Jonathan Keates

The fount of all knowledge

At last this great physician and founder of the British Museum gets the biographer he deserves in James Delbourgo

The fount of all knowledge
Text settings

Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane

James Delbourgo

Allen Lane, pp. 469, £

Somewhere around the middle of the 17th century our modern concept of the museum began to take shape. Until then the cabinet of curiosities formed by a prince or a dilettante was on show solely to his friends or to scholars deemed worthy of having it unlocked. Nothing in the way of a systematic catalogue existed to help them navigate the gallimaufry of odd objects filling its shelves and cupboards. A Japanese netsuke button, an Arawak headdress and a handkerchief soaked in the blood of Charles I could be found nestling beside a stuffed alligator or a bezoar stone, calculus from an animal’s stomach held to possess magical curative powers. The point of these cabinets was not so much to emphasise the intrinsic rarity of the exhibits themselves as to proclaim the status of the collector, measuring the reach of his power, wealth and international contacts.

In England the cabinet mania was indulged on a more modest scale by clergymen, physicians and university dons. Sir Thomas Browne, author of Religio Medici and Urn-Burial, projected a whole imaginary collection, Musaeum Clausum or Bibliotheca Abscondita, in which lost works of art and literature were gathered together alongside natural curiosities rumoured to exist but never actually seen. ‘He who knows where all this Treasure now is, is a great Apollo. I’m sure I am not He’ concluded Sir Thomas with a mournful shake of the head.

The so-called scientific revolution in this century of Galileo, Bacon and Newton gave fresh impetus to the curious, encouraging them to be more precise and methodical in listing their acquisitions. When the Royal Society was founded in 1661, its meetings fostered the idea, bizarre to many at the time, that every conceivable phenomenon in nature deserved classification, description and analysis. Mocked for dissecting dead cats and weighing air, the Society’s ‘natural philosophers’ persevered in the teeth of satires like Thomas Shadwell’s comedy The Virtuoso (1676) in which Lady Gimcrack berates her scientist husband Sir Nicholas for ‘all this while studying spiders and glowworms, stinking fish and rotten wood’.

Into this new world of enquiry stepped Hans Sloane from Killyleagh in County Down, son of transplanted Scottish Protestants, who set off for London in 1679 to study medicine, chemistry and botany. He was a sociable soul, adept at networking but careful in his choice of friends. Accompanying fellow scientists to France, he attended lectures in Paris and Montpelier before taking his degree at the Huguenot university in Orange and returning to London to set up his practice in Fleet Street. In 1687, aged 26 and already a fellow of the Royal Society and the College of Physicians, he was appointed doctor to the Duke of Albemarle, governor of Jamaica, and set off for the Caribbean.

In Collecting the World, James Delbourgo dwells on Sloane’s two years in Jamaica as the determining episode in his life. The island was essentially a living cabinet of curiosities, in which he had time and leisure to record every aspect of an exotic natural world. We marvel at his dogged inquisitiveness, turning its focus on everything from the fruit of the mammee tree, the behaviour of vultures and blackbirds and the effect of a slave overseer’s conch shell blast on a herd of pigs to an iguana’s penchant for calabash pulp and the depredations in the hulls of merchant ships by the burrowing worm Scolopendra maxima maritima.

[caption id="attachment_10173712" align="alignnone" width="620"]

Pages from Hans Sloane's Herbarium[/caption]

The fruit of Sloane’s labours was The Natural History of Jamaica, two vast volumes combining a travel narrative with a lavishly illustrated scientific encyclopaedia. Sheer technical density prevented the work from becoming a classic, in the manner of Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne or Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, but it clinched the young doctor’s reputation, even if Jamaican plantation owners complained that he had ‘writt the names of their severall kinds of plants in Latin wch very few understands in this island’.

Soon after his return to London in 1690, this same echelon of Caribbean merchants furnished him with a wife, the recently widowed Elizabeth Rose, who brought him sufficient proceeds from sugar and slave-trading to bolster his medical practice and fund his collecting addiction.

Such assets turned her husband into the gentleman he had not quite managed to become before his West Indian voyage. In 1712 the Sloanes, having set up house in Bloomsbury, bought the former royal manor of Chelsea and made this castellated Tudor mansion their country retreat. Hans attended Queen Anne on her deathbed and was made a baronet by George I, having kept her alive long enough to settle the British crown on the house of Hanover rather than the exiled Stuart pretender.

At a guinea an hour, Sloane was society’s favourite physician, consulted by bankers and cabinet ministers, prescribing for the Duke of Ledds’s ‘severe fitts and hecktick heat’ and dispatching Lady Ferrers discreetly to France for treatment of venereal disease inflicted on her by an abusive husband. With a perfect bedside manner and good at keeping secrets, Doctor Sloane was also a noted judge of character. Should Lady Sondes trust her son’s tutor? Was Miss Orton to be recommended as a lady’s maid? Where could Sir Robert Southwell find ‘a fitt companion for my nephew, who is taking a progresse about England? Sir Hans had all the best answers.

Burgeoning success and prosperity made him a butt of ridicule, as ‘Doctor Slyboots’ or ‘Jasper van Sloanenburgh’, among disgruntled Tories, chewing the bitter cud of the Glorious Revolution and traditionally wary of new science and free enquiry. The lawyer William King, who had mocked the Royal Society’s cosmopolitan efforts to gather knowledge from merchants trading with Africa and Asia, turned his fire on Sloane as its secretary in The Transactioner, a dialogue between an unnamed gentleman and a ‘virtuoso with neither parts nor learning, who hath not so much as neglected an ear-picker or a rusty razor’ in his zeal for information.

It was the sheer miscellaneousness and immensity of Sloane’s expanding collections which disturbed the Tories. Where would it end, this mania for extending the domain of scholarship beyond the wisdom of the ancients and into the living world? He had become, as James Delbourgo points out, a collector of collectors, with a network stretching around the globe. Charlotta Adelkrantz of Stockholm sent him a sledge and reindeer harness from Lapland, the Duchess of Beaufort bequeathed him a precious Herbarium and he spent over 200 guineas on the remarkable insect drawings made in Surinam by the German naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. His garden in Bloomsbury became a little zoo, containing an Indian porcupine, a zebra from South Africa and a Javanese orang-utan. Even Japan, notoriously impenetrable to Europeans, yielded up treasures in the form of Buddhist figurines, acupuncture kits and ‘a ball of severall colours to be thrown into the fire to perfume a room’. Somewhere amid this vast conspectus, meticulously labelled, catalogued and cross-referenced by its creator, the modern disciplines of ethnography and anthropology were coming to birth.

When Hans Sloane died in 1753, aged 92, his will stipulated that the whole collection should become ‘a musaeum, visited and seen by all persons desirous of viewing the same and rendered as useful as possible’. The nation was expected to acquire it for £20,000, an estimated quarter of its worth. Should this bargain be rejected, the tout ensemble would be shipped off to St Petersburg, Paris or Berlin. Parliament nodded the deal through with an act establishing something called the British Museum, ‘for the general use and benefit of the publick’. Opening on 15 January 1759 in Montagu House, Great Russell Street, the new institution allowed free admission while keeping numbers down with pre-booked tickets and two-hour tours.

In Delbourgo’s view, Sloane’s will and the British Museum Act are our equivalents of the American Declaration of Independence and Federal Constitution, each of them an Enlightenment statement of egalitarian principles. Across the course of two and a half centuries, however, Sloane himself has more or less vanished from his own creation, what Delbourgo calls ‘a grand natural history cabinet oriented to both his empiricism and his Protestantism’. He has effectively been buried alive under the institution fashioned by succeeded ages.

This robust, thoughtful and elegantly crafted biography validates Sloane’s ambitions and obsessions and shows why his contemporaries, give or take a few sour-faced Jacobites, admired him, relished his company and treasured his wisdom. Thoroughly versed in the period’s political and social realities, Delbourgo is delicately judicious in confronting the nowadays controversial issue of Sloane’s substantial income from slave labour on his plantations, inviting us meanwhile to see the Bloomsbury museum as, simultaneously, an act of self-preservation by its founder, ‘an artefact of British imperial power’ and a place where ‘the local might reveal the global’. Not before time, the smart lad from Killyleagh, creator of one of the world’s great civilising resources, has found his ideal chronicler.