Sloane was a practitioner of natural history in the tradition of Francis Bacon. Bacon became Lord Chancellor in 1618 under James I and involved himself directly in the affairs of the colony of Virginia. His calls for the reformation of knowledge based on empirical fact-gathering were part of England’s response to the economic and military power of imperial Spain. Sloane was an avowed heir to this tradition. He reproduced Bacon’s exhortation to increase knowledge through travel on the title-page of the Natural History of Jamaica—an English account of a former Spanish colony. Producing this work depended on the collection, circulation and interplay of multiple types of object: printed texts, preserved plants, manuscript notes, animal specimens, illustrations and ethnographic artifacts. This section explores the contexts and aftermaths of Sloane’s work in relation to Caribbean slavery, emphasizing the visual and textual techniques he employed while in Jamaica and during ‘post-production’ in London. The reputation Sloane built as a learned scientific author and eminent man of letters rested visibly on the entanglement of material English and African worlds he encountered in the West Indies.


1. Cabinets of Curiosity
“Musei Wormiani historia.” In:  Ole Worm, Museum Wormianum (Leiden, 1655).

Worm was a Danish physician and antiquary. His famous frontispiece (evidently an accurate view of his collections) is emblematic of the early modern cabinet of curiosities. Renaissance traditions of collecting the rare and marvelous, featuring striking juxtapositions rather than strict classificatory order, continued to influence seventeenth-century collectors. Like Worm, Sloane was a physician, an identity reflected in the large number of natural specimens in his collection. Worm’s image vividly captures the range of objects that enticed the curious, from natural specimens to artificial curiosities. Exotic objects were especially prized by such collectors, who envisioned their work as the gathering of new and useful particulars and the pious re-assembly of God’s universe in microcosm.


2. Surveying Jamaica
“Jamaica”  In: Edmund Hickeringill, Jamaica viewed (London, 1661).  

Hickeringill was a church minister who fought against Charles I in the English Civil Wars, before spending time in Jamaica. A Spanish colony since Columbus first made landfall there in 1494, Jamaica’s early economy revolved around ranching and exporting hides. The Spanish introduced Africans, many as ranchers, as the indigenous Taino population was decimated by the diseases they brought. In 1655, although it failed to capture Hispaniola, Oliver Cromwell’s ‘Western Design’ for supplanting Spanish power in the Caribbean did succeed in taking Jamaica. There was little sign that the island would become among the most lucrative American colonies, as sugar-planting had not yet been established. Hickeringill’s text is one of several early English surveys—often rather defensive—of the island’s potential value. Sloane owned a copy.


3. From Piracy to Plantation
“Sr. Hen: Morgan”  In:  Alexandre Exquemelin, Bucaniers of America. (London, 1684).

Captain Henry Morgan’s career epitomizes the intense military rivalry among Europeans in the Caribbean. A state-sponsored privateer, enjoying the Crown’s license to harass foreign and especially Spanish shipping and settlements, Morgan executed numerous raids, the most celebrated being his sack of Panama in 1671, despite England then being formally at peace with Spain. Instead of being punished, he was made lieutenant-governor of Jamaica. When Sloane came to Jamaica in 1687, the aging Morgan became one of his elite clients, although he also engaged the services of African healers on the island. His death in 1688 symbolizes the transition in the political economy of Jamaica from privateering to plantation-based agriculture.

van der aa

4. Divers Things
“Salvage diving” In:  Pieter van der Aa, Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen (Leiden, 1706).

Sloane’s patron in Jamaica was Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, the new governor. Monck purchased enslaved African laborers soon after disembarking, but more important in his decision to accept the governorship was likely his desire to repeat the fortune he had already made sponsoring underwater Caribbean salvage dives in the 1680s. Contrary to van der Aa’s depiction, most such projects engaged not Europeans but African and Amerindian divers to fish bullion from sunken Spanish treasure ships. While Sloane warned about the tall tales of fortune that seduced the credulous into investing in phantom treasure hunts, he brought several submarine curiosities back from Jamaica, fished from the depths by divers, including coral-encrusted coins and beams from Spanish ships.


5. African Voyages
“Diagram of a slave ship” In: Thomas Clarkson, Le cri des Africains contre les Européens, leurs oppresseurs, ou, Coup d'oeil sur le commerce homicide appelé traité des noirs (London, 1821).

This woodcut representation of the middle passage based on the slave ship Brookes was first circulated by British abolitionist campaigners in the 1780s. Although several anti-slavery pamphlets were published in the years around Sloane’s voyage, there was little broad-based political debate about the morality of the slave trade at that time. Many Africans transported from the Gold Coast (Ghana) to Jamaica were Akan-speaking Coromantees, a people well versed in the arts of war who played a prominent role in uprisings of the enslaved. Many Maroons were also Coromantees. Clarkson's image calls to mind the precision with which merchants conducted and calculated the slave trade to maximize profitability. Surviving ledgers in the Lincolnshire Archives record numerous deliveries to Sloane of hogsheads of sugar from Knollis and Mickleton, his wife Elizabeth’s plantations.


6. Torrid or Temperate?
Edward Ward, A trip to Jamaica (London, 1700).

Ward was the sharp-tongued London satirist who infamously described Jamaica as “the dunghill of the universe,” a phrase that conjured an image of vice and depravity on a cosmic scale. This was merely the most memorable statement, however, of a much more diffuse idea: that lying in the Torrid Zone, the West Indies were an arena of physical, moral and racial degeneracy. The pirate haven of Port Royal epitomized this anxiety: its destruction by earthquake in 1692 prompted several commentators to praise divine retribution in punishing sin. Sloane, by contrast, took pains to write about Jamaica as a temperate island entirely fit for English colonization. His account of the earthquake was wholly naturalistic. He was committed to seeing the island flourish as an English colony susceptible to scientific analysis and profitable management.


7. Island Reconnaissance
Nicolaes Visscher, Jamaica, Americae Septentrionalis Ampla Insula (Amsterdam, c. 1680).

This map depicts the state of English settlement in Jamaica in the years before Sloane’s visit. Many early Jamaica maps note specific names and locations of planters, engaged in growing sugar, cacao and other crops. Sloane’s voyage came well before the heyday of sugar’s profitability in the mid-eighteenth century, and during the transition from indentured white servitude to enslaved West African labor. Repeated rebellions by enslaved Africans, the persistence of free Maroon communities, and the threat of natural disaster and foreign raids did not deter the English from pursuing this increasingly lucrative transition. While traveling from St. Iago de la Vega (Spanish Town) to St. Ann’s on the North coast, Sloane likely met Elizabeth Langley Rose. Their subsequent marriage brought income from sugar plantations directly into the family.


8. Anatomy of a Sugar Island
“Shipping Sugar,” Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Early Education of Negro Children, [Post-emancipation life]. (London, between 1833 and 1837).

This emancipation-era publication reprints images from Views of sugar production on Antigua (1823) by William Clark. This one is entitled “Shipping Sugar, Willoughby Bay.” Clark captured the environmental complex of the Caribbean plantation system. In depicting hogsheads of sugar being hauled to merchant ships, and ultimately European markets, Clark—likely a planter—drew diagrammatic attention to the relation between enslaved human labor, ox- and horse-power, and the harnessing of wind as a maritime energy source to make the sugar trade function. Where Sloane’s account of Jamaica was driven by a commitment to Baconian fact-gathering, later picturesque landscape views of Caribbean life—a response in part to mounting critiques of slavery’s inhumanity—artfully harmonized the elements of a society built on the systematic and legalized use of violence.


9. Collecting Techniques
John Ellis, Directions for Bringing over seeds and plants from the East-Indies (London, 1770).

These illustrations of specially designed boxes for transporting seeds come from a set of instructions for field collecting issued by the British botanist John Ellis in the late eighteenth century. Already in Sloane’s day, however, it was common to issue travelers with instructions and even materials, especially paper for folding up and sending back specimens. Sloane’s London associate James Petiver routinely instructed correspondents to train enslaved Africans as collectors, since they often proved more skilled and physically venturesome than colonists. Slaves might be paid in money or in goods like rum. Petiver offered to pay enslaved collectors half a crown per dozen insects, and twelve pence per dozen plants, provided each specimen was whole and distinct. Sloane likely engaged both enslaved collectors and guides while in Jamaica.


10. The Naturalist as Man of Letters
Hans Sloane, Catalogus plantarum (London, 1696).

Composed in Latin, Sloane’s first Jamaica publication was intended primarily for specialists as a guide to synonyms and previous accounts of Jamaican flora. Pages 134-135 show Sloane’s entry for Cacao. After acknowledging his friend John Ray as his source for the name, he lists previous botanical and travel writings that describe the species. Evident here is Sloane’s determination to present himself not just as a traveler or empirical collector, but a man of letters. His synonymy is also a testament to the wealth that enabled his collecting: he culled these references from books in various languages from his formidable personal library. Sloane hoped his natural history would be of practical use to colonists. But it was also part of his self-fashioning as a learned author in the republic of letters. Colonists in Jamaica complained, however, that they couldn’t read Latin.


11. Seeing Jamaica in London
“Cacao” in: Hans Sloane, Natural history of Jamaica, vol. 2 (1725), table 160.

Cacao provides an example of how Sloane envisaged the crucial role of illustrations in his ‘histories’ of species. Sloane’s published engraving is of a live plant, sketched in Jamaica in the 1680s by the Reverend Garrett Moore, whom he employed as he toured the island. But the engraving also combines sketches of preserved cacao pod bark and nut made c. 1699-1701 in London by a Dutch draughtsman named Everhardus Kickius, who drew Sloane’s numerous dry specimens for the Natural history. ‘Witnessing’ what grew in Jamaica thus combined both live and preserved specimens and was a transatlantic collaborative process that lasted several years. As a Baconian naturalist, Sloane was committed to depicting individual specimens rather than idealized composites. Linnaeus used these sketches to designate Theobroma cacao in 1753.


12. Curious Plant Ethnography
Hans Sloane, Natural History of Jamaica, vol. 2 (1725). 

While Sloane’s lavish engravings attracted considerable attention, they were accompanied by significant textual work. His entry on Cacao featured anatomical description, notes on the preparation of drinking chocolate, and extensive excerpted commentary on the cacao nut’s function as a form of money in Native American societies. It omitted to mention the role of enslaved Africans in harvesting these nuts in the Caribbean, however. This commentary served multiple purposes, such as showcasing Sloane’s learned ethnographic curiosity and appropriating Spanish commentary for English readers. Narratives of the ‘Scientific Revolution’ have often stressed the primacy of empirical knowledge and the importance of experience-based representations. But Sloane was determined to be viewed as a learned natural historian in the tradition of Renaissance humanism. In one instance where readers found fault with his illustrations, he suggested that his verbal descriptions were more reliable since, unlike the engravings, they were his own unmediated observations.


13. Evils of Chocolate
Jean Marsillac, Le More-lack, ou essai sur les moyens les plus doux & les plus équitables d'abolir la traite & l'esclavage des nègres d'Afrique (London/Paris, 1789).

This abolition-era image shows a European rising from a table where chocolate is being consumed and raising a stick at an approaching African. “Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate” – marketed not by Sloane but a London grocer named Nicholas Sanders – appears to have emerged as the world’s first brand drinking chocolate in the mid-eighteenth century. It was reputedly made from Sloane’s recipe and sold as an elixir for the stomach. Such salubrious claims had to counter long-standing concerns, however, about the physical and moral dangers of consuming chocolate. The Spanish associated it with native diabolism; commentators feared it would darken the skin; and Hogarth, anticipating Marsillac, linked its luxurious consumption with the injustice of slave labor in Marriage à la Mode part 4 (1745).


14. French Connections
“Palma” In: Charles Plumier, Nova plantarum americanarum genera (Paris, 1703).

After returning from Jamaica, Sloane sent duplicate plant specimens to his former Paris mentor, the taxonomist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort. According to Sloane, this exchange influenced the Minim friar Charles Plumier’s collecting trips to the West Indies and the production of this illustrated volume. Because Sloane was too busy to publish until 1707, some of Plumier’s species descriptions anticipated his own, although Sloane’s published engravings were rather more detailed. Sloane’s ongoing relationship with Tournefort reflected his careful cultivation of an extensive network of international scientific contacts, notwithstanding both intellectual and imperial rivalries. Like England, France was then a rising power in the Caribbean, thanks to the increased importation of African labor to harvest sugar. French raids were a recurrent threat in Jamaica in the late seventeenth century, and Saint Domingue would eventually outstrip the British Caribbean islands as the most lucrative of all American colonies.


15. Insectology’s Bodies
Hans Sloane, Natural History of Jamaica, vol. 2 (1725), table 236.  

Sloane paid close attention to insect species in Jamaica, collecting numerous varieties. From being considered unclean (they were supposedly absent from the Garden of Eden) insects became recast in the seventeenth century as exemplars of God’s rational design in its minutest form, thanks to illustrated publications like Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1655). Insects, however, also threatened Sloane’s collecting project. Black ants, for example, devoured several of his hummingbird specimens. On one occasion, an enslaved woman removed a “chego” from Sloane’s foot. Insectology (as it was then called) also intersected with discussions of slavery. Sloane engaged with Jamaica planters and Royal Society associates in discussions of the causes of ‘worms,’ a medical problem that undermined Africans’ value as laborers. These engravings were probably made from preserved specimens back in London.


16. Double Agents
Hans Sloane, Natural history, vol. 2 (1725), table 256.

Animals weren’t simply specimens in waiting: they were unpredictable agents who mediated between Jamaica’s English and African populations. Sloane delighted in telling stories about local creatures as well as describing and collecting them. This drawing of the Great Black-Bird appears to have been done from the life by Garrett Moore. After describing its anatomy, Sloane explains that it “haunts the Woods on the Edges of the Savannas … making a loud Noise, upon the sight of Mankind.” This warning call made hunting next to impossible, but it also meant that “when Negros run from their Masters … these Birds on sight of them as of other Men, will make a Noise and direct the Pursuers which way they must take to follow their Blacks.” The folk song “Chi chi bud-oh” preserves, by contrast, vernacular Afro-Caribbean catalogues of Jamaican birds.


17. “Myne Slaven”
“Cacao”  In: Maria Sybilla Merian, Metamorphosis insectorum (Amsterdam, 1719), plate XXVI.

In 1711, James Petiver purchased images of plants and insects for Sloane that had been painted by Maria Sybilla Merian in Surinam. Originally from Frankfurt, Merian traveled to South America with the Dutch East India Company in the 1690s and published several illustrated natural histories. These achieved lasting renown, especially for their ‘ecological’ combination of plants and animals, highly unusual for the time. Early visitors to the British Museum singled them out as being amongst the most beautiful albums in the collection. Like many colonial naturalists, Merian either bought or was given slaves (“myne slaven”), likely a combination of Africans and Indians, whom she engaged as guides and probably auxiliary collectors. Unlike Sloane and Petiver, however, she openly criticized the institution of slavery. Notice how different Merian’s depiction of Cacao is from Sloane’s.


18. Universal Taxonomies, Private Interests
“Lonchitis” In:  Patrick Browne, The civil and natural history of Jamaica (London, 1756).

Browne was an Irish-born physician who traveled to Jamaica as sugar and slavery became increasingly profitable in the eighteenth century. Unlike Sloane, however, Browne’s botany dispensed with learned plant ethnographies and concentrated on plants’ sexual anatomy, as dictated by Linnaeus’ new system. Browne was among the first Anglophone authors to follow it extensively, and its principles were reflected in George Ehret’s illustrations for his book. Linnaeus used both Sloane and Browne as sources on Jamaican flora for his Species plantarum (Stockholm, 1753). But while naturalists aimed to draw together as many species as possible to create a universal taxonomy, botanizing in Jamaica after Sloane remained a fragmented rather than collective endeavor. In the 1790s, Thomas Dancer lamented the lack of support for a public botanical garden. This absence was an expression of enduring planter hostility to public institutions that might impinge on private interests.


19. The Abolitionists’ Sloane
Anthony Benezet, A caution to Great Britain and her colonies, in a short representation of the calamitous state of the enslaved Negroes in the British dominions (London, 1767).

Benezet was a French Huguenot who settled in Philadelphia and became one of the leading early voices in transatlantic abolitionism in the 1750s. He was one of several authors who quoted Sloane’s graphic 1707 description of the torture and execution of Africans who rebelled in Jamaica. (In this section of this edition, where Benezet cites Sloane, the quotation actually comes from another writer.) Abolitionists like Benezet drew on Sloane’s credibility and alleged impartiality, now powerfully augmented by his status as the benefactor of the British Museum, as an unimpeachable eye-witness to the “inhumanity” of slavery. In so doing, they redefined the status of his account of slave punishments, which Sloane had produced as curious observations intended, if anything, to justify such treatment. Anti-abolitionists were quick to contest the reliability of Sloane’s eye-witness account.