Slavery, Empire, and the Cabinet of Curiosities: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

Slavery, Empire, and the Cabinet of Curiosities: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum

October 10, 2019 1 By Luis Garrison


MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS:
Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s
Medical Center Hour. I’m Marcia Day Childress from
the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities, and I’m
delighted to see all of you here today. In 1759, a few years ago,
London’s British Museum opened its doors, the world’s
first free national public museum. In his remarkable book,
Collecting the World, historian James Delbourgo
examines the role of slavery and
imperialism in making this venerable
institution possible, by exploring the career of
its founder, 18th century Anglo-Irish physician
Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane was one of the
world’s greatest collectors of natural and
cultural specimens, assembling a formidable
cabinet of curiosities from every corner of the
expanding British empire. Now why, and how,
does this matter to us at the University of Virginia? Nearly two decades ago, a
handful of UVA medical students created a medical
humanities interest group to offer occasional
programs about history, culture, and the arts,
as related to medicine. They named it for Hans
Sloane, this same doctor whose collections formed the
core of the British Museum. Fast forward to summer
2017, the Sloane Society is still thriving. As Sloane Society
faculty advisor, I bought Collecting the
World when it came out, to learn more about our interest
group’s founder, or namesake. From its opening pages,
Collecting the World tells a complicated,
illuminating, and sobering story. It turns out that
Sloane’s collecting was funded not just from his
lucrative London practice, but also with profits from
Caribbean sugar plantations, and those holdings’ connections
with the Atlantic slave trade. So here’s another way
his story matters to us. Some of our most vaunted
public institutions have backstories
that may implicate their representatives,
our forebears, and us, in practices and prejudices
that are wrong, unjust. Such history is
painful to acknowledge, difficult to discuss,
challenging to remedy or heal. Here in Charlottesville,
at this university, we know this to be true. So James Delbourgo comes to
us from Rutgers University, where he is Associate
Professor of History. His presentation for
us, Slavery, Empire, and the Cabinet of Curiosities,
Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum, is UVA’s
Phi Beta Kappa lecture today, and also one of our History of
the Health Sciences lectures. We thank several partners, the
university’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, the
President’s Commission on Slavery and the University,
the Corcoran Department of History, and historical
collections in the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. We also thank UVA
Bookstore, which has made available
Collecting the World, just outside the door there. Professor Delbourgo disclosed no
financial conflicts of interest with commercial entities
producing health care goods or services. And with that, I’m delighted
to welcome James Delbourgo to the Medical Center Hour. JAMES DELBOURGO: Thank
you very much for coming. Thank you, Marcia, and
the medical school, and all the co-sponsoring
parts of the university, for inviting me to
address you today at UVA, which I’m
very honored to do. It’s my first time
in Charlottesville. Marcia took me to
Monticello yesterday. It was my first time there, so
very, very interesting indeed, and I’m very pleased
to be with you. It’s also very nice to see
many old friends, as well as new friends, here at
the University of Virginia. I’m going to talk to you
over the next 40 minutes or so about the doctor that
you see on the screen here, Sir Hans Sloane. And I guess I can move with
this because I’m miked, so that’s good. What I want to do in the
next 40 minutes or so is to share, with you, why I
think this particular physician deserves to be well known. And as Marcia was saying, the
book that I wrote about Sloane came out last
summer, but there are many interesting comparisons
and interesting contrasts with Thomas Jefferson, and
with the history of these two founders. But the first thing to realize
is that Hans Sloane’s story is not well-known in the UK. It’s a little better
known now, as a result of the book coming out. But one of the things I
learned is that, really, he had been a largely forgotten
figure in the UK, let alone in other places. And this came as a
great surprise to me, and he turns out to be a
very significant figure. He was born in
1660, and he became probably the most renowned
physician in early 18th century London, certainly one
of the wealthiest. He became president of the
Royal Society, which was, of course, the leading
scientific organization in the British
Isles at the time. He also became president of the
Royal College of Physicians, at the same time, a very
unusual distinction. Most notably, of course,
he became, in time, the founder of the
British Museum. He had accumulated a vast
universal collection, as they would have said in the
18th century, a natural history collection that really
came out, in many ways, of his early medical training. This was a collection
of natural specimens, but also of artificial
curiosities, numbering into the hundreds of
thousands, and included a great personal library. And in 1753, when Sloane
died, his will was published, and that will bequeathed
this collection to the British nation, asking
the British Parliament to buy those collections for
the sum of 20,000 pounds, and to create something that
hadn’t existed before in quite the same way, and that
was a free national public encyclopedic museum. The British Parliament was
reluctant to raise the money, but it did so, through means
of a national lottery that was, by all accounts,
particularly corrupt, scandalous, and venal. Nevertheless, the
money was obtained, and in 1759, six years
after Sloane died, the British Museum opened its
doors, and came into existence. Other thing to mention
is that it’s not just the British Museum
we are talking about. That’s the British Museum
there in its current form, on the top left-hand
side of the slide. There were many
other institutions that Sloane was connected to. In 1881, below the
British Museum, the Natural History
Museum is created as a separate institution. Sloane’s plant specimens–
he had a vast herbarium– go into the new
Natural History Museum, and become the founding
collection of that institution. Here’s the current incarnation
of the Royal Society, where Sloane was president. Up on this side, you see, in
the top right-hand corner, the British Library
in its current form– began its autonomous
existence in 1973. That used to be the library
at the British Museum, which originated with
Sloane’s library. There were other
collections that came into the British
Museum when it was founded. Underneath that, we have a
picture of Chelsea Physic Garden, in West
London and Chelsea, where Sloane trained as
an apothecary originally, in the late 1670s, and he became
a great patron of the garden. It’s really a forerunner of Kew
Gardens as an imperial nursery, where Sloane was able to
have many different plants and seeds sent from travelers
all around the world. And here, in its current
architectural magnificence, slightly different
from the way it looked in the 17th and 18th
centuries, is the Royal College of Physicians. Sloane was connected to
all of these institutions. So it is a massive
institutional imprint, founding in many
cases, giving rise to other collections
in other institutions that came after him. But for many years, we
have known very little about this important figure. So I’m not going to
try and summarize what was a very long
life, especially– if you were born in 1660
and you lived to 1753, you were obviously
doing something right. What I’m going to
do is to, in fact, give you really just
five keys to five puzzles about this figure, as
I see them, and as I see him. And what I’m going to
try to put across to you is why he is such
an important figure and why he should, in
fact, be remembered, rather than forgotten. And I think, again,
one of the things I learned by studying him
over the course of many years was that he’s somebody
who doesn’t really fit easily into any one
kind of historical category. He was a collector. He was a physician. He was an investor. He was an institution builder. He had an enormous
global correspondence. He was involved with
medicine, natural history, artificial curiosities,
and so on and so forth. One of the things
that we’ll see is that he became a figure that
it was difficult for us to see, because he lived an
encyclopedic life. His was not a world of
specialized knowledge, which would be more familiar to us. And so this was part of the
challenge of understanding the story, and telling it. So key number one, the
return of the Sloane Ranger, the mystery of
Sloane’s disappearance. So for many years, I
was writing this book, and I was saying to
friends, I’m writing a book about Hans Sloane,
and they would say to me, oh I’ve been to his house. It’s magnificent. It’s wonderful. And I would say, no, you
haven’t been to his house. This happened again
and again and again, and you see this
mistake in print, even by very well-respected
scholars in the field of museum studies– have made this mistake. They’re confusing Hans
Sloane with Sir John Soane, without the L. So
John Soane’s house– you see a picture of it here
in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, in London. He’s the architect, in
the early 19th century, behind the redesign of
the Bank of England. His house is an amazing cabinet
of architectural curiosities. It’s one of the most wonderful
and wondrous, and chock full museological spaces
anywhere in the world. But this is not Sir Hans Sloane. Sir Hans Sloane’s house
is here on the right. It does still exist. It’s not a museum. It’s now filled by
different private companies, private offices, just
off Bloomsbury Square. But this was very
striking to me, that I assume the founder
of the British Museum was very well known, but I kept
on seeing that, in fact, people couldn’t actually summon the
right image of the right person to even know who I
was talking about. So that L was a sort of
clue that, in fact, there was a deep loss of memory,
a deep forgetfulness, about this particular figure. It really told me how lost to
public memory Hans Sloane was. Sloane Ranger is, of
course, a rather bad pun, and you see here the Sloane
Ranger handbook from the 1980s. In the 1980s, the Sloane
Rangers were rather wealthy, rather well-to-do,
but not necessarily the most intelligent
fashionable types. They would hang out in
Sloane Square in West London. This is Sloane Square Tube
Station, named for Sloane. So the Sloane name is written
into many different streets of London, Sloane
Square, Sloane Avenue. The name has survived, and
was proverbial in the 1980s when people were poking fun
at these well-heeled denizens of Sloane Square. Nobody really asked, well,
who was Sloane, by the way. That never really came up. Here is a recent revival
of the name in yet another form, Sir Hans
Sloane Milk Chocolate, a handcrafted bar with a
luxurious smooth texture. The name, there’s a
trade in this name, but if you ask most
people in London, they certainly have
heard of Sloane Square. They wouldn’t necessarily link
Hans Sloane to Sloane Square, and they wouldn’t
necessarily link Hans Sloane to the creation of
the British Museum. So a very interesting
coexistence of the survival of a
name, but its detachment from its own history. And there’s a funny
sense in which Sloane has ended up
nowhere because he was, in fact, everywhere. And just to come back to all
these different institutions, of course, the key fact is,
the British Museum does not bear Sloane’s name. So this is rather different, of
course, from Thomas Jefferson. And one crucial
difference that has been very interesting to talk
about over the last day or so with colleagues
here is, of course, that Jefferson is a political
figure, and a national figure, and he’s part of a
national founding. Hans Sloane is not
that sort of a figure. He’s not an obviously
political figure, so that visibility
is not the same. So that creates an interesting
contrast with the situation here, in a place
like Charlottesville. Number two, Sloane’s voyage
to Jamaica, and into slavery. So before we talk about
that, let us just point out the very interesting
fact that the founder of the British Museum
was born in Ireland, was born in the north of
Ireland, born in Ulster. Hans Sloane, the founder
of the British Museum, is an Ulster Protestant. He is part of the Anglo-Irish
community, displacing Catholics from in and around County Down. He’s born in a town called
Killyleagh, in County Down. You see on the map there, that
glowing red circle in Ulster, you can see circled on the map. This is where the founder of
the British Museum is from. And he, when he is 19
years old, leaves Ulster, has a very serious illness,
is confined to his room, from what we know,
at the age of 16. For two or three years,
he’s very seriously ill. He’s spitting blood. It’s not clear that
he will survive. He does recover. He moves to London in
1679, and he determines to make his way as a physician. He is the third of three boys. By the laws of
primogeniture, what property is in the family goes
to the firstborn son. He does not inherit
any, and this is land from his father,
who is, essentially, a servant to
colonial aristocrats. The family’s come
over from Ayrshire, in Scotland, as have
a number of people who have become great landowners
and nobility in Ireland. And that’s where Hans
Sloane comes from, this sort of lower
tier of people who are serving the aristocracy
in a place like Ireland, before he moves to
London, and then trains as an apothecary, and a
botanist, and a physician, in London, and in Paris, and
in Montpellier in France. 1687, Sloane becomes
physician to the governor of Jamaica, the
Duke of Albemarle, and goes to Jamaica with him. So this part of the
story, in particular, the fact that Sloane’s
fortunes, and the origins of the British Museum, are
bound up with Atlantic slavery has not been widely
known at all in the UK. The key facts are these. Sloane spent about 15 months
in Jamaica from 1687 to 1689. He was physician to the
governor and, of course, this is the period
in which Jamaica is becoming increasingly
profitable through sugar and slavery, a significant
upturn in the forced transportation of West
Africans, Akan Africans from what is today
Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, pouring into Jamaica at
the end of the century. Sloane is there,
really, at the beginning of this ascent of Jamaica
in the British Empire. He goes to Jamaica, becomes
a plantation doctor, works on the plantation,
so makes money that way. When he comes back from
Jamaica, in the year 1695, he marries a widow by the name
of Elizabeth Langley Rose. Elizabeth Langley Rose
inherited sugar estates from her first husband,
a man by the name of Fulke Rose, who was
also a doctor whom Sloane met in Jamaica, and
visited their plantations, north of what is now
Kingston, north of Port Royal, and notes that there are
very good plantations when he is there. So he marries
Elizabeth Langley Rose, and we have surviving
account books that show, for a small period of
years, the amount of money coming in to the
family by this means. It’s not exactly clear how
much money, in other words, Sloane made from slavery,
from his wife’s plantations. But it is certainly a
well-known fact at the time. Correspondents write
to him about this. It is not something that is
out of people’s awareness. And we could estimate that he
makes somewhere between 600,000 and 3 million pounds in
today’s money, or possibly as much as $4 million. That is an estimate, talking
about roughly 30,000 pounds or so in early
18th century money. And the thing to bear
in mind is that when it came to
collecting, of course, this money along with Sloane’s
medical salaries, his wealth as a physician in London, these
absolutely fed his collecting. And it’s worth bearing
in mind, of course, that the kinds of things
he was buying often came very cheaply at this time. He would buy, just
for a few shillings or for a pound, all
sorts of rarities, and exotic curiosities,
and specimens, from travelers in
India or China, in the early 18th century. So that money went very far. All of this meant that
Sloane could collect, really, on a grand scale,
but slavery also nurtured his scientific
career in more specific ways. So when he’s in
Jamaica, he quizzes slaves on their
provision plantations about what they are
growing, because he believes that they can tell him
things about the flora and fauna of Jamaica,
that actually the English can’t, going back to
the Spanish period, even going back further. And he collects
natural specimens from these grounds where
slaves grow their own food, and here’s one of them. Here is a specimen
of sorghum or guinea corn, here in the
bottom left-hand corner. It is still in
London collections. It’s in the Natural
History Museum’s herbarium, in its Darwin Center, in
the Sloane Herbarium, which is seven volumes
of pressed plants. It’s actually a herbarium
that is much larger now. The first seven volumes are
what Sloane brought back from Jamaica, often through
direct interaction with slaves. In addition to
this, he basically goes around the
island of Jamaica. He travels as much
as he can, and he collects plants, animals,
various kinds of objects, takes copious notes,
all of this to produce a lavishly illustrated
two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, published
1707, 1725, in two volumes. This really establishes
him as a man of learning, as a gentleman,
and a scholar, and a naturalist, and it’s really a work that,
as much as anything else, is an enormous visual
album of what grows and what lives in Jamaica. Life-size plant engravings drawn
by other people, not by him– he couldn’t really
draw very well– but he produces a
kind of encyclopedia of what is useful in
Jamaica, what grows there, and what could be
commercially valuable. He has a very strong
commercial approach to natural history,
which was really rather typical of the time. So he uses Jamaica’s
plantations as basis for traveling and
collecting, resulting in his Natural
History of Jamaica, but he collects a lot of other
interesting items as well, including musical
instruments played by slaves, whips and nooses
used for punishing rebel slaves, and skin samples as evidence
of racial difference. This was a question he
was already interested in, in the late 17th century,
whether one could identify a physical basis for
darker skin color, through an analysis of the skin. So that’s already in the
1680s, 1690s, something that he was quite interested in. In his Natural
History of Jamaica, he described the torture
and execution of slaves in excruciating detail,
which he actively justified in the
text as necessary to maintain the
institution of slavery, and he argued that, in fact, the
violence that the English had to resort to was far
less than the violence that the slaves used in
rebellion and, in fact, less than other Europeans
used in their plantations. Very interestingly, when
he comes back to London– and this isn’t,
of course, Sloane. This is a portrait from
the period of the Huguenot emergence of Sir John Chardin,
with an African enslaved servant or domestic
servant in London. We know from the Sloane
correspondence in the British Library that Sloane is sent
an African man, as a present, by a medical colleague
of his called Alexander Stewart, in Lydon, and we also
know that something goes wrong because Stewart sends
him this man, as a gift, and then later has to apologize
that this man turned out to be such a rogue. That’s the term that he uses. It’s not entirely
clear what happened. Stewart ends the
correspondence by saying, I terribly apologize. You should probably send
him back to the West Indies. So the question of slavery and
where this history takes place, it’s not just something
out in Jamaica, and Sloane comes back and
that’s the end of the story. This is foundational
for Sloane’s career. Even that example, in his
own house in Bloomsbury, we see this history continue. So this is a very significant
foundation for everything that Sloane does,
and it’s really what drew me to this story. When I learned that the future
founder of the British Museum had been in Jamaica, I wanted to
know what the relationship was between the institution
of slavery and his career, and how it fed into that
institutional legacy. So this is, of course, a very
disturbing and overlooked part of this institutional history. The British were, of course,
among other European powers increasingly turning to
legalized systems of violence and exploitation at this time. But, I mean, this is
why Sloane, I think, is so important as a figure,
because he does bring together science, medicine,
enlightenment, institution building, and the
slave trade, and colonialism. So it was really that connection
that I wanted to understand, more than purely writing
a history of the founder of the British Museum. So we’ll return to this
subject in a few minutes, when we conclude. OK. Number three, Sloane’s Range,
what did Sloan collect and why? Well, if you take a
look at the screen, you can see what he collected. This is from his will
published in 1753, a kind of grand announcement
of a life spent collecting, and a life devoted to the
accumulation and cataloging of a kind of universal natural
and artificial approach to the world, as natural history
of the early modern period conceived it, but, you can see,
non-specialized by our lights. 334 herbarium volumes containing
thousands of pressed plants from around the world,
over 12,000 seeds in boxes, 1,882 quadrupeds,
1,555 fish, plus 173 starfish alone, 5,000 insects, 756
anatomical specimens, a catalog called Humana, a very
interesting catalog containing everything from what
Sloane labeled Negro skin samples to the
gallstones, of friends, that he had removed surgically. 32,000 coins and medals,
1,000 antiquities, 2,000 of what we today would
call ethnographic curiosities, but as you may be able to see,
what he rather wonderfully called miscellaneous
things are not comprehended by my
other catalogs, natural and artificial. And a library of 3,500
manuscripts, many of them travel accounts from all around
the world, 350 picture albums, and 50,000 books. The sheer quantity
of what he gathered as a private individual was
very remarkable for its time, and it underpinned a very
fundamental scientific purpose. And this was to gather as many
different varieties of a given kind of thing in order to make
essential discriminations, telling one kind of thing
apart from another, essentially to compare and differentiate
varieties within any given object group, whether
those things were plants, or fish, or shoes, or drums. So this was natural
history of the period. It was a universal and
encyclopedic discipline. And it embraced both the
natural and artificial. And this is how Sloane
understood his life’s work, drawing things together in
order to tell them apart, in an extraordinary attempt to
catalog the creation itself. And Sloane was religious. Sloane was a Protestant. He was a very
serious Protestant. There’s nothing secular
about this story at all. He would have seen
his collections as embodying a great unity
that was a divine unity. He doesn’t divide the
things he collects into Asian things, or African
things, or European things. That kind of political
geography in collecting, in the European
tradition, emerges later. Rather, all of those things
are present and jumbled, but they’re not jumbled. They’re ordered by an attempt to
catalog every kind of thing God had made. That’s how Sloane understood
himself to be operating. Now of course, that doesn’t
mean that everything that he collected was easy to catalog. Just give you a couple of
examples of curiosities, things that defied categorization. These interested and
delighted Sloane. So if you like, there’s a
very interesting tension in the collections
between making a kind of categorical order,
but also being very curious, and extending a serious
curiosity to things that were not easily categorized. For example, in the
top left-hand corner, what you’re actually
looking at in that image is the vertebra of an
ox, as it is bisected by the branch of an oak tree. Collection of shoes, plants– top right-hand corner
is a coral formation in the form of a hand,
known as the Coral Hand, a kind of spontaneous,
rather mysterious, appearance of a human form
in nature itself. In the top center, you
see, from an engraving from the philosophical
transactions of the Royal Society, which Sloane edited
for many years, the picture of a Chinaman either picking or
tickling his ear with a metal implement. Sloane published an article
on this, a three-part article for which he was absolutely
crucified as an idiot, by people who thought this
was entirely irrelevant or was pure exotic. And Sloane didn’t understand
it, but Sloane was very broad. He was very latitude
in area, and he was a kind of speculative
naturalist, really very willing to gather
all kinds of things that might be
unexplained for now, but in the future
might prove useful. And these instruments
that belonged to the Elizabethan counselor
and magus, John Dee. These are John Dee’s
instruments for scrying, descrying the future. These are magical
instruments, bound up with disciplines such as
astrology, something that Sloane actually rather hated. So it is sometimes asked,
what kind of collector was this person? Was he a Renaissance-style
wondermonger, a Baroque marvel monger, or was he
really an 18th century enlightenment, encyclopedic,
systematic, rational collector? And he’s really both. But more important than
that, this physician, who becomes a collector,
does two main things with his collections. And those things are to
show us the right way to look at the world, and the
wrong way to look at the world. The right way to
look at the world is that it is not as previous
astrologers, alchemists, and others believed, a magical
living, breathing, sentient entity, but more like a machine. He’s not an atheist. He’s a Christian, but he
believes, essentially, that when you look at a plant,
or you look at a mineral, or you look at a fossil,
or you look at an animal, you are, as a good
naturalist, simply trying to work out what it is
made of, how it works, and whether there is any
material substance that might have a physical
property that could be a cure or a foodstuff
that we haven’t heard about. But he’s looking at things
like bezoar stones, about which there were often magical
legends, and, by the Europeans, associated with the East and the
Orient, as they thought of it. Sloane might be interested
in all kinds of excretions from the bodies of
humans and animals, but he was a mechanist and a
materialist when it came to– maybe there is some physical
substance here that would work, and that could be profitable. Hence, mention of
this well-known story that Hans Sloane not only
created the British Museum, but he invented milk chocolate. Sold here, so Hans Sloane’s milk
chocolate, greatly recommended. It’s a medical product in
the 18th century, greatly recommended by several
eminent physicians, especially those of Sir
Hans Sloane’s acquaintance, for its lightness on the
stomach and its great use in all consumptive cases. This story is not true. There were other people who
had mixed milk and chocolate earlier in the 17th century. So that isn’t true, but
it is a useful story to show the commercial aspects
of what Sloane was doing. The use of cacao for making
chocolate, for Sloane, was medically interesting,
and it was a commodity. And in the natural
history of Jamaica, he writes about the
commercial price of chocolate, and how it’s a very profitable
thing back in Europe. Here is his Jamaican cacao
specimen in the Sloane Herbarium, which you
see here, those 334 volumes in their beautiful
purpose-built facility in the Darwin Center. That is a specimen of cacao
that he brought back in 1689, still glued to the page
as it was back then. This would have been grown and
harvested by enslaved Africans. And you can see
here, incidentally, the preparatory sketch for
the life-size engraving that he will include in his
Natural History of Jamaica. So he’s a physician. He’s a botanist. This is the right way
to look at the world. And this he wants to
contrast in his collections, with magic, whether it’s
the magic of alchemists, astrologers, the superstitious
beliefs of the Obia men and Obia women, and the
black African healers that he was competing against
for medical clients when he was in Jamaica. All of these figures
represented unenlightenment, and the thing about Sloane
that I came to realize is that his medical career– he becomes so prominent
in London, president of the Royal College of
Physicians– he does come to see himself as a
kind of public doctor, a doctor of society, a
medical reformer who’s going to reform the official
pharmacopoeia in London as president of the Royal
College of Physicians. And this collection, and this
museum, is a doctor’s creation. And it does have, I think, a
kind of therapeutic purpose. It shows the right and the
wrong way to look at the world. We’re supposed to look at
magicians of all kinds, sorcerers, astrologers,
alternative kinds of healer, and see them as quacks, and
idiots, and laugh at them. And we are supposed
to look at the world as good, sober, commercial,
materialistic Protestants. That is really where Sloane’s
vision of the collections is, giving rise to
the British Museum. Now I don’t have too much time. And I want to come back to
the question of slavery, to conclude with, but I do want
to mention number four, very importantly, how
Sloane gathered so many different kinds of things
from so many different places. Sloane’s very public
private life– he’s a self-made man with
an assist from an expanding empire and its institutions. You cannot understand what
this collector achieves, in any kind of individual terms. He is connected to people
running the South Sea Company, and the Hudson’s
Bay Company in the Atlantic theater. He is connected to
the East India Company in South and East Asia. He is acquiring
natural specimens and artificial curiosities
from many, many travelers from the 1690s
through the 1740s. This is really where the
collections come from. Here’s another
way to think about these original collections
in the British Museum. They’re a kind of physical,
tangible manifestation of many different
relationships and exchanges. Of course, when we look
at a place like Jamaica, it’s clear how violence and
the institution of slavery dominates all kinds of
exchanges on that island. But if we look elsewhere in
South and East Asia, of course, the English were very, very weak
at this time in such a place. Don’t forget, this is an “early
history,” quote, unquote, for the British Empire. The British become better
established later on, after Sloane’s life. Nevertheless, it’s the expansion
of this world that allows him to collect on a vast scale. And he is buying curiosities
from people who are going out to these places,
who, after a while, know that Sir Hans Sloane and
the Royal Society is loaded, and he’s curious,
and he will pay for all kinds of things
that may or may not turn out to be real, or
interesting, or valuable, or curious. Just give you one of
these incredible stories of these encounters, the man
you’re looking at on the screen is called– well, he’s actually called
by many different names– Joe Ben Solomon is one of
them, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo is
a foula from West Africa, from Bundu in Senegal, who
finds himself sold into slavery, and finds himself in
London in 1733, where, among other things, he
spends time at Sloane’s house in Bloomsbury. And because Ayuba Suleiman
Diallo is a Muslim, and knows Arabic, Sloane
is interested in him, especially because these
are Persian amulets with Quranic inscriptions,
protective charms or prayers, items that might have
been worn around the neck to protect and heal someone. And Sloane invites Diallo
to translate the Arabic on these amulets for
him, which is something that very few people in
London can do at this time. And so this is just
one example of, if one goes into the British
Museum, or most museums, we learn about the
world out there, and we learn about other
places, other times. We don’t usually learn
about the relationship that brought those
things into the museum, and how we know about them. So when Diallo does
this translation work for Sloane, which Sloane
records in his amulet catalog, this is part of a whole
series of negotiations, in effect, whereby
Diallo is trying to secure his own freedom. And he is ultimately manumitted,
and sent back to West Africa as an agent of the Royal
Africa Company, ironically. But what I like
so much, and what I think is important
about this story, is that it’s an
intellectual history story about the transmission
of Arabic knowledge across very different kinds of person. And yet we really also
need to understand that this was a very personal
individual encounter. Sloane was one of the people
who helped Diallo to achieve his manumission, and may
well have been the person who commissioned that painting. OK. To conclude, Sloane’s legacy. Sloane, I think, embodied
a perfect marriage of what you could call Universalist
ambition as a collector, with imperial access to
Britain’s burgeoning role in early modern global trade. And it was from this
marriage between empire and enlightenment that
a great public legacy was forged in the
articulation of an ideal of universal free access to
museums and their collections, in some ways, for
the first time. Sloane’s will,
published in 1753, enunciated this
egalitarian principle which Parliament realized, in
creating the British Museum. And this was that
Sloane’s collections should be visited and seen,
quote, “by all persons,” and used for public benefit
in a new institution. In carrying forward the
ideal of public access to museums and collections,
then, you could say, we are all to some
extent Sloane’s heirs in the present day. Now to some audiences
I have spoken to, Sloane is thought a great hero. To others I’ve spoken to, he
remains an unabashed villain. I think what, again, draws
me to this particular story, and this figure, is precisely
the complexity of reckoning at the same time with what
remains a great public legacy, and also the fact that the last
Sloane biography was published in 1954. Why is it that we have forgotten
so much about this very significant life? And how can we use
attention to that life to shed light on many
different connected histories? This is really what I see as
the great value in the Sloane story. Those connected histories, of
course, in the Sloane story are rooted in
Jamaica, and I want to end by playing you some
music that Sloane collected when he was in Jamaica. It’s a fabulous
example, I think, of the double-edged nature of
this career and this legacy. We have seen, obviously, how
Sloane profited very directly from the institution
of slavery, financially and also scientifically,
but it must also be pointed out that in
the late 17th century, there were very few people who
took quite this exacting care to record music played
by enslaved people in the African diaspora. These two pages come from the
Natural History of Jamaica, 1707, and this is music
that Sloane witnessed, and had a man called Baptiste
record for him on staves. And we’re going to
close by listening to a short medley of this music. It lasts about two minutes. It was recorded in 2016
by Professor Laurent Dubois and his colleagues
at Duke University. And I think it’s really a very
fitting ending for this story, because it takes us, I think,
back to not only an originating place, but an originating
people and set of relationships between Sloane and the enslaved
men and women of Jamaica, where really this
whole career began. Thank you very much. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS:
Thank you so much for taking us into
the stuff and sounds of Hans Sloane’s world. We have some time for questions
and comments and discussion. So I will bring the
microphone, or John will bring a microphone to you. And please identify yourself
when you ask your question. WORTHY MARTIN: Hi, there. Worthy Martin. So did he collect things to do
with the slave trade itself, or do we have artifacts
in the museum that try to describe the slavery, as
it was carried out in Jamaica? JAMES DELBOURGO: Thank
you for the question. Well, the good thing is that
we know from his writing, and from his catalogs, things
that no longer survive– and many of them do not– that he had. The drawing there on
the top left-hand corner is from the Natural
History of Jamaica. The middle instrument,
if you can make that out, is one of the strums
strums, or banjos, that he did bring back,
that we no longer have. We do have a musical instrument
in the British Museum that is known by the label
of the Akan drum. So that does survive. And that’s a very
significant object that appears to be
one of the drums used to dance the slaves
on the Middle Passage. It has a very
interesting history, above and beyond that
very particular function, and that is that it was sent to
Sloane in the 1730s by a trader by the name of Clarke who
was otherwise obscure. So it’s not something
Sloane collects himself, but this is very typical,
that others, after a while, figure they know what Sir
Hans is curious about, the author of the natural
history will be curious about. And Clarke sends him the
drum, and it is interestingly originally mislabeled by
Sloane as a drum from Virginia. It’s fitted with a deerskin lid. It was not known for
many years that it is linked to West
African provenance, but a number of years
ago, the British Museum carried out a materials
analysis showing that the wood it was made of was
native to West Africa, and not the eastern seaboard. So remarkably, it would appear
to have crossed the Atlantic, westward, and then
been refitted, and then come back
eastward to Sloane. And Sloane didn’t
understand what it meant. We could also add,
of course, things that I mentioned very
briefly, whips and nooses used in Jamaica, or
items of clothing worn by Jamaican Maroons. One of the whips Sloane has
is the so-called manatee strap, a strap made from
the hide of the manatee, or the sea cow, which
is actually, he notes, banned in Jamaica because it
scars the skin of the slaves so badly, it devalues
the slave as a commodity. So he had a keen eye for these
details in these curiosities, but perhaps even
more interestingly, many people had a keen eye
on what Hans Sloane would be interested in, and one of the
most remarkable of these items is a letter that he
is sent, again, I think it’s around
1734, by a Virginia man named Jonathan Swymmer,
in Gloucester County. And Jonathan Swymmer has not
written to Sloane before, and as it were his letter
of introduction, he says, dear sir, I offer you
a variety of specimens, some zoological, some botanical,
but one very remarkable anatomical item, which
is described by Swymmer as several stones removed from
the vagina of a Negro girl, African. That’s shocking and singular. What’s even more remarkable is
that that’s the first letter. They don’t know each other. This is Swymmer’s
self-introduction to Sir Hans Sloane, president
of the Royal Society. And it works. They begin a correspondence, and
Swymmer enters this great web of contacts that feeds
Sloane’s collection, but again, what’s so interesting
is that very specifically, on the question of slavery
and the slave trade, Sloane’s reputation
for curiosity precedes him, generating
the collections. DEBRA HEALY: I’m Debra Healy. I’m curious about his name. I don’t associate the
name Hans with the Irish, and I’m also curious about
when he got knighted, because I didn’t
understand, from you he came from an aristocratic family. JAMES DELBOURGO: Yes. Thank you. He was made a baronet– I think it was
either 1713 or 1716. So by that point in time, it’s
quite an honor for a physician, but it is, well,
it’s the lowest rung on the ladder of that kind
of aristocratic recognition. And he does become a
kind of lordly figure. He doesn’t have a
Monticello, exactly, but he does, rather
grandly, decide, in the 1710s, in this
period, to acquire for himself Chelsea Manor. Chelsea Manor had been
the former residence of King Henry VIII. So at that point in time,
this was a weekend retreat for Sloane. He was living in
town in Bloomsbury. Chelsea was outside London. It wasn’t far, but it was
not part of London proper. And he becomes known as
the Lord of Chelsea Manor, and goes around town
in a fine carriage, and has a coat of arms,
and so on and so forth. Your first question about the
name, Hans, my understanding is that it was not entirely
uncommon in Scotland, and there were other
Protestant Hanses. This gets very
complicated, but it is written about
in the book, and I think it’s the first Protestant
Vicar of Dunlop in Ayrshire was named Hans, Hans Hamilton. The Hamilton family
are the aristocrats for whom the Sloane
family work in Ulster. So the name Hans has two
significations, I think. It has a Protestant pedigree
because of this particular Hans Hamilton, the first
Protestant vicar of Dunlop. But it also shows, in
fact, the good relations between the Sloanes and
their betters, the Hamiltons. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS:
Another question. Commence. There’s a mic coming to you. AUDIENCE: So was he
just a pure collector, or did he ever study
his collections, and particularly I’m interested
in anatomical specimens? And did he have an interest
in racial differences among anatomical specimens
he might have acquired? JAMES DELBOURGO: Thank you. Yes. The general answer
is that the work of collecting and
documenting and cataloging, in addition to corresponding,
and being a physician, and being president
of the Royal Society, and president the Royal
College of Physicians, is a life’s work. So he dramatically under-uses
his own collections. He doesn’t have time. I think he does see his
life’s work as the collection and cataloging itself. And this question
is sometimes asked, so to what extent
did he get in there and actually use this
remarkable collection? And in a way, the Natural
History of Jamaica is something of an exception. That’s where–
and by the way, it takes him– he gets
back, takes him 20 years to get volume
1 out, and another 18 years to get volume 2 out. Comes back from Jamaica in 1689. Volume 2 is 1725. He’s just too busy, but
this is the place where he does draw together
all sorts of botanical– what we would call
ethnographic– knowledge, notes, observation. It’s also, interestingly, the
Natural History of Jamaica takes so long to
come out, he does editorialize about things that
really have relatively little to do with Jamaica. Some of his
statements about the, as he puts it, the Mohammedans,
the Muslims’ false notions of the powers of certain healing
stones, or charms, or verses. He editorializes about that. He’s obviously
thinking about it. Remember the slide
with the amulets. All part of a great
set of ongoing thoughts about false medicine. I mean, he’s
constantly a physician, diagnosing, one could
say on the one hand, rival approaches to healing. And so he’s constantly
telling you. So you do find some of
that material there. But the collections are not
greatly used in his time, and I mean, that will,
of course, be his legacy. And this is, of course,
informing his plan to transform a private
collection in a private house that some of his
friends got to use. But it was necessarily limited
into a public institution that would be available
to many more people. On the medical side, there’s
no obvious answer to that. As the editor of the
philosophical transactions, he’s making sure that all
kinds of apothecaries, for example, can
publish accounts of West African materia medica. James Petiver is
a botanist that he has admitted to the fellowship
of the Royal Society. Some of the other fellows
are a bit snooty about that. They don’t like this mere
medical tradesman joining the rather genteel fellowship,
but this is absolutely Sloane’s kind of
medical natural history. And so he’s curating. He’s curating, and
he’s occasionally intervening, intellectually, but
because he was such a Baconian, as he would have seen
himself, because, perhaps not unlike Jefferson, he had
something of a caution or a suspicion of
over-hasty theorization, or system building, as
they would have called it in the 18th century. He’s quite content to
gather, and to accumulate, and to curate, and to catalog. And it will fall
to others, perhaps, to interpret more, not that
the act of descripting, or describing, and cataloging
is entirely neutral. Of course, he is framing
the very categories by which he decides
to label things. So it’s not that that’s
entirely neutral, but it’s certainly
not systematic. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: Thank you. We’ve come to the
end of our hour. I will mention, as I don’t
think James did in this session, that Thomas Jefferson
visited the British Museum. JAMES DELBOURGO: Yes. We don’t know what he
thought of it though. Apparently he didn’t
leave any comment. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: And
Benjamin Franklin actually visited Sloane. JAMES DELBOURGO: Benjamin
Franklin and Sloane, yes. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: And
took him an asbestos– JAMES DELBOURGO:
An asbestos purse. Still there in the
Natural History Museum. He sold it to him. Franklin knew what he was doing. MARCIA DAY CHILDRESS: Well, if
you read Collecting the World, you’ll see that James Delbourgo
knows what he’s doing. There is an astonishing
amount of interesting detail in this book, and as you could
tell, a fascinating story, and a sobering one, and
some lessons there for us as we wrestle with
how we talk about some of the legacies
of our forebears. So I invite you to join
us next week, March 7th. We have David Oshinsky
here from NYU, talking about Bellevue Hospital,
Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s
Most Storied Hospital. . So join us then. Again, please join me in
thanking James Delbourgo. JAMES DELBOURGO: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.