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Kew helps celebrate the 350th birthday of Sir Hans Sloane

Mark Nesbitt
18 August 2010
Blog team: 
Jamaican artefacts from Kew go on display at the Royal College of Physicians - marking the 350th anniversary of the birth of Sir Hans Sloane, botanist, physician and collector.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was one of the great figures of the Age of Enlightenment, rising to become President of the Royal College of Physicians, and the Royal Society, and building the founding collections of the British Museum and Natural History Museum. His 350th birthday on 16 April saw lots of events at these institutions. Although Kew came into being as a botanic garden in 1759, six years after Sloane died, we too have been able to help out with the celebrations.

Sir Hans Sloane and Jamaica

We have lent some fascinating objects to the exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians: Sir Hans Sloane: Discovery, travels and chocolate. The exhibition focuses on Sloane's stay in Jamaica from 1687-89. As revealed by Lisa Jardine, in an entertaining talk that opened the exhibition, Sloane's motives for going to Jamaica were as much monetary as scientific. Nonetheless, despite the dangerous conditions on the slavery-ridden island, he was able to travel, and to record much about the island's natural history and the customs of the African slaves working on the sugar plantations.

This work was to find fruit in a marvellous six volume herbarium, which has been digitised by the Natural History Museum, and in the massive two-volume work A Voyage to the Islands 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 (1707 & 1725). Sadly the book has never been reprinted or digitised, but both volumes can be seen at the exhibition.

Kew specimens

Thanks in large part to Emily Brennan's conservation of the 19th century bonnet in Kew's collection, described in an earlier blog post, our collection of Jamaican lace-bark (from the Lagetta lagetto tree) is becoming well-known. We have lent the Royal College a delicate lace-bark collar (image below left), and a branch that graphically demonstrates how the inner bark can be teased out into pure lace (below right).


We couldn't avoid some chocolate - Sloane did much to promote its medicinal properties - and have sent several specimens, including this plaster model of a cacao pod and (in image below) some cocoa butter that has survived 100 years in the Economic Botany Collection very well.


This ingenious wooden lock is a rare example of black Jamaican woodwork to survive from the 19th century. It was exhibited at the Indian and Colonial exhibition of 1886, described as "identical with the wooden locks of the ancient Egyptians".


A small piece of Sloane at Kew

Although the Economic Botany Collection was founded in 1847, some earlier specimens have found their way to Kew. Three of Sir Hans Sloane's wood specimens were transferred to Kew from the Natural History Museum in 1983. Here is specimen 12507, a very heavy and very beautiful block of wood from an ebony tree (Diospyros sp.). It would be nice to think this is from one of the ebony species native to the Caribbean and collected by Sloane in Jamaica, but it is more likely to be one of the far more common Indian species.



Find out more about Sloane

There are still some events to catch in 2010. The exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians runs until 24 December 2010, with a rich programme of chocolate-themed events. That includes a talk that I am co-presenting on Monday 15 November 2010, at the Royal College's building in Regent's Park: Sloane at home and in Jamaica: an evening of talks with the British Museum and Kew.

- Mark - 


23 September 2010
Sloane 350 have hosted a series of events to mark this, the celebratory year of the birth of Sir Hans Sloane who was born in Killyleagh, County Down, Northern Ireland in 1660. This weekend we are holding Ireland's 1st Chocolate Ball 25th and Festival 26th September under canvass in the Bawn of Killyleagh Castle. Additional info @ & twitter
18 August 2010
This absolutely remarkable. I had no idea about Kew and the connection with these collections. Really facintating to learn about.

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