Tag Archives: Albemarle

Jamaica and the Founding of the British Museum

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753)

It is perhaps surprising, but the British Museum might be said to have had its origins in Jamaica.

In September 1687 a young Anglo-Irish doctor, who had trained in London and France, accompanied his patron the Duke of Albemarle on a voyage to Jamaica. Hans Sloane was to spend a relatively short time there as the Duke died the year after their arrival, but during that time he practised medicine and studied the island’s plants, later producing the great Natural History of Jamaica. He was already an accomplished botanist and had been made a member of the Royal Society at the early age of twenty-five.

In Jamaica Sloane met fellow doctor Fulke Rose, and together they treated the retired pirate and ex-Governor of Jamaica Henry Morgan for the effects of too much drink and socialising, administering millipedes and oil of scorpions! Unsurprisingly this treatment seems to have had no beneficial effect and Morgan died not long afterwards. Treatment of many of his other patients was more successful, perhaps owing to his foresight in taking with him to Jamaica a large quantity of Peruvian Bark – the source of quinine used in treating malaria.

While in Jamaica Sloane was introduced to cocoa taken with water which he found unpalatable. However he later mixed it with milk and prescribed it medicinally. Our modern drinking chocolate had been born.

Sloane returned to London with his collection of Jamaican specimens and drawings, and set up a fashionable medical practice, living for the first six years in the household of the widowed Duchess of Albemarle.  His practice was characterised by a common sense approach to treatment, if not to any great advances in medical science, including simple diet and exercise.

He kept in regular contact with various correspondents in Jamaica, and following the devastating earth quake of 1692 he published some of their letters in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. One correspondent wrote to Sloane on the 23rd of September, “We have had a very great Mortality since the great Earthquake (for we have little ones daily) almost half the people that escap’d upon Port-Royal are since dead of a Malignant Fever, from Change of Air, want of dry Houses, warm lodging, proper Medicines, and other conveniences.” Another wrote “The Weather was much hotter after the Earthquake than before; and such an innumerable quantity of Muskitoes, that the like was never seen since the inhabiting of the Island.”[1] Sloane had commented on the use of ‘gause’, that is bed nets, against insects but of course did not know of the connection between mosquitoes and malaria.

Following the earthquake Fulke Rose returned to London to plead the islanders’ case and died there in 1694. His last child Philippa was born posthumously, and the following year Fulke’s widow Elizabeth married Hans Sloane. She had already had eleven children and went on to have four more with Sloane. Four of her daughters with Fulke Rose, and two of Sloane’s daughters, lived to grow up and Hans Sloane was a kindly stepfather and guardian.

Sloane’s medical practice and his good connections led to him attending various members of the royal family and also to promoting the use of inoculation against smallpox. Following the near death of a daughter of the Princess of Wales he conducted experimental inoculation on five prisoners whose lives had been spared for the purpose. The success of the inoculation was then tested by having one of the men nurse, and lie in bed with, a victim of a particularly virulent epidemic in Hertford. The benefits of inoculation would later be taken to Jamaica by British doctors, although in fact the practice was already known in Africa and some cargoes of slaves were inoculated before being sold.

However, I have wandered a long way from the British Museum.

Hans Sloane outlived his wife by more than a quarter of a century, living to be ninety-two and dying in January 1753. At the time of his death his house at Chelsea, where his name is remembered in Sloane Square, was filled with a vast accumulation of books and artefacts collected over his long life, often by buying up the collections of others. His legacy included 42,000 books, a room full of dried plant specimens, cases full of ancient Greek and Roman statues, gold and silver medals, diamonds, jewels and other precious stones. A large panel of Trustees was set up under Sloane’s Will to supervise the disposal of his collection, and the most valuable items were immediately removed to the Bank of England for safety.

In June 1753 an Act of Parliament was passed for the creation of the British Museum. It would house Sloane’s collection (purchased from the Trustees for £20,000, well below its market value), the King George II and Cotton libraries, the books and manuscripts of Arthur Edwards and the Harleian Manuscripts. A lottery was held and raised £95,000 for the purchase of the collections and the purchase and repair of Montagu House in Bloomsbury on the site of the present museum. There was money left over to purchase government stock for the on-going maintenance of it all.

The British Museum opened to ‘all studious and curious persons’  in January 1759, the first free national public museum in the world.

How many of today’s visitors know of the connection of its most illustrious founder to Jamaica?



[1] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1694, 18, pp.78-100.