Last month, the British Museum announced that it removed a bust of its founder Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) to a secure cabinet due to his links to colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave-trade, reports The Guardian. How did Sloane collect the items which formed the basis of the British Museum, and how were they connected to colonial slavery–such that for his critics, this removal was a Sloane time in coming?
Sloane has traditionally been celebrated as an innovative physician and natural historian as well as collector, as reflected in the many books and articles about Sloane. Sloane was born in Killyleagh, Ireland the same year that the monarchy was restored in England, the son of the receiver general for taxes in County Down (part of the Protestant settlement of Ulster). His mother, Sarah Hicks, was widowed when Sloane was 6 and remarried. In his childhood, Sloane fed a passion for natural history in the fields and coasts of County Down. He moved to London at the age of 19 to study medicine–a rather advanced age in that era–and associated with important members of the Royal Society, including Robert Boyle and Samuel Pepys, as well as the physician Thomas Sydenham. Sloane became a respected physician: his successful representation of Sydenham when the latter was riddled with gout, as well as his treatment of Pepys’ final illness, was such that he established a reputation for being a ‘Hans-on’ doctor with plenty of patients.
In 1687, the newly appointed Governor of Jamaica sought to bring along a physician, and Sloane was recommended. Despite Sydenham’s warning that such a journey would be dangerous, Sloane knew that for intrepid Britons, the West Indies was known to be a place where ‘Jamaica’ lots of moolah. He was keen to collect new medicinal plants from the Americas in addition to cinchona bark, a source of quinine–the subject of this issue of Early Modern Times–which was introduced to London by Sydenham. There he devised a concoction for mixing cocoa beans and milk: he thus invented chocolate milk and milk chocolate, the recipe for which was sold to Cadbury’s (who further milked the profits). He amassed plants, animals, and other artifacts, as well as purchasing cinchona bark for sale in England: a very lucrative venture, such that he could give out Sloanes to friends who needed to borrow cash.
Sloane’s reputation only increased after his return to England in 1689, at the time of the Glorious Revolution. He continued to be respected for his work as a medical scientist, natural historian, and physician, and was involved in trials for smallpox inoculation, the subject of another issue of Early Modern Times. He avidly purchased several collections while also collecting on his own. After his death, his vast collection as catalogued in 1753–according to this 2010 article, ‘100,000 objects and curiosities including 5,439 insects and around 23,000 coins and medals, over 12,000 examples of plant material and around 50,000 books’–was purchased by Parliament and can be found in the British Museum, British Library, and other natural history museums. Sloane was not only the President of the Royal College of Physicians but also the President of the Royal Society. His reputation as perhaps the greatest collector in 18th-century Britain, as well as his work in cataloguing and classifying his specimens, could earn him the moniker of Sloane arranger.
He was, however, deeply implicated in the colonialism and slavery of the era. The Jamaican colony was built on slave labour, and enslaved west Africans assisted Sloane with his West Indian collection. Back in England, he married Elizabeth Langley Rose in 1695, who had inherited Jamaican sugar plantations. Sloane thus profited not only from his medical work but substantially from the plantations, worked on of course by slaves, which in turn financed his collecting. Hence, despite his invention of milk chocolate, Sloane’s profit from slave-grown Jamaican sugar has finally, in the mouths of the British Museum’s directors, left a bitter taste.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern ‘Only the Sloane-ly’ Studies Program