Amelia Newsham: A transatlantic journey

Read about the life of Amelia Newsham, a young enslaved albino woman in London
Published on 26 August 2022


Dr Isabelle Charmantier, Head of Collections, The Linnean Society of London

In the mid-1750s, a young enslaved albino woman, named Amelia, journeyed from Jamaica to London, where she not only attracted the attention of a curious British public, but also of the most renowned naturalist of her time: Carl Linnaeus.

Like the Bank of England, the Linnean Society of London, a natural history learned society, has been working to uncover its ‘hidden histories’. These include the stories of black and indigenous artists, collectors, and others who have contributed to knowledge of the natural world. Sadly, in many cases they have never been recognised and their stories have been forgotten.


  • Coin depicting Amelia Newsham. Bank of England Museum: C637/032

The Bank’s exhibition on Slavery & the Bank features a coin of Amelia Newsham, an albino enslaved young woman, who was the object of scientific curiosity in 1758. Letters kept at the Linnean Society shed more light on the difficult and devastating transatlantic story of Amelia.

You may be wondering why this albino woman seemed so fascinating. In the 1700s, scholars were dedicated to studying, sorting and naming the natural world—particularly the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). Linnaeus sorted, or classified, the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms in his famous book, Systema naturae (‘Systems of Nature’), and was one of the first to include humans in the kingdom of animals. He named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’) and divided it into four varieties based on geographical origin and skin colour.footnote [1] Linnaeus constantly updated his books with new information, and in the 10th edition of Systema naturae in 1758, he split the group Homo into two species: one being Homo sapiens (a ‘diurnal’ species, or active in the day) and the other Homo troglodytes (a ‘nocturnal’ species, or active at night). Homo troglodytes was a species based on ancient literature, similar to a cave dweller, which Linnaeus was keen to investigate.footnote [2]

On display in London

In February 1758, when Linnaeus heard that ‘A troglodyte can be seen in London’, he wrote to his London contacts, the linen merchant and naturalist John Ellis (1710–1776), and a young Swedish physician and former student of Linnaeus, Pehr af Bjerkén (1731–1774), saying:

‘I learn by letters from London, that a Troglodyte, or Homo nocturnus, (…) is arrived in your capital. (...), I therefore most respectfully beg of you to examine this animal with attention.’footnote [3]

Linnaeus then listed a few questions to guide them when putting together their observations.