Natural Histories: Hans Sloane

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The book A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica with the Natural History of the Herbs, and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles &c. of the Last of Those Islands (Volume I: 1707, volume II: 1725) provides a remarkable account of the travels and observations made by Sir Hans Sloane  (1660-1753) while he was in Jamaica for fifteen months between 1687 and 1689. Sloane was the founder of the British Museum, which is the model on which our own Institute of Jamaica is  based. Sloane’s life and work provide a rich opportunity to see the overlaps between the slave trade, emergent plantation systems and new scientific knowledge. The son of a colonial official, Sloane was born and raised in  Ireland, and trained in London and France as a physician and botanist.  He eventually established himself as a leading member of British society and academy. In 1719, he became President of the Royal College of Physicians; in 1727, succeeding Isaac Newton, he was elected President of the Royal Society. He also became the preeminent collector of his time, amassing many thousands of books, manuscripts, specimens and objects, gathered by numerous hands from around the world.

Sloane’s visit to Jamaica was an important turning point in his activity as a collector. He came to the island in 1687 as physician to the Duke of Albermarle, the newly appointed governor. He undertook this journey to improve his knowledge of Caribbean species and discover useful and profitable new drugs. Before his departure he had compiled a list of animal and plant specimens required by friends such as the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705). During the fifteen months he was here he also assembled for himself a fine collection of plants, insects, shells, fish and other specimens.

Traveling to the West Indies was already an established itinerary for naturalists, but the number of specimens Sloane transported (including 800 plants, currently held by London’s Natural History Museum) and the precision of his documentation was unprecedented. Although he never returned to the island, it played a decisive role in his personal and intellectual life thereafter. In 1695 he married the widow of a planter whose plantations brought his family substantial income. He died in 1753, aged 92. In his will he left all his collections to the British nation, provided that the Government would pay £20,000 to his two daughters.  In June 1753 the British Museum Act received Royal Assent from George II, setting up a national museum to house Sloane’s collections and other collections of books and manuscripts.

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Note on the images in Voyages: Sloane commissioned the Dutch-born naturalist artist Everhardus Kickius to make drawings of some of his dried specimens and also used drawings made in Jamaica by the Reverend Garrett Moore of specimens that could not be preserved by drying. These drawings were engraved for the book by Michel Vander Gucht and John Savage.

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