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Natural history collections and the book: Hans Sloane's A Voyage to Jamaica (1707-1725) and his Jamaican plants

The Jamaican herbarium assembled by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in 1687 formed a recorded part of his extensive museum collection from the 1730s until its purchase by the British state in 1753. The detailed examination of the organization of the
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   Journal of the History of Collections vol. 30 no. 1 (2018) pp. 15–33doi:10.1093/jhc/fhx011 Advance Access publication 15 May 2017 © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. Natural history collections and the book Hans Sloane’s  A Voyage to Jamaica  (1707–1725) and his Jamaican plants Edwin D. Rose The Jamaican herbarium assembled by Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753) in 1687 formed a recorded part of his extensive museum collection from the 1730s until its purchase by the British state in 1753. The detailed examination of the organization of the botanical specimens which account for the first seven volumes of the Sloane herbarium illustrates the use of printed books in natural history collecting practices in mid-eighteenth-century Britain. Sloane’s personal copy of his own work,  A Voyage to Jamaica (1707–25), played a central role in the cataloguing and classifying this highly organized natural historical collection. The collection was arranged according to a coherent, rational system, composed of a range of printed works, manuscripts and specimen labels which interacted with the physical spaces in which they were kept. I N  1687, Hans Sloane (1660–1753) journeyed to  Jamaica as physician for James II’s newly appointed governor, the Duke of Albemarle. Following the wishes of John Ray (1627–1705), who had asked Sloane to ‘search out and examine thoroughly the natural varieties of that island [Jamaica]’, 1  he returned to England in 1689 with a huge quantity of natural history specimens. Perhaps the best known of these are his collections of plants, pressed in seven volumes containing nearly 800 new species. 2  These formed the basis for his magnum opus :  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  (1707–25), the main feature of which is a systematic list that names, describes and depicts the plants Sloane collected in  Jamaica. 3  Following its publication, Sloane’s anno-tated copy formed a central element of the continu-ing cataloguing structure for the first seven volumes of his herbarium. The collection was ordered accord-ing to Ray’s morphological system of classification, based on the size and physical features of different plants including their flowers, fruits and stalks, a method that dominated British natural history for the first half of the eighteenth century. 4 This present article examines Sloane’s Jamaican herbarium from the 1730s to 1753, when his collection was purchased on the behalf of the British nation to form the first public museum. Previous works concentrating on the precise workings of natural historical collections have tended to exam-ine French collections or the working practices of Linnaeus himself. 5  This account will shed light on the workings of a privately owned English museum collection, examining the scholarly methods of clas-sification, cataloguing and display imposed on the botanical section of the collection by Sloane and his curators in the immediate prelude to the intro-duction and establishment of Linnaean systematics during the mid-eighteenth century. This collection of Jamaican plants is a rare survival; it is not only intact in terms of its specimens, but has retained its srcinal cataloguing structures, escaping the fate of many of Sloane’s zoological specimens, for example, many of which met their demise during the British Museum’s ‘periodical bonfires’ initiated by vari-ous curators during the early nineteenth century. 6  Sloane’s personal collections of plants present a rig-orously organized collection, subject to a set of gen-eral and specific catalogues by the 1740s, the main purpose of which was to provide a sophisticated and accessible method for locating individual specimens.The examination of the methods of cataloguing and the systems of classification used for Sloane’s  Jamaican herbarium at this time will counter the belief D ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om h  t   t   p s :  /   /   a c  a d  emi   c . o u p. c  om /   j  h  c  /   ar  t  i   c l   e- a b  s  t  r  a c  t   /   3  0  /  1  /  1  5  /   3  8 2  6  9  8  3  b  y  Uni  v  er  s i   t   y  of   C  am b r i   d  g e u s  er  on1  9  O c  t   o b  er 2  0 1  9   16 EDWIN D. ROSE that ‘the years between 1725 and 1760 were largely a blank for British natural history’. 7  This argument has been in circulation in the history of science since the 1950s, with scholars consistently viewing the mid-eighteenth century as a time of stagnation in research, particularly at the Royal Society, 8  a situation attrib-uted to the decline in mathematical and experimen-tal research following Isaac Newton’s death in 1727 and Sloane’s succession to the presidency, a transition ultimately resulting in the demise of the mathemati-cians’ hegemony. 9  Some scholars have attributed this to Sloane’s leadership and his interests in the descrip-tive practices of natural history, characterizing him as ‘a dilettante collector’ and ‘certainly no philosopher’. 10  These arguments focus on the opinions presented by Sloane’s critics, without giving due consideration to the details of his collecting enterprise and its relation-ship with  A Voyage to Jamaica  – a highly competent academic publication. Although the dominant view of a decline in mid eighteenth-century natural history was challenged by Roy Porter, who suggested that there was a period of virtually uninterrupted progress in natural historical research across the eighteenth century, Porter’s position has not received the atten-tion it deserves, 11  with recent scholarship tending to revert to the earlier view. 12  Here we shall examine the developments in natural historical – particularly botanical – collecting practices from the 1730s to the 1750s, presenting evidence showing that rather than a decline, the mid-eighteenth century witnessed a change, concentrating on the cataloguing and classifi-cation of collections as opposed to experimentation, a situation that continued after the establishment of the British Museum in 1753.Finally, we shall show the importance of treating natural historical collections not as mere groupings of physical objects, but as logically coherent systems. Such collections comprise printed works, catalogues and specimen labels as well as the objects themselves, all of them interrelating with each other and uniting the collection as a whole. 13  In order to fully understand these relationships and the precise workings of these systems of cataloguing and classification, it is essential to understand the spatial distribution of the collection. A prime example is the connection between Sloane’s copy of  A Voyage to Jamaica  and the herbarium, and how the precise topographical arrangement of these entities affected their relationship with one another. 14  An appreciation of these structures is essential for exploring the many connections between different parts of the collection and the whole, examining it in  James Secord’s terms as a ‘document of practice’, 15  which connects Sloane’s printed work, physical col-lection and cataloguing systems. Sloane’s use for his personal collections of  A Voyage to Jamaica  and Ray’s system of classification – which many early eighteenth century naturalists regarded as the most comprehen-sive system of classification available – shows that Sloane classified his published work and physical col-lection according to the most widely understood clas-sificatory system in Britain. By outlining the role of printed works in the cataloguing and classification of Sloane’s collection of Jamaican plants, a case will be made here for understanding the precise construction of the collection not merely as an inanimate gathering of specimens but as a flexible repository of knowledge. Spatial arrangement In order to build up an understanding of its precise spatial and topographical arrangement, we may begin by examining the layout of the collection at the time of Sloane’s death in 1753, as described to the new Trustees of the British Museum by Sloane’s final cura-tor, James Empson ( d  . 1765), who had been employed by Sloane since 1742. 16  This analysis will reveal that by the 1740s the collection was rigorously ordered and classified, so smoothing its transition from a privately owned collection to that of a public institution.On 22 January 1754, the Trustees of the British Museum met at the Manor House in Chelsea to inspect the condition of Sloane’s collections. 17  The Trustees ordered Empson to provide a synopsis of the state of the catalogues, a total of fifty-four volumes. Among these, Empson listed ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s History of Jamaica, with the Original Drawings and MS. Notes serving as an index to his own collection of Jamaica Plants’. 18  By the time of Sloane’s death in 1753, his annotated copy of  A Voyage to Jamaica  was regularly used as a catalogue and kept in close proximity to the relevant volumes in the herbarium collection. This was a result of the rigorous catalogu-ing and institutionalization of the collection which took place during the 1740s, reflecting the grow-ing trend for ordering natural history collections to promote academic study. 19  The Trustees ‘proceeded to examine some particular cabinets by the respec-tive catalogues and found them exactly answerable’. D ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om h  t   t   p s :  /   /   a c  a d  emi   c . o u p. c  om /   j  h  c  /   ar  t  i   c l   e- a b  s  t  r  a c  t   /   3  0  /  1  /  1  5  /   3  8 2  6  9  8  3  b  y  Uni  v  er  s i   t   y  of   C  am b r i   d  g e u s  er  on1  9  O c  t   o b  er 2  0 1  9   17 NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS AND THE BOOK After inspecting the contents, they ‘found the Hortus Siccus  … in a good condition, the rooms in which they are kept being on the first floor, and open to the free air’. 20  This allowed curators such as Empson, recently appointed Under Librarian for Natural and Artificial Productions at the British Museum, and Matthew Maty, Under Librarian for Printed Books, to recon-struct the topographical arrangement of Sloane’s nat-ural history collections at the museum, as laid out by Empson in a detailed report to the Trustees in 1756. 21 Many of the cases and cabinets that contained the Jamaican plants and Sloane’s other natural his-tory collections were kept in close proximity to the Gallery, a room 110 feet (33.5 m) in length, which Empson confirmed to have contained thirty-three cabinets and a number of bookshelves alternating with these, all of which held natural historical books and specimens. 22  This room was a typical sixteenth-century long gallery, a common architectural feature in buildings such as Chelsea Manor. 23  The long gal-lery gave Sloane the opportunity to display all of his natural specimens in close proximity to one another, allowing him, as expressed by one author in 1748, to ‘show us ye great beauty of all parts of creation’. 24  This allowed visitors to walk through a repository containing an inventory of living creation, passing between different sections of the natural collection, many of them organized according to the system of classification devised by Ray. 25 The precise ordering of the natural collections can be confirmed by method of organization of the collec-tion adopted by Empson in the rooms at Montague House, in which he attempted to reconstruct Sloane’s srcinal systematic arrangement, maintaining that the collections should be arranged ‘in the same manner as they stand now at Chelsea’. 26  Empson’s arrange-ment started in the room labelled C 27, in which he planned to place the herbarium, continuing to room C 28, in which he planned to place quadrupeds and birds, then passing into room A 2 9, which he reserved for the insects and fossils, then to H 36, which he set aside for a number of specimens preserved in spirits, ending in the room labelled 31, which contained the natural history drawings. Empson suggested that this arrangement would be beneficial for any visitors of the museum, allowing them to walk through all of ‘the three general classes’ of natural history, just as they had done in the long gallery of Sloane’s manor house (Fig. 1). 27 The cabinets Sloane had constructed for the long gallery at Chelsea were designed by William Hallett (1707–81), one of the most notable cabinet makers of the second quarter of the eighteenth century, whose furniture often sold for high prices. These particular cabinets were ‘made by Sir Hans Sloane’s directions’ and were constructed for his permanent move to Chelsea in 1742, for which Hallett was commissioned to design a range of specimen cabinets and book-cases. 28  In comparison with other eighteenth-century natural history cabinets – such as those used by John Woodward ( c. 1665–1728), which enclose and conceal the collection in a similar manner to a writing desk – the large glass panes fronting Sloane’s cabinets place a far heavier emphasis on display (Fig. 2). 29  By 1742, therefore, Sloane was already showing more interest in displaying and consolidating his natural collec-tions than in accumulating more material. 30  Hallett’s designs conform with a number of accounts left by visitors to the collection at Chelsea: for instance, that of Pehr Kalm, a student of Carl Linnaeus who visited Sloane in 1748, noted that ‘a large number of these cabinets had glass doors, so that you could see what was inside’. 31  The shape of the book cases indicates that Sloane ordered his books by size, then by sub-ject, with the folio volumes on the lower shelves, mov-ing up to the quartos and octavos (Fig. 3). 32  Hallett’s designs reflect Sloane’s desire to use the available space efficiently; for instance, all of the shelves in the book cases are adjustable so that a range of differ-ently shaped books can easily be accommodated. This arrangement is similar to that used by Samuel Pepys, whose collection was meticulously reconstructed at Magdalene College, Cambridge, although (unlike Pepys’s collection) the srcinal bookcases and cabinets were not used to reconstruct Sloane’s collection in the British Museum. 33 According to Empson, the physical space required for Sloane’s herbarium was a running length of 23 ft 7 in (7.2 m), a height of 2 ft (0.7 m) and a depth of 1 ft 6 in (0.46 m), the bound volumes for which were placed on bookcases next to the folio natural history books, such as Sloane’s annotated copies of Ray’s Historia Plantarum  (a copy printed on large paper) and his own Voyage to Jamaica . 34  The glass-fronted cabinets suggest that Sloane took particular care to arrange his collection in Chelsea according to a method that was not only scholarly and systematic but also accessible to more general visitors to the collection, an arrangement D ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om h  t   t   p s :  /   /   a c  a d  emi   c . o u p. c  om /   j  h  c  /   ar  t  i   c l   e- a b  s  t  r  a c  t   /   3  0  /  1  /  1  5  /   3  8 2  6  9  8  3  b  y  Uni  v  er  s i   t   y  of   C  am b r i   d  g e u s  er  on1  9  O c  t   o b  er 2  0 1  9   18 EDWIN D. ROSE Empson attempted to reconstruct at British Museum. Visitors could view objects from all classes of nat-ural history as they were escorted through the manor, whether by removing bound volumes of herbarium specimens from the shelves or by viewing specimens in the glass-fronted cabinets. 35 Consolidating, cataloguing and classifying From the mid 1730s, Sloane began to order and clas-sify his collection in a rigorous manner, preparing the ground for its establishment as a public institu-tion. 36  These ideas evidently reached fruition when, during a bout of ill health on 9 October 1739, Sloane Fig. 2.  Hallett’s drawings for the cabinets commissioned by Sloane to store his natural historical specimens at Chelsea. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Fig. 1.  A plan showing the movement of Sloane’s natural history collection into rooms labelled C 27- H 31, in the upper state storey of Montague House. The descriptions in black ink ‘are the present state of the arrangements’ and those in red ‘are the assignments entered into the memorial’. © The Trustees of the British Museum. D ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om h  t   t   p s :  /   /   a c  a d  emi   c . o u p. c  om /   j  h  c  /   ar  t  i   c l   e- a b  s  t  r  a c  t   /   3  0  /  1  /  1  5  /   3  8 2  6  9  8  3  b  y  Uni  v  er  s i   t   y  of   C  am b r i   d  g e u s  er  on1  9  O c  t   o b  er 2  0 1  9   19 NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS AND THE BOOK signed and sealed his will, which stated that his col-lection should remain intact, and be sold for £20,000; his initial desire was that the offer should be placed before King George II. 37  This document supports the contention that Sloane and his curators had, since the mid 1730s, been preparing the collection for posterity, as suggested by the passage in which Sloane states that his executors should take ‘care and trouble in perusing and correcting my catalogues, which have been taken generally in great haste’. 38  This implies that some of the catalogues listed by Empson in 1754 had been compiled somewhat hastily, during the late 1730s; it seems likely that even such a hasty survey of the vast collection would have taken several years to complete, indicating that Sloane had been contemplating how the collection might be preserved for posterity for an extended period before he signed his will in 1739. 39 The meticulous cataloguing and classification sys-tems to which Sloane subjected his personal collec-tion can be seen clearly through the organization of the first seven volumes of his herbarium, for which the locations of different specimens held in these volumes are recorded in a set of general and specific catalogues. By the late 1730s, these catalogues were incorporated within two main printed works: Sloane’s copies of his own Voyage to Jamaica  (1707–25), which contains the copper plate images of the corresponding specimens in the herbarium, and his annotated copy of John Ray’s Historia Plantarum  (1686–1704), which relates his col-lection to the wider botanical world. These works are directly linked with one another through marginalia, printed information, printed and srcinal images, and the specimens themselves, although Sloane’s copy of  A Voyage to Jamaica  remained at the centre of the struc-ture used for cataloguing and classifying the Jamaican herbarium (Fig. 4).The publication which preceded Sloane’s ambi-tious and comprehensive Voyage to Jamaica  was his Catlaogus Plantarum quae in Insula Jamaica sponte  proveniunt   (1696), an interleaved copy of which served as a catalogue for the Jamaican plants prior to the publication of the second volume of  A Voyage to Jamaica  in 1725, when it appears to have fallen out of use. 40  Throughout the main text of  A Voyage to Jamaica , Sloane consistently cited his earlier work as one of the central reference sources, in which he initially listed and clarified the polyno-mial names of his Jamaican plants, a work also cited by Ray in Historia Plantarum . 41  The close relation-ship between the Catalogus  and Sloane’s copy of the Voyage to Jamaica  is apparent through the cuttings of text from the one pasted next to the correspond-ing entries throughout the botanical sections in each volume of the other. Fig. 3.  Hallett’s drawings of Sloane’s bookcases for his collection at Chelsea. An inscription on the verso reads ‘Drafts of the Bookcases and Cabinets made for Sir. Hans Sloane’. ©  The Trustees of the British Museum. D ownl   o a d  e d f  r  om h  t   t   p s :  /   /   a c  a d  emi   c . o u p. c  om /   j  h  c  /   ar  t  i   c l   e- a b  s  t  r  a c  t   /   3  0  /  1  /  1  5  /   3  8 2  6  9  8  3  b  y  Uni  v  er  s i   t   y  of   C  am b r i   d  g e u s  er  on1  9  O c  t   o b  er 2  0 1  9 
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