National Portrait Gallery, London

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

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 Antrim. 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 enlightenment…an 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.

British Library Board

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

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 plant-hunting 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.