London People: Hans Sloane?

The British Museum will partially reopen after lockdown on August 27. But just before beforehand, they announced the removal of the bust of its founder Hans Sloane from its prominent position in the King’s Library. A calculated move designed to attract the most publicity before reopening? Soul City Wanderer briefs on the man the museum has very publicly chosen to forget.

British Museum

Dr Hans Sloane is the botanist and physician whose collections formed the basis of the British Museum

Sloane was born Ulster in 1660, just as the monarchy was being restored under King Charles II. Sloane’s family had been royalists during the Civil War. He moved to London and trained as a physician obtaining his medical degree at the University of Orange in France. As an eminent botanist, he became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1685.

In 1687, aged 27, Sloane joined the Duke of Albemarle’s colonial expedition to Jamaica as his personal physician. This venture was as much about treasure hunting as it was about colonisation, with the stakeholders attracted by legends abound of sunken pirate galleons full of stolen Spanish gold.

But Sloane’s expertise as a botanist was also a major aspect of his inclusion. Natural history was an integral part of empire-building. The ‘conspiracy of gardening’ was all about the profitability of crops, especially sugar in the West Indies.

These plantation ventures created the ripples that supported the British Empire. For example, the search for cheap nutritious food for sugar production slaves led to the cultivation and trade of plantain in Africa (and also resulted in the mutiny on the Bounty). Similarly, the East India Company cultivated opium in India, to export to China, to exchange for silver bullion, to pay for Chinese tea, to export around the world.

Sloane spent one and a half years in Jamaica meticulously recording the flower and fauna in an encyclopaedic reference work of images and text. The great classifier Carl Linnaeus later used Sloane’s 1707 Natural History as a source book.

Sloane also documented the island’s culture, crafts, curiosities, traditions, legends and myths. Eclectic examples include the earliest known example of African-American music and the first written recipes for hot chocolate.

Of course, a major aspect of Jamaican colonisation was slavery. Despite his applications of liberal scientific thought, Sloane was certainly no abolitionist. He did use his medical expertise in treating sick slaves, but seemed to be overly-fascinated by slavery itself, almost regarding slaves as a scientific species.

In James Delbourgo’s recent biography of Hans Sloane, Collecting the World, there are no justifications for Sloane’s morality. The author remarks that Sloane’s Jamaica was a series of contradictions where “plunder, piety, science and lucre went hand in hand.”

The bust of Hans Sloane had been removed from display in the King’s Library.

When Sloane returned from Jamaica aged 29, he set himself up as a professional physician in London. He pioneered trials in inoculation and was instrumental in setting up the Foundling Hospital. However, his passion for collecting never ceased. He built up a network of correspondents in Asia, Africa, China, Japan and the Americas.

As the British Empire expanded throughout the 1700s, Sloane’s house in Chelsea became an international depository for the cultural booty swept up in its immediate wake. Particularly impressive was the diligence he took in cataloguing every single item.

Sloane died in 1753, leaving instructions for a museum to be specially built to house his 80,000-object collection, stipulating that it should be free with access for all, a radical concept back then. It opened in the year that the British Empire reached its zenith, the Annus Mirabilis of 1759. The name given to it, British Museum, was more a reflection of the reach of the greatest territorial empire the world had ever seen.

Apart from a few street names around Knightsbridge, Hans Sloane is barely remembered today. In Carolyn Fry’s Plant Collectors: The Adventures of the World’s Greatest Botanical Explorers, there is no reference to Sloane, which considering his undoubted influence on the history of botany, just goes to show how largely forgotten he is.

Apart from preserving the records of old cultures that may well have been lost, he does have one great legacy, and that was his civic promise that his museum should be free and for all. In gratitude, the British Museum, today, has pushed him further into obscurity.

Recommended books:
James Delbourgo. Collecting the World. Penguin, 2018.
Carolyn Fry. Plant Collectors. Chicago, 2013.

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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