Exploring the Downtown National Library of Jamaica
The National Library of Jamaica.
PART III : Hans Sloane, Milk Chocolate & Live Animals…
Back to Jamaica, to explore a new prestigious book from the National Library ! I had already been through a copy of Thomas Gage’s account of travels to America - that played a key role in the English capturing the island in 1655 (see here) -, and through my favorite Americana book, Esquemeling’s History of the Bucaniers - telling us about the period when Jamaica had become the capital of buccaneering, and Port Royal the « wickedest city on Earth » (see here), and was now awaiting for a highly respected book : « A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and JAMAICA, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, &c. Of the last of those Islands », by Hans Sloane (London, 1707). It is a legendary body of work, a cornerstone of the history of the island. The employee of the National Library heavily dropped the thick in-folio book on the table in front of me, smiling with content. This was the first volume, published in 1707 - the second one, dedicated to zoology, did not see the light before 1725. I had never come across a physical copy of this book yet, and was deeply impressed at its charisma, its size and weight, and at the sum of knowledge it contains. Thousands of pages, more than two hundred « large copper-plates as big as the life », as the title-page reads, a gorgeous and folding « new map of Jamaica » I could not take my eyes off for a while… Meet Hans Sloane’s book, finally !
THE DUKE OF ALBERMALE
In Decembre 1687 the small fleet of the new Governor of Jamaica, the second Duke of Albermale, entered the bay of Caguay (later on Kingston). «General Monck, the first Duke of Albermale, wrote the historian W. Gardner, who never liked the second one, had left a unique son who not only did dissipate his wealth but also had affected his health in a licentious lifestyle. A colonial government seemed to be the best way to save him and James [II] could not refuse this privilege to the son of the man who had put the Stuarts back on the Throne. » The Duke was never too pleased with his new duties. He came several months after being appointed by the King, only to secure his share of the gold the English were retrieving from a Spanish galleon that had sunk close to Hispanola. The Monck family, yet, was no stranger to Jamaica. The first Duke of Albermale was the strongest supporter of the Governor of the island, Thomas Modyford, during the days of buccaneering – they were relatives. After the sack of Panama in 1671, the Spaniards officially complained to the Crown of England about an act of what they considered to be piracy. For politics’ sake, Modyford was sent to the Tower and Henry Morgan (who had plundered the town under a Commission of Modyford, himself backed by General Monck in England) soon followed to London, where he was forced to remain for three years’ time, until the heat started to cool off. He spent many a night drinking and gambling with the son of the Duke, the very same Monck who came as the new Governor of the island in 1687. The two men were glad to see each other again - the former buccaneer who had fallen into disgrace was even rehabilitated by the Duke a few months before his death.
The Duke’s wife suffered from mental disorder and needed constant care – the Duke thus asked a young and promising Irish-born physician to come along with them to Jamaica : Hans Sloane. A very active mind, deep into every scientific field of his time, Sloane had acquired the certainty that botany could not be learnt nor taught behind a desk any more. Scientists had to travel, to see for themselves and to explore the world they intended to describe. He was already a Fellow of the Royal Society when he left Portsmouth aboard the Duke’s fleet in Septembre 1687. After a short stay in Barbados, he reached Jamaica four months later where he remained for 15 months, until the Duke’s sudden death, urged his widow to go back to England. He had time enough to collect more than 700 specimens of plants, some live animals and artifacts. Back to London, he eventually published his book at his own expense, that earned him great respect and also the seat of President of the Royal Society.
Exploring the Downtown National Library of Jamaica
Hans Sloane's account of Jamaica.
BOTANY & CHOCOLATE
Though a work of natural history, Sloane’s book is still quoted in every civil history of Jamaica, its lengthy and versatile preface being one of the most interesting readings about the island. Everything of interest would attract his attention, as the oldest Spanish ruins in Jamaica, for example. When the conquistadore Juan de Esquivel took possession of the island in the name of Diego Columbus, in 1509, he established a colony named Nueva Sevilla. In the late 17th century, almost nothing remained of this first (or second, according to some) settlement that had been abandoned more than a hundred years ago. As a matter of fact, little was known of the Spanish reign in Jamaica. Sloane went to the North Coast to visit the ruins of Nueva Sevilla, especially those of the famous Peter Martyr d’Aghiera’s church. Martyr, the author of a respected body of work about the New World, never set a foot in Jamaica. He had been, nonetheless, appointed Abbot of the island – an honorary title - as he was an influential member of the Council of the Indies. The Spanish historian Padron suggests he was upset at the magnificent church the Abbot of the nearby Hispanola had erected ; so he ordered a bigger one to be built in Jamaica. Sloane gave a description of what remained of the ambitious front door of the building, including the wooden head of a saint with a knife going through his head. The size the church should have reached, if ever completed (which was never the case), gave an idea of the opulence of the colony at a time. The historical value of this testimony is so unique, it was reproduced word by word by the Barbadian Charles Leslie in his later A New and Exact History of Jamaica (1 vol. in-12°, Edinburgh, 1739, wrongfully credited to Sloane by Barbier in its French translation*, and still sold by most booksellers as Sloane’s account), and by almost every historian who wrote about the island ever since.
Hans Sloane also gave accounts of the sick he attended all over the island, including a certain « H.M » (Henry Morgan), whom he visited shortly before his passing, giving the last – and dull - description of the buccaneer. Sloane probably did not rest a lot. Still working as the personal physician of the Duchess, he would find time to roam the island to collect every natural specimen encountered. He loved plants and put them between two sheets of paper to dry them, planning to bring them back to the old and ignorant World. Whenever the subject of his attention was not so easily captured, he would ask his friend, the Reverend Garret Morr, to draw it from life – most of the copper-plates of the first volume were engraved from his drawings. Amongst the most intriguing things the botanist gathered were a live crocodile, an Iguana and a giant snake he said was tamed by an Indian it would follow like a dog to its master. Sloane noticed the inhabitants of the island were drinking a lot of chocolate, as a medicine. One of the most striking discoveries of the New World, chocolate, had then little in common with what we drink nowadays ; it was a thick mixture of cacao, spices, aromates and plants. « The nuts themselves are made of several parts, like an ox’ kidney, Sloane wrote about the beans of cacao, some lines being visible on it before broken, and his hollow within, its pulp is oily and bitterish to the taste. » When tasting the local chocolate, he found it « nauseous, and hard of digestion ». Never short of ideas, he sweetened it by adding some milk to it. The result was so palatable, he brought back his recipe to London where, according to the Natural History Museum (NHM) of London, it « brought him considerable income during his lifetime ». In the 19th century, long after Sloane’s death in 1753, his recipe was picked up by Cadbury. The wrappers read: « Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate, Prepared After the Original Recipe,» an achievement that could already fill any man’s life, as most kids around the world will tell you. But, believe it or not, Sloan had even more than milk chocolate to offer to the world !
*Histoire de la Jamaïque, alledgedly translated into French by a French Dragon (soldier) by the name of Raulin. 2 volumes in-12°, A Londres, chez Nourse, 1751 : 2ff, 285pp / 1ff, 248pp / 6 folding plates by N.B. de Poilly.
Exploring the Downtown National Library of Jamaica
From Hans Sloane's Jamaica.
A NATURAL CHAOS
In Octobre 1688, the Duke of Albermale died in Jamaica, probably from drinking too much of this wine his friends, and his physician, had warned him about as being much stronger than the one he would share with Henry Morgan in Europe. The Duke turned a deaf ear, and died. His widow decided to head back home and Sloane went with her, leaving Jamaica behind - probably with regrets.
As I was driving alongside the Rio Cobre towards the North coast of the island one day, I took a look at the luxurious vegetation that grows on the steep hills overhanging the river. This presence was so intense, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the burning desire to know this multitude, trees, plants, birds and insects ! It never lasted too long and I guess I will never come any closer in my life to what Sloane must have felt in front of the very same landscape, more than 300 years ago : the desperate wish to grab Life in its fullness, to put it into books, to classify, repertoriate, analyze… A botanical fury.
Unfortunately, the travel to England was quite fatal to Sloane's live collection : the crocodile fell sick and died, the Iguana went overboard and drowned in the ocean, while the gentle and giant snake was shot to death by a frightened sailor after it escaped from its jar. Back to London, the physician remained four years in the service of the Duchess before returning to private medicine « and set[ting] up what was to become an extremely lucrative practice in fashionable Bloomsbury, with clients including some of the richest and most prestigious figures of the day » (NHM). But he never gave up his intellectual and botanical occupations. In 1696, he published Catalogus Plantarum, a simple 232-page listing of the plants he had brought from Jamaica ; a first step towards the clarifying of the nomenclature, then subject to many confusions as the binomial system of Linnaeus was yet to be introduced. Carl Linneaus, as a matter of fact, came to visit Sloane’s « cabinet of curiosités » when still a young botanist, in 1736. In front of the 265 in-folio bound volumes of specimen (eight of them being dedicated to Jamaica) of Sloane’s library, Linnaeus felt dizzy, and had the feeling to face a « chaos » of knowledge. But what a rich one ! 12,500 pieces of vegetables, 6,000 shells, 9,000 insects, 1,500 fishes, 1,200 birds, the skeleton of a young elephant, an 18 feet long skeleton of a whale skull, as well as antiquities such as medals and coins (32,000), and an Eldorado for book lovers : « 50,000 bound volumes of published works (…) as well as an enormous collection of manuscripts and drawings on all manner of subjects, (…) undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive libraries of the time. » (editor) In his will, Sloane estimated he had invested 1,000,000 pounds in his collections.
THE WILL OF A BOTANIST
Sloane died a very wealthy man - milk chocolate, indeed, and his marrying the heiress of a West Indian planter. He also died an old man, at age 93. He remained the Secretary of the Royal Society for 20 years, up to 1723, but once his two volumes about Jamaica came out, he became a legend in his own time, and was appointed President of this prestigious Society, succeeding Sir Isaac (Newton). In 1741, he retired to Chelsea, aged 81. Meanwhile, he had also been very active in putting together The Philosophical Transactions, a scientific publication. In 1750, he published some testimonies of the dreadful earthquake that destroyed a large part of Port Royal in 1692, collected in Jamaica. They remain the best sources regarding this crucial event to date.
Proud of his collections - people who collect things tend, after a while, to consider that they are what they have - Hans Sloane could never find any existing institution worthy of his jewels and decided to leave them to the Nation under a few conditions. First, he wanted his two daughters to get 20,000 pounds each, as compensation. Then he wanted his collections to be accessible to the public. In June 1753, a few months after his death, the Parliament passed an Act to establish the British Museum to shelter his treasures. « The Government chose to raise the necessary funds by a national lottery, wrote the NHM, not an unusual practice in the 18th century. » Thus was born one of the most prestigious English institutions.
I closed the book in front of me, vaguely tired, all the figures still dancing in front of my eyes. For the first time in years, I suddenly felt like drinking a cup of milk chocolate. Guess I was not in the worst place to do so… « à la santé » of Mr. Sloane.
Thibault Ehrengardt / dreadzine(a)free.fr
Thibault Ehrengardt writes from France.