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The British Museum, Hans Sloane, and the Visceral Stories of the Objects He Collected

Collecting the World captures the insatiable curiosity of Hans Sloane and his desire to collect and catalogue as much of the world as a man and a museum could.


Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $35.00
Author: James Delbourgo
Length: 544 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-07
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Hans Sloane is not a well-known name. Those who have heard of him may know him more from an association with milk chocolate or place-names in the vicinity of London rather than his many and varied achievements. He was the progenitor of the British Museum and President of the Royal College of Physicians, to mention just two.

But Sir Hans Sloane was also a participant in Britain’s burgeoning sugar plantations in the Caribbean -- a fact, and event, which had enormous implications for Sloane’s scientific, social, and unwavering life of curiosity.

How to think about Sloane is not always an easy task; but James Delbourgo masterfully brings Hans' world to life, illuminating the British collector’s personal sphere along with the 17th and 18th century world he inhabited. Emphasizing the importance of understanding Sloane in his own milieu, Delbourgo writes that “rather than try to pull Sloane into our world, we must enter his.”

He was born in 1660, in the northern region of Ireland known as Ulster. Though his parents were of no lofty pedigree, they were “servants of the aristocracy”, a position which gave his family a stepping stone to do well. When his father died, however, his eldest brother received the family’s land and Hans was left with nothing. It would be up to him “to make his own way in the world.”

The young and ambitious Sloane did precisely that. After recovering from a long, and near fatal, illness in his teens, Sloane left his native Ulster -- the land that had spawned his love for nature -- and headed for London.

Botany, medicine, and the desire to become a physician consumed his energies. Along with taking in lectures and studying plants, he became acquainted with the eminent Robert Boyle, a man 33 years his senior and someone who would prove an invaluable guide in introducing the young Sloane to other illustrious men.

His expanding circle included John Locke, John Ray, and Thomas Sydenham, the latter whom served as patron and mentor. Sloane would benefit from these and other relationships enormously, but his singular determination combined with his spirit of opportunism were also salient factors in the ascending career of Sir Hans.

After gaining a medical degree in France in 1683, he subsequently returned to London and opened his own practice. Sloane’s dedication and hard work had transported him from his humble origins to the life of a budding physician. It also, importantly, brought about the offering from Duke Albemarle to serve as physician during the Duke’s time as governor on the island of Jamaica.

Sloane’s zest and implacable curiosity drove him to accept the offer -- an adventure over which many near him expressed grave concerns, deeming it a calamity-ridden journey.

It’s not hard to see why. Jamaica, which England had wrested from the Spanish in 1655, was hardly a place of ease. The imposing climate, risk of disease, and potential for slave rebellions made it a constantly dangerous place. But it was here that Sloane, while carrying out his physician duties, unleashed his powers of curiosity and observation.

He collected and took notes on copious plants, animals, and minerals, as well as made sketches -- many of which were later redone by truly remarkable illustrators like Everhardus Kickius. As eclectic as Sloane’s interests were, however, his idea of natural history was guided by a philosophy that reflected his Protestant outlook: God had created the bounty within the world and also bestowed on man the domination of those things. Sloane’s eye, then, was directed at things which might a contain a commercial use. But even lacking a clear utility, he was most naturally bent towards that which was special and elusive. The venomous looking and stubbornly hard to catch Jamaican galliwasp, for example, piqued Sloane’s attention far more than any quotidian horse or chicken.

Sloane’s time in Jamaica also gave him the opportunity to observe and interact with the plantation's slaves. But his biases, cold reception of their pain, and irritation with anything he construed as relating to magic, greatly influenced his perceptions.

The myriad specimens, objects, and information that Sloane gathered from his 15-month stay on the island, from 1687-1689, helped create his mammoth Natural History of Jamaica. This long-in-the-making two volume work, published in 1707 and 1725, was used by Sloane in his typical pragmatic fashion: as both a means to disseminate his hard-earned work and to “enrol new collectors as correspondents.” The endeavor was, on the whole, successful. Though the work itself received a “mixed” reception, the sound of Sloane’s name and his predilection for collecting the natural world spread as intended.

But a penchant for self-promotion was not the only thing that powered Sloane’s quest for collecting. In 1695, Sloane married Elizabeth Rose, widowed heiress of sugar plantations in Jamaica. As Delbourgo notes, full details of just how much Sloane made from this is unknown; but it’s incontestable that its sizable profits were pivotal in facilitating Sloane’s collecting.

Sloane would be lampooned for partly this reason. Elizabeth’s inheritance, combined with the income from his booming medical practice, made money flow through Sloane’s veins, if you will. Consequently, some saw him as little more than an opportunist, and one who collected mere trifles. But Sloane was a determined man, and even as “[t]he attacks kept coming… Sloane kept going.” Indeed, there were virtually no obstacles that stood in the way of Sloane, his deep pockets, and his vast and elaborate network of contacts.

For the remainder of Sloane’s long life -- he died shortly before his 93rd birthday -- he continued to amass a mind-boggling collection. The almost magnetic force by which he secured such an array of items stemmed from his competence in acquiring the work of others. Delbourgo writes that “Sloane’s ability to collect others’ collections was unmatched by his contemporaries.” This allowed Sloane to collect from areas of the globe that otherwise would have been difficult to reach. Through figures like Johann Kaempfer, a down-and-out German doctor with a remarkable story behind him, Sloane was “[able] to assemble the most spectacular Japanese collection of its day in Europe.” As Delbourgo comments in his superb telling of the narrative, it was only through many intermediaries and a complex set of circumstances that such a transaction could have happened.

When Sloane died in 1753, these items, along with his “massive private collections” composed of manuscripts, books, maps, instruments, objects and more, went towards the creation of his dream: a public museum that would allow “all persons” to benefit from its collections. Though entanglements prevented his vision from being immediately realized, it eventually came to fruition. Visitors of all kinds could behold some of the many extraordinary objects that the fanatical collector had acquired from countless peoples and places.

Importantly, then, this first-rate book of Delbourgo’s shows not just the life of Hans Sloane and the inception of the British Museum, but our intricately connected world and the way its objects -- and their often visceral stories -- tie us together.

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