Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) - The National Library of Jamaica

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753)

In his long life. Sir Hans Sloane, scientist, noted physician and collector, amassed one of the greatest collections of plants, animals, antiquities, coins and many other objects/memorabilia of his time. These items formed the core of the British Museum and later the National History Museum.

Sloane was born in the town of Killyleagh, Ireland, on the 16th of April, 1660. His father Alexander was a receiver-general of taxes for Down, a county of Ulster iNorthern Ireland. Sarah was the daughter of a minister of religion.

In his youth, Sloane took tremendous interest in Natural History Studies and the urge  for the collection of specimens grew on him till it became the ruling passion of his life. Ill health however affected his pursuits as at the age of 16, Sloane suffered from an ailment known as haemoptysis. This is a form of haemorrhage through the air passages and this interfered with his botanical quests, though not dampening his love for it.

In 1679 he moved to London to study Chemistry, Botany and Physics. He subsequently went on to Paris where he studied Medicine at the University of Orange. He graduated in 1683 as a medical doctor at the age of 23. He returned to London in 1683 bringing with him a collection of plants, which he presented to the celebrated naturalist John Ray.

In 1685 Sloane was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society which was founded to bring together scientists for weekly meetings where they could witness experimenting and discuss scientific topics. In 1687 he was also made a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. Sir Hans later later served as First Secretary of the Royal Society from 1693-1712 and then President from 1727-1741 succeeding Sir Isaac Newton.

It was in 1687 that Sloane was given the opportunity to travel to Jamaica as physician to the then Governor, the 2nd Duke of Albermarle, Christopher Monke. During the three (3) months voyage, Sloane made observations on phosphorescence in the water and the habit of sea birds. He carefully recorded sights of the grampus and the porpoise, as well as the flying fish and the chambered nautilus. Sloane spent 15 months in Jamaica.

It was on the 19th December, 1687 that Sir Hans and the Governor entered the Port Royal Harbour. During his stay Sloane made extensive notes on the local flora and fauna, the customs of the local inhabitants and natural phenomena such as earthquakes. He amassed a collection of over 800 objects of Natural History, as well as, full-size drawings of many plants, birds, fruits, molluscs, insects and fish among many other specimens when he left for England in 1689. He then began to work on the information he had gathered in Jamaica and in 1696, published a list of the plants he had collected, the “Catalogus Plantarum  Quae Insula Jamaica”, often referred to as the “Catalogue”.

In 1707 he published the first volume of his celebrated work, “A Voyage to the Island of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, St. Christopher and Jamaica with the Natural History of the herbs and trees, four-footed beast, fishes, birds, insects, reptiles, etc., of the last of those Islands”. This publication made a valuable contribution to Natural History and threw light on the important aspects of Jamaica’s history as it gives a rare insight into the life of 17th century West Indies. To date it remains the most comprehensive account of the flora of Jamaica and the botanical specimens it was based upon.

This book is an extensive introduction to the wealth of detail about the lives of the inhabitants of Jamaica, its climate, its trade links and agriculture, as well as, information about neighbouring islands. As a physician and botanist, Sloane took particular interest in the medicinal plants used by both the settlers and slaves as well as the other remedies they used such as cupping and bleeding.

Perhaps the most significant of the hundred of plants and animals Sloane collected and studied was the cocoa bean from which the locals made a dark, bitter drink. Sloane came up with the idea of boiling the beans in sugared milk, which made it far more palatable. This drink was the first milk chocolate, which he believed brought many health benefits. The recipe later became the basis for many chocolate drinks and bars and Sloane’s name was used to sell it, even into the 19th century. 

The second volume of Sloane’s work did not appear until 1725 and contains much information on the fauna of Jamaica, as well as, its plant life and is as richly illustrated as the first volume. By the time he died, Sloane amassed thousands of natural history objects, books and artworks.

He bequeathed his entire collection to the nation in return for payment of £20,000 to his heirs. The British Museum, founded in 1753, became the home of Sloane’s collections. His natural history specimens and the written works closely associated with them, were later moved the Natural History Museum in 1881. His collections are regularly consulted by scientists and artists to this day.