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Collecting the World - the life and curiosity of Hans Sloane

xfgtjAs a research student, whenever I found myself too revolted by the turgid illiteracies of modern scientific literature to continue reading (which was often) I would steal into an attic room of the university library and seek out the first volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, freely shelved for anyone to browse.  There I discovered Hans Sloane – him of Sloane Square, not to be confused with Hans Soane (of the Soane Museum) - founder of the British Museum, Secretary and subsequently President of the Royal, avid collector, whose statue stands in Chelsea Physic Garden (which he endowed) and who sat like a spider at the centre of a worldwide web of correspondents. 

Like many early giants on the cusp of the Scientific Revolution (and quite a few after) Sir Hans Sloane is now a shadowy figure of whom people may have heard, but about whom almost nobody knows anything.  After reading James Delbourgo’s excellent and detailed biography, I know much more about his life - his origins in Ulster, his sojourn in Jamaica, his subsequent career in London as successful Society physician and self-made man of fortune.  I know more about his times – the buccaneering, slaving, plantation-owning, social-climbing, grovelling world of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. 

As for his contacts and collaborators, my head reels with them: the illustrious, like Newton, the neglected, like Hooke, and the utterly forgotten, like (I kid you not) Everhardus Kickius.  I know more about his writing - beyond those curious papers in the Phil Trans about ‘A curious bezoar stone from a Kalahari warthog’ and whatnot.  But the man himself remains an enigma; less spider in a web than a black hole into which worlds were sucked.

Delbourgo admits Sloane was a ‘cautious, sober, doggedly unimaginative Protestant empiricist’; a list-maker who like William Camden in the century before, espoused those vanished literary forms of catalogue and litany, to the greater glory of The Creator.  I thought too of other biographies of unsympathetic characters, like Charles Doolitle Walcott (so industrious, but so dull), or Richard Owen, whose young enemies came to write history but who, even in the hands of an apologist, proves to have been every bit as hateful as Darwin and Huxley said.  Such people are hard to bring to life.

Delbourgo saves his bourgeois gentilhomme from his own dullness by the exemplary evocation of his time.  Often distasteful to modern sensibilities, the portrait of early colonial life, its brutality, oppression, exploitation and subjugation, convinces utterly - reminding you that the past is indeed ‘another country’.  Be grateful we cannot actually go there, while doing the next best thing. 

And if you find it tough, comfort yourself that almost a third of the book is index, references and notes.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

COLLECTING THE WORLD – THE LIFE & CURIOSITY OF HANS SLOANE by JAMES DELBOURGO Allen Lane, 2017 List Price: £27.00.  ISBN 9781846146572 504pp (hbk)