Vic Keegan: The two sides of Bloomsbury’s Sir Hans Sloane

Vic Keegan: The two sides of Bloomsbury’s Sir Hans Sloane

In 1689 Hans Sloane, from Killyleagh, Northern Ireland, set up a successful  medical practice at 3 Bloomsbury Place in London. This was a couple of hundred yards from Montagu House, later to become the British Museum. In between was the palatial Bedford House (see above). Not a bad address for an aspiring doctor. Among his clients were Queen Anne, King George I and King George II. He succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society in 1727.

Sloane’s huge life-time collection of books and artefacts – 71,000 items in all – became the main foundation donation to the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. He had to acquire 4 Bloomsbury Place next door to accommodate it all, a source of wonder for visitors from home and abroad. He also left the wonderful Chelsea Physic Garden to the Society of Apothecaries at a peppercorn rent, without which it might not exist today. A statue of him still stands proud in the Garden’s grounds. Sloane Square is named after him.

It is, however, necessary, to think of Sloane as two men. There was Hans Sloane one, the collector and benefactor almost without peer, and there was Hans Sloane 2, whose benefactions were linked directly or indirectly to the slave trade and so have become a key part of the current re-appraisal of Britain’s post-Imperial legacy. The British Museum is in the midst of just such a re-appraisal.

Sloane visited the Caribbean in 1687 a couple of years before settling at Bloomsbury Place as personal doctor to the new Governor of Jamaica, the 2nd Lord Albermarle, a former politician and soldier who had become dissolute.

However, his main interest was in studying the island’s flora, fauna and artefacts. With the help of inhabitants of the island, English planters and enslaved Africans alike, he collected an astonishing 800 plant specimens as well as curiosities and animals. His findings were written up in his Natural History of Jamaica, which was published in two volumes from 1707 to 1725, over 100 years before Darwin’s Voyage on the Beagle in 1839.

One reason Sloane gave for writing it was “to teach the inhabitants of the parts where these plants grow their several uses, which I have endeavoured to do, by the best information as I could get from books and the inhabitants either Europeans, Indians or blacks”. He listed around 125 diseases he found among whites and blacks and possible remedies, along with the results from applying them.

Sloane was not a typical slave owner directly trading in human beings, and he hoped his findings would benefit both blacks and whites. But that does not exonerate him.

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On his return from the Caribbean he married Elizabeth Langley, the widow of wealthy planter Fulke Rose. She inherited both her merchant and MP father John Langley‘s Jamaican estates and a third of the income from Rose’s extensive properties, which became available to Sloane. He received regular shipments of sugar during the following years, which went into his pioneering efforts to market chocolate under the brand “Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate”. He also imported the bark from Peru from which quinine is made.

Rose had, like Sloane, been a physician but he was also one of the main purchasers of slaves from the Royal African Company. This inheritance was to be hugely important in financing Sloane’s later collections. Although not an active slave trader he was unquestionably a beneficiary.

In 1742 Sloane started moving his books and curiosities from Bloomsbury Place to Henry VIII’s former manor house in Cheyne Walk, which he had purchased in 1712. It was his earnest desire that both the building and its contents be bought at a bargain price by the government to start a national collection. This didn’t happen. However, the collection was purchased and, together with the manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton and the treasures of Robert and Edward Harley, the 1st and 2nd Earls of Oxford, became the foundation of the British Museum.

The British Museum Act, which became law on 7 June 1753, was expressly “for the purchase of the Museum or Collection, of Sir Hans Sloane, and of the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts and for providing One General Repository for the better Reception and more convenient Use of the said Collections; and of the Cottonian Library, and of the Additions thereto”. The money required was raised by lottery.

Sloane died in 1753 having donated his collection to the nation at a greatly reduced valuation and on condition that Parliament create “a new and freely accessible public museum to house it”. This it did and it has been a phenomenally successful initiative until now, when fresh questions are being asked and will have to be answered.

This article is the tenth of 25 being written by Vic Keegan about locations of historical interest in Holborn, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and St Giles, kindly supported by the Central District Alliance business improvement district, which serves those areas. On London’s policy on “supported content” can be read here.

Categories: CDA supported series, Culture

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