Acquisition and Empire: On James Delbourgo’s “Collecting the World”

By Suzanne FischerDecember 10, 2017

Acquisition and Empire: On James Delbourgo’s “Collecting the World”

Collecting the World by James Delbourgo

THE COLLECTOR Hans Sloane was born in Ulster in 1660, part of a family that served as stewards and gamekeepers for their aristocratic cousins. Unable to access a university education, the ambitious Sloane moved to London in 1679, taking instruction in materia medica from the “library of nature,” particularly in the form of the Chelsea Physic Garden. According to the historian James Delbourgo’s new biography Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum, Sloane learned chemical medicine from books, lectures, and friends of friends, including a trip to Paris and Montpellier, where he received a medical degree at Orange in 1683.

The story of Sloane, as Delbourgo tells it, is as much about social climbing as it is about science. In London, his career greatly benefited from the friendship of another Anglo-Irishman, the eminent natural philosopher Robert Boyle, who helped Sloane make the acquaintance of other famous physicians and natural philosophers associated with the Royal Society. These connections, in turn, led to a post as personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle when he took up the governorship of Jamaica in 1687.

Sloane’s social ambitions spurred his collecting, too. In his limited European voyages, he had already seen the value of rare and unusual objects for brokering introductions, learning, in Delbourgo’s words, “how to use rare objects to distinguish himself as a rare person.” For Sloane, objects were never only about themselves. The collections were a small piece in a larger story, a node in a larger network. In Jamaica, Delbourgo points out, Sloane’s concerns with natural history neatly aligned with larger commercial concerns, noting that a commentator of the time “went so far as to characterize the Royal Society and the Royal African Company, which enjoyed a legal monopoly on the transportation of African slaves in these years, as ‘twin sisters.’” Sloane, a future president of the Royal Society and physician to a colonial governor whose goal was getting rich, saw no contradictions between the advancement of natural philosophy and the advancement of England’s economy on the backs of enslaved people.

Delbourgo reconstructs Sloane’s Jamaican years in large part through a close reading of his Natural History of Jamaica (1707), which he had printed at great expense, with lavish plates, much later in his career. The book uses a pre-Linnaean system of exhaustive botanical description and includes many case histories of his patients, both white and black. Sloane describes the infinite patience he extended to his white patients who consistently gave themselves alcohol poisoning (including Albemarle himself, who died in 1688), and the extreme skepticism with which he treated any ailments suffered by enslaved Africans on the island.

Sloane’s relationships with enslaved people in Jamaica were not limited to his medical practice. He also traveled around the island asking about medicinal plants, health and ailments, religious beliefs, and other ethnographic questions. “The ethnographic curiosity Sloane evinced,” Delbourgo cautions, “is ultimately indissociable from the kinds of practical questions his planter allies wanted answered so they could fortify the institution of slavery.” It is unclear how Sloane obtained many of the objects he brought back from Jamaica, including a pair of banjos made by enslaved people: Were they obtained by force? By barter? Delbourgo concludes that it was probably both: “Exchange coexisted with violence.”


The 15 months Sloane spent in Jamaica set the course for the rest of his life. He returned to England in 1689 with hundreds of specimens (including a live alligator, which died only two weeks before landfall). In 1695 he married Elizabeth Langley Rose, the widow of a plantation owner he had known in Jamaica. Delbourgo calculates that Sloane received three million pounds a year in income from his wife’s Jamaican plantations. “At one end of the spectrum, Lady Sloane’s Jamaican income played a major role in Sloane’s fortunes while, at the other, unnamed slave women gathered specimens for colonial collectors who sent them back to patrons like James Petiver and Sloane.” His career as collector was subsidized, in other words, by income from slave labor on sugar plantations in Jamaica.

“For Sloane, collecting a world of things meant collecting a world of people,” Delbourgo writes. His role as personal physician to Albemarle helped make him a sought-after society doctor. He was so renowned as to be anonymously satirized in the press as “the ingenious Dr Slyeman,” suspected of quackery due to his great fame and fortune. Some natural philosophers were also detractors. In 1693 Sloane became secretary of the Royal Society, adding the Society’s vast correspondence network to his own and becoming editor of the Philosophical Transactions. But his insistence on specificity, on specimens, clashed with the new emphasis on types and the discovery of natural laws. His religious beliefs, too, were a stumbling block: Sloane thought of collecting as a way to understand more deeply the variety of God’s creation, and his deep commitment to a Protestant ethic of a useful and wonderful nature put him at odds with his more deist-minded Royal Society colleagues, who saw his version of natural theology as irrational and Sloane as an embarrassment.

Sloane, for his part, wanted to use his rarities to expose and debunk magical thinking. He sought, according to Delbourgo, “to use collections in almost therapeutic fashion, to expose and correct what he considered the follies of credulity, in particular magical explanations of the natural world.” But “his commitment to examining bizarre matters of fact left him open to charges of credulity. It wasn’t that he believed such stories — it was the sheer fact that he considered them worthy of attention.” To Sloane’s contemporaries, writing articles about such things as bezoars (strange semigeological objects which were used as miraculous medicines, but are actually balls of hair that formed in the stomachs of people and animals) even to comment on the natural processes that produced them was beyond the pale. Better to comment on the usual than the curious.


Books on collections and collectors often slip into a bewitching miscellany, lists of strange things in juxtaposition, corals and medals and manuscripts and alligators. Delbourgo resists this abyss of wonderment. Another temptation is to devote too much space to psychological analyses of the obsessions of the collector. But, to Delbourgo, “what is striking is not how much Sloane revealed himself through his collections but, rather, how little.” He describes Sloane’s acquisitions as in many cases a function of his social connections: his fame brought with it more and more objects, many unsolicited. “Very often,” notes Debourgo, “these acquisitions resulted from the judgment others made about Sloane’s curiosity, showing how decisions made by many other people helped constitute the content of his collections.” Sloane also absorbed the entire collections of many other collectors; he collected their legacies as well as his own. By the 1720s the work was untenable for any one man, and Sloane had hired many people to help him manage the collections and the endless correspondence that went with it. “These networks were not the context for Sloane’s work, they were his work, and required constant management and negotiation.”

The work of collecting was not just the work of network-building, correspondence, and giving tours to notables, however. As a museum professional myself, I often wonder just how early modern collectors cataloged their artifacts, and Delbourgo goes some way toward providing an answer. “Collecting involved literally attaching meanings to things by pasting onto each object labels bearing numbers linking each item to a description in one of 54 handwritten catalogues,” he writes. In the catalogs, though, Sloane provided only brief descriptions of the objects. Although Sloane wrote that “the collection and accurate arrangement of these curiosities constituted my major contribution to the advancement of science,” his labels are often leave out much more than they explain.

For example: In 1733 Sloane met Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, a Fula man from West Africa also known as Job ben Solomon, who had been enslaved in Maryland but was staying in London while supporters and patrons helped him raise money to buy his freedom. Diallo worked with Sloane to translate Arabic inscriptions on some amulets in Sloane’s collections into English. Ironically, both Diallo, a devout Muslim, and Sloane, the crusader against credulity, found the amulets uninteresting, but the task of translating them brought the two together. Sloane later worked with Georgia governor James Oglethorpe to buy Diallo’s freedom, and Diallo returned to Africa as an agent of the slave-trading Royal African Company. This complex global story is briefly marked in Sloane’s catalogs by entries noting that the amulet inscriptions were “Interpr. Job.”


It was Sloane’s will and the will of Parliament that transformed these vast, partially cataloged (for no collection is ever fully cataloged) collections into the world’s first national museum. Before Sloane died in 1753, he carefully set out conditions under which his collections, funded by the proceeds of Lady Sloane’s Jamaican plantations and relying on free and unfree labor all over the world, would pass to the nation. Sloane’s personal hoard would form the basis of a national resource accessible to the British public. Sloane’s collection was so large, and so self-evidently important, that his bequest was hard to turn down, though his will had instructions to offer the collection to scientific institutions in other countries if the collections were not accepted as a whole and as a public institution. (Imagine Sloane’s alligators, medals, manuscripts, and bezoars in the Hermitage!)

Some objected to Sloane’s plan, on the grounds that a British Museum should hold British things, not a global miscellany. But as Delbourgo notes, treating Sloane’s collection as the basis for a British Museum was completely consistent with the logic of empire: “these were British things not by origin but by ownership.” Never before, noted one visitor, had such a collection been assembled by a private citizen, rather than a ruler, and not to demonstrate his own power but the power of trade. The British Museum was a quintessential institution of the emerging imperial Britain: pragmatic, based on private enterprise, a bit messy, and founded on the labor of enslaved Africans.

Indeed, this is the great accomplishment of Collecting the World: its detailed excavation of the ways Sloane’s collections required the knowledge, labor, and suffering of enslaved people. Today museums are increasingly researching and making visible the human consequences and exploitative history of some collecting, including the looting of Native American graves, the illicit trade in Middle Eastern antiquities, and the ways museums like Sloane’s materially benefited from slavery. The artist Fred Wilson’s intervention Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 was one flashpoint in this ongoing work: the exhibit highlighted the absence of enslaved people from the museum’s historical narrative, juxtaposing, for example, a silver tea set with a pair of shackles. Delbourgo’s deft and capable history of Sloane’s legacy is deeply necessary as museums face our complicated histories and consider how to move forward.


Suzanne Fischer is the museum director at the Michigan History Center in Lansing.

LARB Contributor

Suzanne Fischer is the museum director at the Michigan History Center in Lansing.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!