a remedy rather than individually assess the balance of each sailor's humors. European physicians could hardly comprehend treating alike the scores of people who found themselves moving about the Atlantic world along free and forced itineraries. That an enslaved person on a Caribbean plantation could receive a similar preparation of cinchona bark for a fever as a merchant in London or trading company employee in South Asia represented a radical idea at the time for the vision of human uniformity it implied. To put it another way, the scale of human mobility across the early modern European empires opened new overseas markets for medicines, prompting adjustments to preexisting therapeutic approaches.

KM: The “highly determined circuits” Pat mentions above prompt me to think about how many early English scientific endeavors relied on the network of slave ships crisscrossing the Atlantic to transport people, specimens, and knowledge. Quite simply, English imperial science was made possible by the infrastructure of the slave trade. In the seventeenth century the Royal Society did not have the resources to fund research trips, so, for instance, they sent collectors as passengers on slave ships. They depended on ship captains, sailors, and vessels involved in the slave trade, as well as on planters, to amass cabinets of curiosity and botanical gardens. Kathleen S. Murphy has followed natural philosophers’ passage aboard slave ships, while James Delbourgo's work on Royal Society president Hans Sloane demonstrates the indebtedness of mobile seeds, specimens, and books that traversed the Atlantic from Jamaica to London to slavery. In these histories, the labor of enslaved people made transatlantic scientific mobility possible.

PA: Picking up on infrastructures of coerced labor, I have found that German savants deployed to Russian Siberia in the earlier nineteenth century moved through the circuits of the imperial exile system, following the footsteps of the three hundred thousand people banished beyond the Urals between 1823 and 1861. They geologized in mines barred with iron gates to lock convicts in the earth, surveyed from mountaintop prisons, and networked meteorology through the katorga system of penal labor. Critical here is the multiplicity of sites of coerced labor: the penal fortress in Omsk was penitentiary to some, an observatory to others.

The Siberian system of exile and inquiry exhibits a complex history of dependence: a history not only of the dependent labor of Russian convicts, serfs, and coerced settlers and enslaved or assimilated Indigenous groups but also of the way in which sciences depended on coercive labor and their routinized migrations. Here, then, is a problematic translation, as James Clifford urged. Of course, there is no equivalence between the savant and the Siberian convict. But recognizing the essential dependence of scientists afoot in geographies of unfreedom goes some ways toward understanding their vital role in the expansion and intensification of such systems.

JB: Mobility could also contribute to the status of naturalists, as in the context of a plantation colony in West Africa. The authority of their knowledge was derived not only from their education in Europe but was also, importantly, enhanced by their travel between colonial outposts in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Traveling along “highly determined circuits” of commerce, slave trading, and empire, they made comparisons in pursuit of “universal” findings. Accumulated knowledge from travel also functioned as a form of accumulated social capital. The movements of naturalists defined the reach and viability of imperial networks from which they sourced the seeds of plants for their experiments. Before his time in Senegal from 1824 to 1829, the botanist George Perrottet had already traveled to Reunion, Java, and the Philippines, where he collected varieties of plants that he later experimented with growing in French Guyana. In Senegal, he planted indigo seeds imported from Guatemala and introduced the nopal cactus there in a bid to cultivate the cochineal insects that produced a bright red dye. French Caribbean planters sent enslaved or formerly enslaved workers with experience growing indigo in the Caribbean to Senegal to aid work on French plantations in Senegal.

Perrottet's mobility-fueled knowledge, backed by the power and reach of imperial networks, was to be contrasted with that of the “native” African farmer, whether free or enslaved, whose knowledge was presumably limited and inferior. Colonial records transformed the farmers into “laborers” whose value was to be measured in their “productivity.” Findings from the experimental farms in Senegal were included in reports sent to the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Although abstracted without reference to the labor and material conditions of the farms, the links between commerce and labor in the production of scientific knowledge are clear. There was also, however, a larger history of indigo dyeing in West Africa beyond the colonial farms that remained opaque to early colonial naturalists. This artisanal history was shaped by the migration, settlement, and commercial histories of groups with specialist knowledge, such as Soninke and Fuulbe women dyers. Also, Africans and Afro-descendants on the move around the Atlantic and Indian Ocean as sailors, migrants, or enslaved people were also knowledge producers, although their archival footprint is generally less visible.

ZD: Our discussion of mobility reflects the ways each of us emphasize the significance of experiences outside European centers to the histories of science and medicine—though, as Jody notes, imperial power often shaped what was possible or visible beyond those centers. The encounters and itineraries of mobile people across the premodern world placed new demands on infrastructures designed to manage their labor and extract knowledge from their bodies.

4. In what ways, then, did the work of practitioners of science and medicine bolster coercive labor regimes by crafting racist claims about health and bodily differences? What were the implications for governance and populations more broadly?

KM: One reason I hope labor historians might be interested in these questions is that the English medical writers I examine were explicit about their search for foods and medicines that might sustain labor, enhance reproduction, and secure English claims to Jamaica. As I outlined in An Empire Transformed, colonial officials and promoters sought to remake the island's environment to suit colonizers’ health and to plant sweet-smelling gardens of efficacious medicines to bolster the population. Now, I'm focused on the claims colonizers and medical writers made about which commodities could fuel more labor. In these instances, laboring bodies were themselves sites of medical and scientific experimentation. Stephanie E. Smallwood has explained how ship surgeons on slave trading vessels often experimented with supplying the minimal amount of food required to sustain a human life on the Middle Passage. Practitioners of science and medicine also made claims about racial differences that they sought to embed in bodies. Katherine Johnston has shown how Caribbean planters began to allege that Black bodies were better able to labor in hot climates than white bodies only to deflect calls for the end of the slave trade and to “justify” their proslavery stances with racist medical claims. In other words, colonial scientists and planters aimed to secure a steady supply of labor for the plantations by engaging in dehumanizing experimentation and fabricating myths.

Early modern English colonizers were interested in which Atlantic cultivars might be used as food and medicine to stimulate laboring bodies and enhance reproductive labor. I have been tracking Jamaican colonizers’ claims that consuming cacao prepared as a chocolate drink could both boost women's fertility and power the daily labor of servants and the enslaved on the island, even if they were offered little other sustenance. My work suggests that colonizers’ claims about chocolate should be read alongside pronatalist policies promoted by an increasingly vocal coterie of English officials who collected data on population size and women's reproductive health and invested in the slave trade. They sought to secure more labor and the birth of future laboring bodies, in service of an expanding empire. Physicians and planters imagined chocolate as a means to increase the population and to bolster the slave plantation regime on Jamaica.

ZD: Racial difference is such a powerful example of what is produced at the intersection of labor and science in early modernity. Understanding the racist claims about bodily difference that emerged from very specific medical and scientific contexts in the early modern world offers an opportunity for historians of twentieth-century labor to historicize the claims used to support coercive work regimes. For example, European medical practitioners attributed health outcomes they witnessed among enslaved people in the Caribbean to a higher tolerance for pain and heat inherent to people of African descent rather than, say, to coerced labor practices or a lack of adequate food or clothing. In this context, white bodies were seen to be more susceptible to fevers than those of Black folk, who were also believed to tolerate high doses of strong medicines, such as those prepared from mercury and antimony, for common plantation ailments like tapeworm or ulcers. Such observations were published in plantation manuals and health guides and eventually entered the European medical canon, where they provided evidence for theories of innate physiological differences. As Kate discusses as well, ideas (and anxieties) about health, labor, and authority often ran together in this period. The production of race in the context of early modern coercion still structures the present day, such as in the racial segmentation of labor markets, differential access to and outcomes from health care, and “race-norming” in US professional sports.

JB: By the early nineteenth century, Euro-Atlantic notions of race had already been shaped by centuries of Atlantic slave trading and, for the French, the loss of the important Saint-Domingue slave colony in 1804. In coastal Senegal, this discourse took the form of value-laden ethnographic descriptions by Europeans that categorized distinct African groups as alternately “an intelligent race,” or “wildly deceitful” or “lazy.” After European sailors and soldiers experienced high levels of mortality on the Senegal River, a commonsense notion emerged among French officials that Africans were better suited to labor in the local climate and also “closer” to nature. Botanists articulated these notions as much as other European observers, supporting a logic of racial othering at a period in which the cause of malaria was not yet understood. Their assessments had additional weight as comparative claims based on their experiences in parts of Asia and the Americas before arriving in Senegal.

PA: These responses point to a process by which claims about racial difference in the context of labor are then weaponized in the service of a broader biopolitics directed toward the management of “populations.” One critical question here is how biopolitics rooted in plantations were adapted to settler-colonial projects, some of which repurposed claims about the alleged suitability of Black and brown people to particular forms of labor into schemes about the removal or ethnic cleansing of Indigenous and African-descended populations. In Brazil's mineral plantations, for instance, a Hessian mercenary-geologist inscribed Indigenous and West African nomenclature into a telling stratigraphy of annihilation that consigned Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian workers to prehistory. This by the same agent (the director of mines in Minas Gerais) who rigorously tabulated population statistics to argue for the replacement of Black Brazilians by government-subsidized European settlers.

A related process played out above ground, as other colonial agents mapped Indigenous labor into discrete elevational zones, in upland mines and farms of the Andes and the central Mexican plateau. Not only early modern slavers, then, but also anticolonial activists built climatic theories of race into their designs for new nation-states in Latin America. The Prussian Alexander von Humboldt worked closely with members of the Creole elite in viceregal Colombia and Mexico to map the vertical arrangement of climatic bands in the Americas, from tropical lowlands up to frigid Andean heights. These mappings also enrolled climatic theories of race to demarcate the supposed suitability of Indigenous labor at high elevations, clearing more “temperate” slopes for white settlement. Naturalizing colonial histories of Indigenous removal and forced labor, these cartographies fixed notions of climatic “fitness” into political economy at a decisive moment of Creole-dominated state formation. Taken together, both episodes show how early modern logics of racial difference were remapped onto apparently novel arrangements of social order around 1800. White and Creole actors who claimed European heritage repurposed the logic of plantation enslavement into settler regimes of evacuation.

NBM: Here I think it is important to consider what labor historians—particularly those focused on the colonial politics of labor—might add to accounts of the production of social and racial differences couched within the history of medical thought. As Kate was pointing to earlier, tropical plantation colonies throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were sites of nearly obsessive debates about population and labor migration. In these discussions, naturalized bodily differences, including the putative “fitness” (or not) for agricultural work noted earlier by Jody and Zack, were prominent though often contested. The German botanist I have studied for Hawai‘i, Wilhelm Hillebrand, advocated repeatedly for German homesteaders, who he thought could grow sugar on an independent model despite the climate (this experiment was never tried, though several hundred Germans did migrate to Hawaiian plantations in the late nineteenth century on indentured modalities). Cristiana Bastos has studied how Portuguese laborers—namely from the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores—constituted a type of liminal category, as European but not quite white, whose putative ancestral connection to sugar cultivation (imagined in the case of the Azores, several centuries antedated in the case of Madeira) qualified them for fieldwork in the colonial plantations of British Guiana and Trinidad in the mid-nineteenth century, followed by Hawai‘i in the late nineteenth century. As the self-serving racist conceits of New World planters and plantation statesmen became embedded within medical science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, coethnic and eventually coracial settler-colonial aspirations dovetailed with ever adaptive forms of labor exploitation to result in local variations on-site.

5. It is clear that coercion and dependence are an intersection where labor and science meet, but recent scholarship has also underscored that coercion is multimodal and dependence is a spectrum. Given this variety, how do distinctive modes of coercion or dependence shape the histories you write? Can we move from the specifics of these histories to more theoretical perspectives?

NBM: In studying what I term the grafting of plantation complexes across the globe after the early nineteenth century, indentured labor serves as the reference mode of coercion and domination in my historical contexts. Following the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and then ultimately of slavery across European empires and independent, Creole-dominated American states during the nineteenth century, new tactics for bonded labor migration known as indenture emerged wherein laborers bound themselves to work at a specific plantation or plantation colony for a defined period of time, thus satisfying a legal criterion of “free” labor. Actual practices on the ground—including forced contract renewals, deceit, and the misrendering of contractual provisions—belie this distinction. A great volume of work has pursued the commensurability—or not—of indentured labor in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with slavery and earlier forms of contract labor. Building on the work of Alessandro Stanziani and Richard Allen, my approach instead understands what might be termed postabolition indenture as itself produced by the entanglement of labor and science. As I show in my work situated in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, the scientific networks forged by individual scientists—particularly botanists—provided a primary avenue through which evolving tactics for labor bondage circulated across and beyond imperial space during the long nineteenth century. As implied by the term colonial science, scientists operating in colonial spaces—and dependent on the employment or patronage of contemporary governments and planter societies—were inextricably entangled with the labor systems of their time.

KM: The early modern period was when some of the dichotomies (mind/body, science/labor) that we've discussed and have been crucial to justifying coercive labor regimes were amplified, for a variety of reasons. Many of the scientists from this period disavowed the hands-on, dangerous, and difficult work of knowledge production. Authors of gardening treatises such as John Evelyn were quick to point out that they were philosophical gardeners, not “cabbage planters” doing the actual labor of gardening. They did not risk their bodies, but they were willing to risk the bodies of others. They often defined what counted as science as antithetical to labor. They created hierarchies of knowledge that privileged mental labor over physical labor and integrated them alongside other kinds of racial, class, and gender hierarchies. A false divergence between bodies and minds was made to seem real in plantations, mines, and other sites of coerced labor when there were myriad incentives to claim and harden these distinctions and to disparage material, hands-on knowledge. Terms like knowledge work remind us of the labor involved in scientific endeavors and encourage us to consider the many individuals involved in creating science, often under dangerous, unhealthy, and coercive circumstances, akin to conditions Zack writes about.

Colonial knowledge often emerged out of the processes and practices of physical work in regimes of coerced labor. Terms like embodied science further encourage scholars to think about how knowledge work takes place in conversation with material things. English medical writers were often explicit about the usefulness of the senses to their work. They smelled, touched, tasted, listened to, and examined materials and bodies. Those who made claims about the power of chocolate to enhance reproductive labor in Jamaica were embedded in medical traditions that emphasized the ways the human senses shaped women's reproductive health and pregnant bodies. They made claims about controlling the functioning of the womb through scents that ranged from “sweet” to “stinking,” and they understood women's humoral bodies as particularly porous and open to environmental conditions. Attention to women's bodies, particularly their reproductive labor, was an important aspect of colonial science.

ZD: The study of work processes—core to labor history—directs attention to the embodied experience of toiling in the sweltering heat of a pharmaceutical manufactory boiling aromatic roots for an antimalarial tincture or breathing the toxic fumes from a distillation of vitriol (sulfuric acid). At every scale, from kitchen to pharmacy, preparing medicines was a corporeal process and largely continues to be. Reading laboratory notes, medical texts, and business records has led me to think about the entanglement of labor, medicine, and empire in terms of the physical toll of that work—chemical burns, for instance, but also the more mundane risks of smoke inhalation and fatigue.

Impairment and disablement are both by-products and tactics, as Nic uses the term, of coercion that we have not yet mentioned in our conversation. I have been thinking about the physical and mental impairment that occurred in care-related spaces, in part inspired by Stefanie Hunt-Kennedy's Between Fitness and Death that details the ways enslavers sought to keep the enslaved in a state “where their bodies were too broken to rebel but fit enough for forced labor.” I've found that in the British Royal Navy, medical evaluators gave monetary values to injuries sustained during service, selectively marking some impairments as disabilities that carried legal, and labor, implications. Some of these impairments could be quite visible, such as the loss of an arm or leg, or, in the case of damage to one's reproductive organs, largely invisible. Either way, work reshaped one's relationship to one's own body and the world around it in ways that often intensified under coercive or scientific modes of labor organization.

JB: Multiple and overlapping modes of coercion and dominance organized nineteenth-century colonial plantations in Senegal that the French envisioned as an alternative to Caribbean slave plantations. One in particular for the French was of course language, specifically the modality of written words and figures used for accounting, recordkeeping, contracts, and treaties. This method of attempting to fix social relations and secure access to land through commitments on paper had limited effect. There were thus contrasting modes of domination being exercised between the French and African states that remained in tension—until later in the nineteenth century, when the accumulated European technological and economic advantages allowed them to break this pattern.

I'm struck by how the published accounts by the botanist Perrottet gloss over labor tensions, although the archival records reveal more. Perrottet's premise seemed to be that he could make the constraints of the local landscape of Senegal irrelevant by bringing seeds, tools, and “expertise” from elsewhere to produce a crop for export out of West Africa. Yet the agricultural farms weren't able ultimately to overcome the constraints of either the environment or labor, nor did they effectively engage local “expertise.” This brings us back to the quest of many naturalists for “the universal” or findings that were generalizable across space and populations, which has come up a few times in this roundtable thus far and which has some problematic implications. My approach has been to focus on how local “knowledge workers” (to use the phrase Kate is suggesting) practiced their specialized crafts, even transferring knowledge to others while working within volatile environmental and political constraints.

6. Final thoughts! What remains unanswered for you? What new directions do you see at the intersection of coerced labor and colonial science?

PA: This conversation works toward a history of the dependent epistemologies that endure in racial capitalism and other forms of inequality: ways of knowing based in colonizers’ extraction of value from unfree humans. Kate shows, for instance, how British slavers judged medical and natural knowledge by its capacity to manipulate the bodies of enslaved Africans and maximize their labor. Here was a theory of knowledge that shows how natural and medical sciences were coproduced with the Plantationocene, as Nic explored at the outset of our discussion. This history should also account for the perverse mechanisms by which some of those same sciences became associated, like capitalism itself, with liberation. Consider anecdotal accounts of the manumission of enslaved and enserfed actors for deeds of scientific servitude (as collectors, guides, or cartographers). In Brazilian diamond mines, said one slaving geologist, the price of freedom was 17.5 carats. In Russian Siberia, an enserfed cartographer was freed for mapping gold and platinum alluviations at the behest of mercenary-geologists. These scientific customs are telling, as J'Nese Williams writes of botany in Caribbean context, precisely because they are the exceptions that prove the rule: the conditional freedom of some dependent laborers shows the essential unfreedom on which sciences depended. They can be read, like our conversation, as prompts to pursue a more capacious study of the many forms of peonage and precarity on which modern configurations of knowledge and power still depend.

ZD: What a great point with which to end, Pat. Rather than reiterate your nudge to pursue a more capacious study of precarity, I'll close by mentioning that the methodologies of doing this work can be fraught. As current discussions about the politics of the archive and, frankly, the politics of the profession have demonstrated—the responses to Judith Carney's Black Rice come to mind—there remains a lack of consensus about how to engage in recovery work. This is especially true of a labor history of science where who is permitted to “do” science has been carefully guarded for centuries and archival evidence that might expand that group has been obscured, intentionally and not. Nevertheless, this work is crucial to understanding the hierarchies that continue to underlie, and get reinforced by, knowledge work.

KM: As Zack and Jody have noted, histories of scientific labor have often been silenced. While the records may hide their stories, many individuals have toiled in knowledge-making enterprises, and this conversation underscores the importance of thinking about science and labor as entangled. While historians are increasingly attentive, say, to the “invisible” and uncredited labor of household members in the production of early modern medicine, or to the role of enslaved or Native people in histories of “colonial science,” there is much work to be done to excavate specific actors, sites, processes, and modes of labor.

NBM: One takeaway I have from our discussion is the importance of interweaving consideration of systems and actors in histories of labor and science. The long-standing historiographical separation of labor and science perhaps stemmed from insufficient consideration of the porousness of both domains. Our discussion has provided many examples of interactions between “scientists” and “laborers” in various colonial contexts around the globe since the seventeenth century. We have all noted how various types of Western “scientists”—botanists in the case of Jody and me; medical practitioners with Kate and Zack; and even “mercenary” mining technicians by Pat—drew on the knowledge of coerced laborers—enslaved, indentured, and convict—to perform their knowledge work. This was a case not just of extraction or collection but, rather, of negotiation, translation, and even dependence on laboring actors who were traditionally perceived as beyond the pale of science but had distinctive routes to realms of knowledge that eluded these scientists. Future work might explore these actor relationships and tensions processually, revealing the coproduced character of colonial science and coerced labor.

JB: I think that is right, Nic. Work that pays careful attention to relational process and the coproduced nature of colonial science—while also holding on to the way inequalities of social and economic power shaped that “coproduction”—would be illuminating. What also stays with me from this roundtable discussion is the importance of continuing to question and historicize not only how scientific knowledge has been produced in particular instances but also under what conditions and by whom. Future work could pay more attention to knowledge produced through labor and to the voices and perspectives of laborers whose inputs have largely been invisibilized. It is important in my view to continue to carefully study the historical processes of extraction or of invisibilizing coercive relations because they allow us to theorize not only how such relations may continually reproduce themselves but also, more critically, how they might be reimagined.

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