Jenny Uglow

Col­lect­ing the World: Hans Sloane and the Ori­gins of the Bri­tish Mu­seum by James Del­bourgo

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Col­lect­ing the World:

Hans Sloane and the Ori­gins of the Bri­tish Mu­seum by James Del­bourgo.

Belk­nap Press/

Har­vard Univer­sity Press,

504 pp., $35.00

When the first visi­tors en­tered the newly opened Bri­tish Mu­seum in Mon­tagu House in Blooms­bury in Jan­uary 1759, they walked past a stone from the Ap­pian Way, the skele­ton of a uni­corn fish, and a buf­falo head from New­found­land. Be­neath their feet were pil­lars from the Gi­ant’s Cause­way in County Down. This was the en­trance hall. Next came Egyp­tian mum­mies, coral, wasps’ nests, and a stuffed flamingo. Up­stairs were manuscripts and coins, por­traits and busts, ar­ti­facts from Mex­ico and Peru, a model of a Ja­panese tem­ple, hub­ble-bub­ble pipes (hookahs), mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, min­er­als and fos­sils, plants and in­sects, Wam­pum beads from Amer­ica, and a “cy­clops pig, hav­ing only one eye, and that in the mid­dle of the fore­head.” This was only a tiny frac­tion of the great col­lec­tion amassed by Hans Sloane (1660–1753), a mix of the nat­u­ral and ar­ti­fi­cial that thrilled the eigh­teenth-cen­tury pub­lic. Gen­er­ally re­mem­bered as a paradig­matic fig­ure of the Bri­tish En­light­en­ment, Sloane has long been iden­ti­fied with the found­ing of the Bri­tish Mu­seum, an En­light­en­ment project it­self that is of­ten con­sid­ered the first great “univer­sal” mu­seum, open to all. He also served as pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety and the Royal Col­lege of Physi­cians, in an age in which these in­sti­tu­tions were at the fore­front of sci­ence and medicine. But some of the re­al­i­ties that James Del­bourgo’s new book re­counts shake this ap­par­ently solid em­i­nence. Sloane, Del­bourgo re­veals, was also a ruth­less Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ist and Ja­maican plan­ta­tion owner whose vo­ra­cious col­lect­ing habits were fi­nanced by slaves, and whose views of non-Euro­peans were far from open-minded.

In the past the com­plex­i­ties of Sloane’s life have been ig­nored, and be­cause his in­ter­ests and col­lec­tions were so var­ied and pe­cu­liar, many of his ex­ploits re­mained lit­tle known: in Del­bourgo’s apt phrase his rep­u­ta­tion is “a cu­ri­ous case of fame and am­ne­sia com­bined.” In Col­lect­ing the World, a book ap­pro­pri­ately dense with lists and bal­lasted with for­ays into global trade and pol­i­tics, Del­bourgo sets out to reap­praise Sloane’s “univer­sal” col­lec­tion and ca­reer, and to clar­ify the vary­ing mo­tives—not all of them equally en­light­ened—that un­der­pinned them. While Sloane has been ac­knowl­edged in his­to­ries of the Bri­tish Mu­seum and of col­lect­ing,* it is harder to step back in time and give an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of his mind-set and that of his age. In this, work­ing from Sloane’s manuscripts and from the sur­viv­ing ob­jects them­selves, and adding his own metic­u­lous notes and a su­perb bib­li­og­ra­phy, Del­bourgo has tri­umphantly suc­ceeded. Sloane the doc­tor, plan­ta­tion owner, and preda­tory col­lec­tor emerges as an am­bigu­ous fig­ure, not a hero in him­self but a gi­ant in his achieve­ment. “His in­ven­tion of the pub­lic mu­seum,” Del­bourgo writes, “is an arte­fact of im­pe­rial en­light­en­ as­ton­ish­ing at­tempt to cat­a­logue the en­tire world.” In its “im­pe­rial” char­ac­ter it was, too, an as­ser­tion of Bri­tain’s grow­ing po­lit­i­cal and com­mer­cial dom­i­nance over ter­ri­to­ries stretch­ing from North Amer­ica and the Caribbean to South and East Asia—and of the un­stated yet im­plicit be­lief in Bri­tish su­pe­ri­or­ity over all other races.

As a boy in Kil­lyleagh on Strang­ford Lough, a large sea in­let in Ul­ster, Sloane watched la­bor­ers find tree roots, gi­ant elk bones, and golden chains as they cut the turf and roamed the small islets off the coast, tread­ing be­tween gulls’ nests while the birds screeched over­head. For Del­bourgo this last scene fore­tells a ca­reer in which “Sloane and his com­pan­ions coolly in­vade a nat­u­ral pre­serve to gather pre­cious spec­i­mens, un­fazed by the up­roar around them.” Col­lect­ing be­comes raid­ing—a form of ex­ploita­tion, com­merce, and colo­nial­ism—re­gard­less of re­sis­tance. In this light, Sloane is less the heir of princely Re­nais­sance col­lec­tors ac­quir­ing ob­jects for their Wun­derkam­mern sim­ply for their odd­ity than an En­light­en­ment fig­ure, de­ter­mined to re­search and clas­sify the world. The em­pha­sis shifts from the bizarre “cu­ri­ous” ob­ject to the pur­suit of knowl­edge it­self. Sloane’s early in­ter­est in na­ture was matched by an ed­u­ca­tion in so­cial hi­er­ar­chies and eth­nic and re­li­gious com­mu­ni­ties. His Scot­tish fa­ther, Alexan­der, was agent to James Hamil­ton, Earl of Clan­bras­sil, and his mother, Sarah, came to Ire­land in the en­tourage of Hamil­ton’s wife, Anne Carey, daugh­ter of the Earl of Mon­mouth. Hans, the youngest son among the Sloanes’ seven chil­dren, grew up among the An­glo-Ir­ish elite who pros­pered from Catholic sup­pres­sion while quar­rel­ing among them­selves over dis­puted es­tates. Iden­ti­fy­ing with the rul­ing Protes­tant mi­nor­ity of Ire­land, he was, thus, a “colonist” from the start, and his avid col­lect­ing seems to have been driven as much by Bri­tish na­tion­al­ism and Protes­tant ide­ol­ogy as by per­sonal cu­rios­ity. At his death, Sloane de­scribed his col­lec­tion as a “man­i­fes­ta­tion of the glory of God,” but it was also a mark of the glory of Bri­tain. At his me­mo­rial ser­vice in Chelsea in 1753, Zachary Pearce, bishop of Ban­gor, de­clared that no age and no coun­try had ever seen “such an al­most univer­sal as­sem­blage of things un­usual & cu­ri­ous, of things an­cient & mod­ern, of things nat­u­ral & ar­ti­fi­cial, brought to­gether from al­most all times, & al­most all cli­mates.” More­over, the bishop added, “it must warm the heart of ev­ery Bri­ton, to re­mem­ber that it was done in his own coun­try.” Sloane’s “own coun­try” was “Bri­tain,” not Ire­land, which he left as early as he could. A se­vere teenage ill­ness made him de­cide to be­come a doc­tor, and in 1679 he went to Lon­don to study chem­istry at Apothe­caries Hall, at­tend lec­tures in anatomy and physics, and train as a botanist at Chelsea Physic Gar­den. His men­tors were his fel­low An­glo-Ir­ish­man Robert Boyle, now con­sid­ered the founder of mod­ern chem­istry, to whom he ea­gerly com­mu­ni­cated what­ever he thought “cu­ri­ous & im­por­tant,” and Boyle’s friend John Locke, as well as the great botanist John Ray, then work­ing on His­to­ria plan­tarum, his three-vol­ume tax­on­omy of plants.

On the fringes of these learned cir­cles, Sloane im­bibed guid­ing ideas, in­clud­ing “an an­i­mus against all no­tions of mag­i­cal mat­ter, and an un­shake­able con­vic­tion that na­ture was a me­chan­i­cal en­tity de­signed by God to be ex­ploited for hu­man profit.” Four years in Lon­don were fol­lowed by spells in Paris and at the Univer­sity of Mont­pel­lier, a Protes­tant haven in Catholic France. His Paris pro­fes­sor Joseph de

Tourne­fort had rec­om­mended him to Pierre Chirac in Mont­pel­lier, who in turn in­tro­duced him to the Huguenot Pierre Mag­nol, a botanist in­tent on col­lect­ing new species and de­vis­ing sys­tems of clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

Sloane, how­ever, needed to es­tab­lish his med­i­cal ca­reer. In 1684, aged twenty-four, armed with a med­i­cal de­gree from the Univer­sity of Or­ange (his Protes­tantism ruled out a Paris de­gree), he re­turned to Lon­don. The fol­low­ing year, he be­came a fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety and, two years later, of the Royal Col­lege of Physi­cians, thanks to the pa­tron­age of the in­flu­en­tial Thomas Sy­den­ham, whose em­pha­sis on di­rect ob­ser­va­tion rather than tra­di­tional the­o­ries re­in­forced Sloane’s own em­pir­i­cal bias. (The “knowl­edge of nat­u­ral-his­tory,” Sloane later wrote, “be­ing ob­ser­va­tion of mat­ters of fact, is more cer­tain than most oth­ers, and in my slen­der opinion, less sub­ject to mis­takes than rea­son­ings, hy­pothe­ses, and de­duc­tions are.”)

As Sy­den­ham, plagued by gout, handed on his cases, Sloane ac­quired a bevy of aris­to­cratic pa­tients, in­clud­ing Christo­pher Monck, sec­ond Duke of Al­berl­marle, who in­vited him along as his per­sonal physi­cian when he set out to his new ap­point­ment as gover­nor of Ja­maica. This was his op­por­tu­nity to be­gin col­lect­ing ex­otic species him­self. The Royal So­ci­ety was col­lect­ing its own Re­pos­i­tory, and the col­lec­tion of plants and cu­riosi­ties amassed in the mid-sev­en­teenth cen­tury by the botan­i­cal en­thu­si­asts John Trades­cant and his son, also John, formed the core of the new Ash­molean Mu­seum in Ox­ford. Surely there was room for more?

As its ti­tle sug­gests, Col­lect­ing the World is a cul­tural his­tory as well as an in­di­vid­ual story. At ev­ery stage Del­bourgo gives clear yet nu­anced ac­counts of the events and ideas within which, or against which, Sloane worked: the in­her­ited in­flu­ence of me­dieval Arab writ­ers on medicine, in­no­va­tive math­e­mat­ics, and ex­per­i­men­tal sciences; new the­o­ries and in­for­ma­tion about nat­u­ral his­tory from the “physico-the­ol­ogy” of John Ray to the great sur­veys of trop­i­cal plants in­spired by the Flem­ish botanist Caro­lus Clu­sius; Bri­tish ri­val­ries with the Dutch and the Span­ish; the eco­nomics of the slave trade; the con­tri­bu­tion of Je­suit mis­sion­ar­ies in build­ing bonds with China in the sev­en­teenth cen­tury, im­press­ing their Chi­nese hosts with new clocks and in­stru­ments, and work­ing to pro­duce new maps and sur­veys. This is a fluid world in which ob­jects, as well as plants, take on sig­nif­i­cance as mea­sures of the va­ri­ety and use­ful­ness of na­ture and hu­man craft.

In Ja­maica, urged by friends like John Ray, Sloane hoped to dis­cover new plants, per­haps an­other po­tent drug like quin­quina, “the Je­suit’s bark,” a fore­run­ner of qui­nine. In his fif­teen months there, from late De­cem­ber 1687 to March 1689, he ex­plored the is­land, set­ting off in the morn­ing dew, “get­ting on horse back, af­ter day light, my peri­wig and cloths . . . thor­oughly wet with it be­fore sun ris­ing.” As a doc­tor, he wrote case stud­ies of the diet, drink­ing habits, dis­eases, and early deaths of the colonists. But his in­ter­est in nat­u­ral his­tory led him to record to­pog­ra­phy, earthquakes, forests, and flora, and to gather hun­dreds of plant spec­i­mens, many un­known to Euro­pean botanists. The re­sult would be his vo­lu­mi­nous Nat­u­ral His­tory of Ja­maica, the first vol­ume of which ap­peared in 1707—twenty years af­ter his trip—and the sec­ond not un­til 1725. A sub­stan­tial amount of Col­lect­ing the World is de­voted to the Ja­maican trip and Sloane’s ac­count of it—which, as Del­bourgo shows, il­lu­mi­nates much about Sloane’s at­ti­tudes and meth­ods, prej­u­dices and predilec­tions. But clev­erly, Del­bourgo is equally in­ter­ested in what Sloane did not do, and did not write about. Sloane is de­fined by his omis­sions. He was dili­gent in try­ing to clas­sify dif­fer­ent racial types among the is­land’s slaves and in un­der­stand­ing phe­nom­ena like al­binism. He saw this not as the re­sult of mis­ce­gena­tion, as some Euro­pean com­men­ta­tors as­sumed, but sim­ply as an in­ex­pli­ca­ble color vari­a­tion. Look­ing back to me­dieval no­tions of “sports of na­ture,” he also dis­cussed mag­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions, such as the be­lief in Ethiopia that al­bi­nos were chil­dren of the gods, and the con­trary re­sponse else­where in Africa, where al­bino chil­dren were put to death as cursed be­ings, off­spring of the devil. All read­ings of phys­i­ol­ogy, he un­der­stood, were cul­tural as well as sci­en­tific. But while he cared for the planters as­sid­u­ously, he was un­in­ter­ested in the dis­eases that were preva­lent among the slave pop­u­la­tion, and treated slaves only be­cause plan­ta­tion heal­ing, in Del­bourgo’s words, was “piv­otal to main­tain­ing the prof­itabil­ity of slav­ery.” Of­ten, con­vinced that slaves were dodg­ing work when they pro­fessed ill­ness, he used planter-style vi­o­lence when sent to treat them, in­clud­ing ap­ply­ing what Sloane him­self re­ferred to as a “fry­ing-pan with burn­ing coals” to one man’s head to ex­tract con­fes­sions. He did not, as other col­lec­tors did, name his African or In­dian guides. Sloane did not write of the Bri­tish trea­sure hunters who dreamed of find­ing gold in wrecked Span­ish galleons, nor did he de­scribe the hor­rors of the slave ships. In­stead, in de­scrib­ing his trav­els to Sevilla, where Colum­bus first made land­fall in Ja­maica in 1494, he in­dulged the stan­dard Protes­tant polemic against greedy Catholic Span­ish set­tlers and their cru­elty to the na­tive Taíno. (See­ing a cave where large urns con­tain­ing bones had been found, Sloane swiftly con­cluded that these were the re­mains of the Taíno who “starved to death, to avoid the sever­i­ties of their masters.” In­trigued, he made off with sev­eral ob­jects, in­clud­ing a skull.) He dis­dained any deep dis­cus­sion of African-Caribbean mag­i­cal prac­tices and be­liefs like obeah, yet he col­lected strange tales as an in­dex of the strange is­land cul­ture: “There was no con­tra­dic­tion be­tween col­lect­ing mat­ters of fact and the most tit­il­lat­ing ru­mours. In Ja­maica, plun­der and piety, sci­ence and lu­cre, went hand in hand.”

Plun­der came first. Above all, Sloane shrugged off the leg­endary Caribbean spell. In the Nat­u­ral His­tory, “in­stead of wax­ing lyri­cal about en­chanted mar­vels, re­demp­tive Edens or mag­i­cal par­adises in the tra­di­tion of Shake­speare’s The Tem­pest as some travel writ­ers liked to do,” Del­bourgo writes, “Sloane in­ven­to­ried Ja­maica as an is­land of com­modi­ties in a frank sur­vey of its en­vi­ron­men­tal re­sources.” He

com­mis­sioned maps that marked plan­ta­tions and sug­ar­works; he noted crops and the load­ing of ships, nam­ing im­ports and ex­ports. For Sloane, Ja­maica was not a dream, but a store­house.

The Duke of Al­ber­marle’s death ended the Ja­maican adventure. Sloane sailed home in 1689, agog for news of the Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion and of a new war with France. As well as his plants his bag­gage crates housed in­nu­mer­able in­sects and skins of mam­mals, fish, and rep­tiles, mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, cloth­ing, and tools. His live hoard in­cluded a snake, which es­caped and was shot, an iguana, which was swept over­board, and an al­li­ga­tor, which died only two weeks be­fore Sloane reached Ply­mouth. But his work was only be­gin­ning. Over the years he added to his herbar­ium, la­bel­ing each spec­i­men and giv­ing its prove­nance, like the fern that grew “out of the fis­sures of the rocks, of each side on the Rio d’Oro, near Mr. Philpot’s plan­ta­tion in Six­teen Mile Walk.” Dried and pressed spec­i­mens were glued and taped in place, and even­tu­ally the herbar­ium was “pasted and sticht” by his as­sis­tants.

His main aim, how­ever, su­perbly re­al­ized, was to pub­lish il­lus­tra­tions of the plants he col­lected, adopt­ing Ray’s pre-Lin­nean method of scru­ti­niz­ing all char­ac­ter­is­tics of a par­tic­u­lar plant. To this end, he first em­ployed Gar­rett Moore, who drew the live plants in Ja­maica, and years later, at con­sid­er­able ex­pense, he hired the Dutch artist Ever­hardus Kick­ius, who com­bined Moore’s sketches with draw­ings of dried spec­i­mens to pro­duce a vivid, el­e­gant com­pos­ite. A cru­cial ex­am­ple, il­lus­trated in this book, was the ca­cao plant, use­ful in dif­fer­ent ways to Sloane: seek­ing to make it taste less bit­ter he added milk and sugar, and soon traders were sell­ing “Sir Hans Sloane’s Med­i­cated Milk Choco­late.”

Sloane made no more voy­ages, re­ly­ing on oth­ers to find things for him. In Lon­don he thrived in the newly pow­er­ful Whig elite. He found friends at the Royal So­ci­ety, in­clud­ing John Eve­lyn and Sa­muel Pepys, and be­came the So­ci­ety’s sec­re­tary in 1695, man­ag­ing its vo­lu­mi­nous in­ter­na­tional cor­re­spon­dence, edit­ing the Trans­ac­tions, and re­vi­tal­iz­ing it by “mak­ing the jour­nal a clear­ing-house that knit­ted to­gether re­ports from around the Bri­tish Isles as well as Bri­tain’s em­pire.” In 1696 he pro­duced his Cat­a­lo­gus Plan­tarum of Ja­maican plants, tak­ing care to name his pre­de­ces­sors’ find­ings as well as his own dis­cov­er­ies, thus plac­ing him­self among a brother­hood of re­searchers. Even­tu­ally he amassed a li­brary of over 45,000 books and 3,500 manuscripts, with a spe­cial book wheel so that he could con­sult sev­eral at once.

Visi­tors from Bri­tain and abroad came to see his col­lec­tion, but his ap­par­ently scat­ter­shot in­ter­ests al­ready brought crit­i­cism. In a four-part es­say on a “China cab­i­net” in the Trans­ac­tions in 1698–1699, Sloane de­scribed a cab­i­net sent to the So­ci­ety by an East In­dia Com­pany sur­geon whose var­ied con­tents in­cluded brass and steel knives, ink and pa­per, pearl-en­crusted ear-scratch­ers and be­zoar stones, and the gall blad­der and kid­ney stones thought to hold cu­ra­tive prop­er­ties and that fas­ci­nated him and his con­tem­po­raries. The Tory writer and satirist Wil­liam King, an as­so­ci­ate of Swift, ridiculed Sloane’s “patch­work” es­say in his pam­phlet The Trans­ac­tion­eer (1700), damn­ing Sloane as cred­u­lous and in­co­her­ent. But there was a ra­tio­nale be­hind the eclec­ti­cism. Sloane’s in­ter­est in such cu­riosi­ties was mo­ti­vated largely by the de­sire to ex­pose su­per­sti­tion. Through­out his writ­ings, Sloane ar­gued strongly against magic, mir­a­cles, alchemy, astrol­ogy, and the at­tri­bu­tion of any su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers or in­flu­ences to ma­te­rial things and con­di­tions. A fur­ther driv­ing prin­ci­ple was util­ity, as Del­bourgo notes:

Nat­u­ral his­tory, as Sloane saw it, was re­ally all about scan­ning: a spec­u­la­tive ex­er­cise in scour­ing the globe for things that might seem odd or triv­ial at first sight, in which the util­ity and value were not im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent, but which could ul­ti­mately re­sult in the discovery of prized new re­sources and goods.

Sloane felt his own im­por­tance in this search and iden­ti­fied with the com­mer­cial im­pe­tus. His wealth, and his sta­tus as a doc­tor, were grow­ing as fast as his col­lec­tion. In 1695 he had mar­ried El­iz­a­beth Rose, the wi­dow of a Ja­maican planter, ac­quir­ing not only her in­her­ited wealth but a third of the con­tin­u­ing in­come from her Ja­maican es­tates, money gen­er­ated by slave la­bor. Their near neigh­bors in Blooms­bury Square, and then in Great Rus­sell Street—near where the Bri­tish Mu­seum now stands— in­cluded Richard Steele, the fa­mous doc­tor Richard Mead, the artist God­frey Kneller, and Sir Christo­pher Wren. Sloane’s pa­tients in­cluded many politi­cians, among them the prime min­is­ter, Sir Robert Walpole, as well as earls and dukes, and ul­ti­mately the royal fam­ily; he be­came physi­cian ex­tra­or­di­nary to Queen Anne and then to Ge­orge I and II. In 1712 Sloane bought Chelsea Manor (his name still echoes here in the streets from Sloane Square to the Thames), and in 1716 Ge­orge I made him a baronet. Three years later “Sir Hans” be­came pres­i­dent of the Royal Col­lege of Physi­cians. He was pas­sion­ately con­cerned about the reg­u­la­tion of medicine, fighting “quacks” and ex­pos­ing “mag­i­cal fol­lies,” but he also cham­pi­oned small­pox in­oc­u­la­tion and rented Chelsea Physic Gar­den (now in his manor) to the So­ci­ety of Apothe­caries for al­most noth­ing.

Sloane’s med­i­cal ca­reer and Ja­maican plan­ta­tions brought ever-in­creas­ing wealth, as his bank­ing ledgers show. He and El­iz­a­beth had four chil­dren, a son and a daugh­ter who died in in­fancy, and two other daugh­ters, El­iz­a­beth, who mar­ried the first Earl Cado­gan, and Sarah. But even be­fore his wife died in 1724, Sloane was draw­ing on her for­tune as well as his earn­ings, snap­ping up col­lec­tions and li­braries when­ever he could, of­ten in­dulging in shame­less bulk-buy­ing through bro­kers: coins, an­tiq­ui­ties, botan­i­cal spec­i­mens. A par­tic­u­larly rich source was the East In­dia Com­pany, whose of­fi­cers bartered trea­sures with zeal, their ar­rival dili­gently recorded in Sloane’s swelling cat­a­logs: a ze­bra from the Cape of Good Hope, shells from Su­rat and Bom­bay, a live por­cu­pine from the Bay of Ben­gal, rose oil per­fume from Per­sia, but­ter­flies and “an ele­phant’s brains con­tained in a gold case” from Su­ma­tra.

Sim­i­larly, the men of the South Sea Com­pany sent their trea­sures, while con­tacts in the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany pro­vided Inuit fish­ing im­ple­ments, snow­shoes, and a child’s cra­dle, even a live wolver­ine to prowl the Chelsea gar­den. Sloane nursed his con­tacts skill­fully, deal­ing with rogue traders like Elihu Yale as well as East In­dia Com­pany of­fi­cials and go-be­tweens, pay­ing with in­flu­ence as well as money, whether by boost­ing a sur­geon’s ca­reer or ar­rang­ing a trans­la­tion, as he did with En­gel­bert Kaempfer’s two-vol­ume His­tory of Ja­pan, “a land­mark in Euro­pean Ja­panol­ogy.” Col­lect­ing was it­self a form of cur­rency, a means of lever­age. Many other sto­ries are em­bed­ded (a fa­vorite Del­bourgo word) in this com­plex ac­count, from the in­sect-hunt­ing and -draw­ing of Maria Sibylla Me­rian in Su­ma­tra to the ex­ploits of the buc­ca­neer Wil­liam Dampier, from the plan­thunt­ing of the Quaker John Bar­tram in Philadel­phia to the am­bi­tions of the young Ben­jamin Franklin—the sub­ject of an ear­lier book by Del­bourgo and, he feels, a fel­low spirit to Sloane: both were self-made men who “un­der­stood the power of cu­riosi­ties as com­modi­ties of as­cent for am­bi­tious men court­ing pa­trons and al­lies.”

Sloane’s col­lec­tion—cat­a­loged ac­cord­ing to the phys­i­cal space it oc­cu­pied in his rooms, with 334 herbar­ium vol­umes at its core—be­came a leg­end, ac­ces­si­ble only to a few fel­low schol­ars and ad­mir­ers. Not ev­ery­one ad­mired him: the writer Laeti­tia Pilk­ing­ton, kept wait­ing for two hours and then mis­taken for a char­ity case, found Sloane only a “con­ceited, ridicu­lous im­pe­ri­ous old fool.” But the world did not find him fool­ish: in 1727, on the death of Sir Isaac New­ton, Sloane be­came pres­i­dent of the Royal So­ci­ety, a post he held un­til was eighty, when ill health made him stand down. For the last ten years of his life he re­tired to Chelsea, tak­ing his col­lec­tion with him, and he died there in Jan­uary 1753. Sloane had long brooded on mak­ing his legacy a pub­lic mu­seum, a “dual de­sign of pub­lic and per­sonal im­mor­tal­ity,” Del­bourgo notes dryly. In his will he asked that his col­lec­tion be bought by Par­lia­ment, open for the pub­lic ben­e­fit, and “ren­dered as use­ful as pos­si­ble, as well to­wards sat­is­fy­ing the de­sire of the cu­ri­ous, as for the im­prove­ment, knowl­edge and in­for­ma­tion of all per­sons.” His con­di­tions—in­clud­ing a pur­chase price of £20,000, to be paid to his daugh­ters, and the nom­i­na­tion of sixty-three trustees—caused headaches to Par­lia­ment, but in the end it was de­cided that Sloane’s trea­sures would join the manuscripts of the Cot­ton and Har­ley col­lec­tions (both now held in the Bri­tish Li­brary) in a new mu­seum. A sen­sa­tional lot­tery raised £95,194 8s 6d, enough to buy the col­lec­tions and a build­ing to house them. Sloane’s dream of univer­sal ac­cess was ini­tially wa­tered down, for fear that “very low & im­proper per­sons, even me­nial ser­vants” might crowd in, but as the mu­seum grew so the crowds in­creased: over 200,000 peo­ple saw the col­lec­tions in the 1830s. In the 1840s Mon­tagu House was torn down and Smirke’s neo­clas­si­cal palace erected. The irony was that, as spe­cial­ized de­part­ments de­vel­oped, many of Sloane’s mis­cel­la­neous trea­sures were ban­ished to the base­ment, tact­fully out of sight. The founder dis­ap­peared.

The Bri­tish Mu­seum has never quite lost its con­tro­ver­sial mix of “plun­der and piety, sci­ence and lu­cre,” its air of raid­ing the world. Ar­gu­ments will doubt­less con­tinue over the re­turn of pre­cious ob­jects ac­quired in du­bi­ous cir­cum­stances—from the Parthenon Mar­bles to the Benin Bronzes—and with good rea­son.

But Del­bourgo takes us fur­ther. In res­cu­ing Sloane from am­ne­sia, he has given a dou­ble-edged ac­count that up­ends the con­ven­tional un­der­stand­ing of the early En­light­en­ment and in­deed the “En­light­en­ment mu­seum” it­self. Sloane, as he points out, lived through a se­ries of his­tor­i­cal trans­for­ma­tions, from the Restora­tion to the Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion of 1688 and the Hanove­rian suc­ces­sion; with each phase came shift­ing per­cep­tions of the im­por­tance of gath­er­ing “knowl­edge,” from a di­vine im­per­a­tive to a prag­matic tool of Protes­tantism, em­pire, and com­mer­cial dom­i­na­tion.

We can­not separate Sloane’s achieve­ments from the val­ues that de­fined his age. His ac­cep­tance of hi­er­ar­chies, in­clud­ing class and race, his un­ques­tion­ing profit from slav­ery, his am­bi­tion and com­pul­sive, ac­quis­i­tive drive are not in­di­vid­ual idio­syn­cra­sies, but at­ti­tudes in­trin­sic to the ap­par­ently pro­gres­sive forces that drove the “sci­en­tific” pur­suit of knowl­edge we have learned to ad­mire. His life ex­presses these var­i­ous forces in a pe­cu­liarly height­ened way, and Del­bourgo’s chal­leng­ing anal­y­sis shows how com­plex the cul­tural ori­gins of the Bri­tish Mu­seum in fact were. By rec­og­niz­ing this ar­che­typal Bri­tish in­sti­tu­tion as an im­pe­rial project as much as a “univer­sal” one, we can be­gin, not to judge, but to com­pre­hend the un­der­ly­ing ten­sions that still give rise to un­easy ar­gu­ments today.

Hans Sloane dur­ing his pres­i­dency of the Royal So­ci­ety, with an illustration of Ja­maican lagetto; por­trait by Stephen Slaugh­ter, 1736

De­tail of a page from the sev­en­teenth-cen­tury Gurney herbal, com­piled across South and East Asia by Ed­ward Whiteinge and ac­quired by Hans Sloane

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