Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum by James Delbourgo
As James Delbourgo observes in his fascinating new book, Collecting the World, Hans Sloane represents "a curious case of fame and amnesia combined" (xxi). Observant visitors to many of London's leading cultural institutions—including the British Library, British Museum, Chelsea Physic Garden, Natural History Museum, and Royal Society of London—will note portraits and busts commemorating Sloane's contributions. Many more will be acquainted with memorials embedded in the names of West London's streets: Sloane Square, Hans Crescent, Sloane Avenue, and so on. And those with a well-developed sweet tooth may even have heard the myth that Sloane invented milk chocolate. Yet Sloane's most enduring legacy, the creation of the British Museum, is little known among the general public and arguably not as well known as it ought to be to many specialists. Collecting the World just might change that.
Collecting the World is as much an origin story of the British Museum as it is a biography of the figure who made it possible. Delbourgo's goal is to explain the man behind the museum's collections, his means and motivations to collect, and the manner by which a private collection became the world's first free national public museum. As a biography it is definitive, but readers expecting a tight focus on Sloane may be surprised by sections dedicated to explaining the history of the British presence in Jamaica or summarizing the intellectual developments known as the scientific revolution. Though much of the material provided in these background sections will be very familiar to readers of this journal, this broad contextualization is among the book's strengths. Collecting the World seeks to make Sloane's story accessible to a wide readership and therefore situates it within a broad historical context, bringing major strands of Atlantic history such as colonialism, slavery, and science to what has often been portrayed as an exclusively metropolitan story, while engaging with questions of how commercial and imperial ties shaped the production of natural knowledge.1 [End Page 343]
Sloane's importance within scholarship on early modern natural history and museums rests on his practice of collecting, which has been of considerable interest to scholars in recent years.2 Over the course of his long life (1660–1753), Sloane acquired a collection of astounding proportions. Though natural historical and medical specimens formed its initial core, Sloane's collection also included manuscripts, books, Egyptian and Roman antiquities, coins, medals, works of art, and cultural artifacts. It ultimately encompassed more than 80,000 objects, plus an herbarium of 334 volumes and a library with more than 50,000 volumes. Sloane's will offered the entire collection to the nation in exchange for a £20,000 payment to his heirs, a fraction of its estimated value. Parliament raised the money through a national lottery and the British Museum opened its doors in 1759.
Although Sloane became a leading figure in eighteenth-century London life, he started as a provincial outsider, raised in the north of Ireland in a Protestant family of Scottish descent. The Ireland of his youth was shaped by colonialism and conquest. Sloane moved to London at nineteen to study medicine and to make his way in the world, and by 1687 he had completed his medical training and had begun to establish his reputation as both a physician and a naturalist. In that year, he agreed to the journey that would be the making of his scientific reputation: to Jamaica as the personal physician to the island's newly appointed governor, Christopher Monck, 2d Duke of Albemarle.
In Jamaica, Sloane encountered a quite different world of conquest and colonialism than the one in which he was raised. Delbourgo chronicles Sloane's medical practice among Jamaica's black and white inhabitants and his "journies in the island" (57). These travels enabled him to explore the ruins of Spanish Jamaica, learn about the process of making sugar, and observe the violence of plantation slavery firsthand. His collections and later publications about Jamaica reflect the keen interest he took in the island's black inhabitants. This interest "went beyond mere descriptive natural history to make several subjective judgments about blacks as a racial group" (75). Like many of his contemporaries in British plantation [End Page 344] societies, Sloane based these judgements on assumptions about who made the best slaves. Sloane's lifelong interest in the study of skin color also originated in this period. Scientific investigations of skin color, as Delbourgo rightly observes, implied "that what was in fact a construct of law had an identifiable basis in nature; if the source of blackness could be located enslavement would be physically justified" (74). In such passages, Delbourgo offers tantalizing observations about the emerging science of race, Sloane's attitudes toward slavery, and scientific justifications for plantation slavery. These subjects are not the author's primary focus in Collecting the World; readers particularly interested in such topics should consult Delbourgo's previously published work to fully benefit from his varied insights into Sloane, science, and slavery.3
Sloane's "journies in the island" also facilitated the study of Jamaican flora and fauna—the expertise for which he was best known as a naturalist. The physician acquired hundreds of specimens during the fifteen months he spent in the Caribbean, often with the assistance of the region's black inhabitants. Plants and animals collected in Jamaica were transformed into "one of the age's most spectacular works of colonial science" (116). The centrality of images to the practice of early modern natural history meant that the stunning, life-size engravings in Sloane's two-volume Natural History of Jamaica (1707, 1725) were its most significant scientific achievement. Delbourgo traces the multistep, transatlantic processes by which collections were gathered, preserved, sketched in situ by a Jamaica-based artist, redrawn years later by a London-based artist, and engraved. As Delbourgo writes, the resulting images were "made neither in Jamaica nor in London, strictly speaking, but by movement and coordination between England and the West Indies" (107). Delbourgo argues that the text of Natural History infrequently included descriptions of how blacks used Jamaican plants and concludes that Sloane was "indifferent to the uses blacks made of the Jamaican plants he set about collecting" (95). This claim sits in uneasy tension with evidence elsewhere in the book suggesting Sloane's interest in slave knowledge, which in facts supports recent scholarship on colonial science highlighting the keen interest European and colonial naturalists took in the knowledge of peoples of African descent.4 [End Page 345]
The voyage to Jamaica provided the collections necessary to establish Sloane as a naturalist, and upon his return to Britain he set about establishing himself in more pragmatic ways. Sloane achieved financial security through both his marriage to the wealthy widow of a Jamaican acquaintance and his flourishing practice as a society physician. His prominence grew alongside his wealth. During the first decades of the eighteenth century, Sloane assumed new public roles, including offices in the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society. As editor of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Sloane pursued an expansively empirical approach to natural history that occasionally brought him stinging criticism, for his "enthusiastic curiosity-mongering" sometimes met with a "rocky reception" (162) among contemporaries who thought Sloane's curiosity merely evidence of credulity.
Sloane's increasing prestige within London society helped him further enlarge his global network of collectors. As Delbourgo and other historians of science have argued, the first step in acquiring an extensive collection was to collect collectors.5 Sloane amassed surgeons, colonial officials, trading company employees, missionaries, colonists, merchants, and others who gave or sold him objects for his museum. Delbourgo notes that most of Sloane's objects came from areas where Britain had colonial or commercial ties, such as British North America and East India Company factories in South Asia. Although the importance of commercial and colonial networks to European collecting practices is well-known, Collecting the World captures the breathtaking sweep of the social networks built by avid collectors such as Sloane.
A collection on such a grand scale required equally extensive efforts to preserve, organize, and document it. Indeed, Delbourgo makes a compelling case that Sloane's greatest legacy as a writer was not his stunning Natural History but the humble labels, lists, and catalogs that ordered his immense collection. In an impressive chapter examining such seemingly fragmentary evidence, Delbourgo uses specimen labels, collection catalogs, and storage boxes to reveal how the collection was displayed, preserved, documented, experienced, and used during Sloane's lifetime. Given the originality of this section, one wishes Delbourgo had delved more deeply [End Page 346] into these questions, but readers have the consolation of various essays he has published elsewhere on related topics.6
Collecting the World concludes with a fascinating consideration of the early history of the British Museum, including the terms of Sloane's will, Parliament's decision to purchase the collection, and how the museum continued to evolve into the early nineteenth century. As Delbourgo argues, Sloane's decision to bequeath "the collections to create a public museum was a novel and complex proposition, not least because the very notion of the public was itself in flux" (305). The significance and originality of Sloane's injunction to have the museum open to the public should not be understated. However, it does seem to be pushing its significance a bit too far to argue, as Delbourgo does, that the documents that articulated it (Sloane's will and the British Museum Act) constitute British equivalents to the American Declaration of Independence and Federal Constitution of 1787. Both, argues Delbourgo, were "written Enlightenment enunciations of universal egalitarian principles" (331).
Universalizing ambition may have united the British Museum and the Constitution, but they also shared foundations in slavery and colonialism. Collecting the World's insistence that slavery and colonialism be understood as fundamental aspects of Sloane's story will be among the book's most important contributions. Profits from his wife's Jamaican plantations provided a substantial portion of the wealth that underwrote Sloane's collecting. The physician's reputation as a naturalist was deeply tied to the time he spent in Jamaica collecting specimens with the help of enslaved assistants, treating the island's black and white inhabitants, observing plantation slavery, and keenly studying black Jamaicans. The fact that slavery and colonialism benefited a man like Sloane and enabled his collecting practices will come as no surprise to early Americanists. Yet within scholarship on early modern museums and European collecting practices, and even in much of the Sloane scholarship, the deeply entwined histories of science, slavery, and colonialism are often still absent.7
Collecting the World does an admirable job transitioning between the specifics of Sloane's story and the broader context a more general audience requires to fully make sense of them. It thus offers not simply a biography [End Page 347] but also a window into the world Sloane inhabited. The numerous and high-quality images included throughout the book provide readers another window into Sloane's world. They also visually reunite collections that today are divided between the British Museum, British Library, and Natural History Museum. Collecting the World is an accessible, insightful, and compelling book—though aimed at a more general audience, it also has much to offer early Americanists. As Sloane might have said, it is a "curious" work in which much to delight and astonish awaits the reader. [End Page 348]
1. Richard Drayton, Nature's Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the "Improvement" of the World (New Haven, Conn., 2000); Londa Schiebinger, Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge, Mass., 2004); Antonio Barrera-Osorio, Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution (Austin, Tex., 2006); Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2006); Harold J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven, Conn., 2007); Daniela Bleichmar, Visible Empire: Botanical Expeditions and Visual Culture in the Hispanic Enlightenment (Chicago, 2012); Dániel Margócsy, Commercial Visions: Science, Trade, and Visual Culture in the Dutch Golden Age (Chicago, 2014).
2. For a start, see Parrish, American Curiosity; Daniela Bleichmar and Peter C. Mancall, eds., Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World (Philadelphia, 2011); Beth Fowkes Tobin, The Duchess's Shells: Natural History Collecting in the Age of Cook's Voyages (New Haven, Conn., 2014).
3. James Delbourgo, "Slavery in the Cabinet of Curiosities: Hans Sloane's Atlantic World," 2007, http://www.britishmuseum.org/PDF/Delbourgo%20essay.pdf; Delbourgo, "Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of the Cacao," Social Text 29, no. 1 (April 2011): 71–101; Delbourgo, "The Newtonian Slave Body: Racial Enlightenment in the Atlantic World," Atlantic Studies 9, no. 2 (June 2012): 185–207.
4. Schiebinger, Plants and Empire, 73–104; Susan Scott Parrish, "Diasporic African Sources of Enlightenment Knowledge," in Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, ed. James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew (New York, 2008), 281–310; KathleenS. Murphy, "Translating the Vernacular: Indigenous and African Knowledge in the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic," Atlantic Studies 8, no. 1 (March 2011): 29–48; Miles Ogborn, "Talking Plants: Botany and Speech in Eighteenth-Century Jamaica," History of Science 51, no. 172 (September 2013): 251–83.
5. For example, see E. C. Spary, Utopia's Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution (Chicago, 2000), esp. 49–98; Marjorie Swann, Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England (Philadelphia, 2001), esp. 90; James Delbourgo, "Listing People," Isis 103, no. 4 (December 2012): 735–42.
6. These publications include Delbourgo, "Slavery in the Cabinet of Curiosities"; James Delbourgo, "Divers Things: Collecting the World under Water," History of Science 49, no. 163 (June 2011): 149–85; Delbourgo, Social Text 29: 71–101; Delbourgo, "Collecting Hans Sloane," in From Books to Bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and His Collections, ed. Alison Walker, Arthur MacGregor, and Michael Hunter (London, 2012), 9–23; Delbourgo, Atlantic Studies 9: 185–207; Delbourgo, Isis 103: 735–42.
7. For some important exceptions to this trend, see Walker, MacGregor, and Hunter, From Books to Bezoars.