Author: James Hawkes

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

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By James Hawkes

Saving lives may have been Sir Hans Sloane’s day job as a physician, but in one case he even saved a friend from the hangman: Patrick Blair, who had been sentenced to death for high treason.

A Scottish surgeon and botanist, Blair had known Sloane since 1705 after persuading a fellow Scotsmen to introduce him. Sloane and Blair corresponded for several years on diverse subjects, from botany, elephants, medical practices, books and more. But in the aftermath of the failed Jacobite rising of 1715, Blair also discovered the real importance of networking and patronage.

Britain was in a state of political upheaval for decades following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James II may have been dethroned,  but his followers–Jacobites–repeatedly attempted to restore him to the throne. The Union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707 was resented by many in Scotland and strengthened Jacobitism.

Sloane, born a Presbyterian son of Ulster planters, was staunch Whig and loyal to the new royal family. Not only was his brother, James, a Whig Member of Parliament, but Sir Hans was a royal physician. In 1714, he had even attended Queen Anne upon her deathbed, prolonging her life long enough to thwart the schemes for a Jacobite restoration and to secure the Protestant Hanoverian succession.

Just one year later came ‘the Fifteen,’ a poorly organised Jacobite uprising in both Scotland and western England. Blair joined the revolt in Scotland as a surgeon, but was captured at the Battle of Preston and sent to Newgate Prison, London. He desperately wrote to his friends in the hopes of obtaining relief for himself and his suffering family.

my poor wife and children are in greatest misery and distress and that the very little they have to Live upon in Life to be utterly Lost so that they are Like to be reduced to a starving condition unless the Government shall see fit to show me their mercy and grant me relief.

A prisoner in a Newgate cell just a decade after Blair left. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A prisoner in a Newgate cell just a decade after Blair left. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In these pathetic pleas Blair also denies that he was ever truly a Jacobite, insisting that the rebels gave him no choice. One might suspect that Sloane found these claims a little hard to swallow given that he probably knew that Blair came from a Jacobite family and was religiously a Non-Juror–a member of the schismatic Episcopalian church who refused to swear allegiance to any but the exiled Stuarts.

It is only natural that Blair sought to preserve a sense of normality during this time of personal crisis. For instance, he sent Sloane a letter discussing their mutual botanical interests and his desire to do some gardening for Sloane, “I want to be serviceable to you for the obligations I received from you. The plants spring in my mind as fast as they do in the ground you proposed I might assist you with Last.”

Despite the efforts of his friends, including Sloane who visited him in prison, Blair was condemned to death following his guilty plea. He continued to beg for Sloane’s help.

But now having in the most submissive manner subjected myself to his majesty’s mercy I hope by your intercession… to obtain his most gracious pardon and Liberation … I therefore humbly crave you’l be pleasd to use your endeavours in that matter.

Blair had good reason to be frightened, as the Lord High Steward’s sentence of death against other rebels a few months earlier declared that they were to be brought from the Tower and:

drawn to the place of execution. When you come there, you must be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for you must be cut down alive, then your bowels must be taken out and burnt before your faces; then your head s must be severed from your bodies and your bodies divided each into four quarters and these must be at the king’s disposal.[1] 

Although most of the condemned had their sentences commuted to a ‘mere’ beheading, it’s unlikely that Blair would have been reassured. There was a distinct possibility that he could end up one of the relatively few Jacobites made an example of, either through execution or exile to the colonies. Although Blair hoped that Sloane could secure him a pardon, the government kept him waiting until midnight before his scheduled execution to inform him of his reprieve.

Afterwards, Sloane continued to support Blair financially by helping him to relocate and put his life back together.  This demonstrated not only the enduring value of wealthy and well-connected friends, but also how friendship could cross political and sectarian boundaries. Despite the polarised and often violent atmosphere of politics in this period, friendship and the higher cause of the Royal Society and Republic of Letters still trumped politics.

Broadside image of the Pretender, Prince James, Landing at Peterhead on 2 January 1716. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Broadside image of the Pretender, Prince James, Landing at Peterhead on 2 January 1716. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, aside from simple friendship, cultivating these connections may have represented something of an insurance policy for Sloane, just in case the King over the Waters should ever follow in footsteps of his uncle Charles II and make a triumphant march into London.

[1] Margaret Sankey, Jacobite Prisoners of the 1715 Rebellion: Preventing and Punishing Insurrection in Early Hanoverian Britain, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005), 27.

 

A Most Dangerous Rivalry

By James Hawkes

The Royal Society is in turmoil as competing factions battle for control. Not only is our hero Hans Sloane’s job on the line, but the very existence of the Royal Society hangs in the balance…

 Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

Dr. John Woodward (Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Dcoetzee)

No this is not the TV Guide summary of a niche costume drama, but the results of a bitter dispute between Dr. Hans Sloane and Dr. John Woodward in 1710. Not only did these men have starkly different visions for the future of the Royal Society, but they were competitors for rare curiosities and specimens. It’s perhaps not surprising that the men became rivals! Woodward launched a concerted campaign to unseat Sloane, which nearly succeeded.

Woodward, professor of Physic at Gresham College, championed a highly empirical and experimental approach for the Royal Society. He resented Sloane’s tendency to publish an increasingly ‘miscellaneous’ assortment of articles in  the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions–particularly those written by Sloane’s friends. (This was, admittedly, a complaint even by men who liked Sloane!) Woodward naturally considered the man most disadvantaged by this unjust state of affairs to be himself.  He made it his mission to save the Royal Society from those he feared would undermine the scientific progress of mankind.

Sloane and Woodward actually had much in common: they were both medical doctors with a deep-seated curiosity about the natural world. They were also active in the Royal Society and the Royal College of Physicians. Both earned considerable respect for their scholarly endeavours: Sloane, for his botanical work on the West Indies, and Woodward, for his prolific writings, especially on geology. Each man had a circle of scientific contacts across the British Empire and the Continent.

Sloane and Woodward also built impressive collections of natural and antiquarian items, preserved for posterity by (respectively) the British Museum and the Woodward Professorship at Cambridge. Woodward is even on record in a letter to Sloane declaring that he thought himself Sloane’s friend… albeit in the context of trying to explain away intemperate remarks about Sloane.

But the Devil is always in the details. Sloane had a reputation for collecting pretty much anything that fell into his hands. Woodward, however, focused on what he thought to be academically useful. These different approaches helped Woodward to drive a  wedge between Sloane and Sir Isaac Newton (then President of the Royal Society), who had little respect for Sloane’s collecting habits.

The situation finally exploded in 1709 when Sloane, as First Secretary of the Royal Society,  published a book review by Woodward’s long-standing enemy Edward Lhwyd. In his review of the work of a Swiss geologist, Lhwyd went out of his way to ridicule Woodward’s theories. Woodward demanded satisfaction. One contemporary said he did not know if the affair would end

whether by the sword or by the pen. If the former, Dr. Mead has promised to be Dr. Sloane’s second.(Levine)

A distinct possibility for resolving the conflict. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Uploaded by Noodleki

One conflict resolution option. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Noodleki.

Dr. Mead was, of course, another one of the many enemies that Woodward was so good at making. Indeed, ten years later Mead and Woodward duelled to resolve a dispute on the best way to treat smallpox. There are many versions of what happened. According to one, with Woodward defeated Mead bellowed, “Take your life,” to which Woodward replied, “Anything but your Physic.” But that is another story.

In an attempt to keep the bickering between Woodward and Sloane from escalating into violence, Sir Isaac Newton forced Sloane to publish a retraction, indicating he thought some of Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward’s plans to overthrow Sloane nonetheless continued apace. Woodward managed to get a friend, John Harris, elected secretary. He then proclaimed in a letter to Ralph Thoresby that:

Dr. Sloane declared at the next Meeting he would lay down…. He guesses right enough that the next step would be to set him aside.

Woodward and his faction were so confident by this point that he criticised Newton as incapable. Harris even invited Newton’s nemesis, Leibniz, to write for the Transactions. Perhaps Woodward’s ambition was becoming so great that he hoped to be Newton’s successor as President of the Royal Society–an honour that would fall to Sloane much later, in 1727.

The power struggle culminated when Sloane was presenting on bezoars to the Society. Woodward attacked Sloane’s thesis and Sloane, unable to come up with a reply, allegedly resorted to making faces at Woodward.  These grimaces were “very strange and surprising, and such as were enough to provide any ingenuous sensible man to a warmth.”

If only we knew what the grimace was... Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

If only we knew what the grimace was… Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Council was convened to resolve this controversy once and for all. They debated whether Sloane had actually been making faces and whether Woodward’s ire was justified. Woodward seemed on the brink of victory, but then lost his temper when Sloane denied the charges: “Speak sense, or English, and we shall understand you!” Woodward, unwilling to apologize was summarily kicked out. He then claimed that Sloane had packed the Council with his cronies, complaining to no avail of the “Mystery of Iniquity that reigns there.His friend Harris was soon enough replaced and so his entire revolution fell apart.

Although it may be more amusing to think of these eminent doctors as perpetually busy with childish bickering, they were capable of acting professionally on occasion. Even after this great controversy Woodward was willing to recommend  Sloane to a patient and attempted to enlist Sloane’s support to obtain a lucrative new position. Still, their showdown does appear to have put a bit of a damper on their correspondence, and it would seem that their relationship never entirely recovered.

As it happened, with Woodward gone, Sloane and Newton soon fell to sniping at one another. When Sloane was forced to resign as secretary in 1713, Woodward ended up on the side of Sloane against Newton, who Woodward now saw as an evil tyrant holding the Society back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

 

References

Benedict, Barbara. “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012).

Levine, Joseph. Doctor Woodward’s Shield: History, Science, and Satire in Augustan England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977.

MacGregor, Arthur. “The Life, Character and Career of Sir Hans Sloane,” Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of the British Museum. Ed. Arthur MacGregor. London: British Museum Press, 1994.

Sloane the Chocolatier: A Tasty Myth

By James Hawkes

Sir Hans Sloane is a man who is justly remembered for many things, as a philanthropist, President of the Royal Society, and father of the British Museum. But one thing it seems he shall always be remembered for is inventing milk chocolate. For that alone he would truly deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest luminaries of his own or any other age.  But…

Does Sloane deserve to be credited as the inventor of milk chocolate as he is so often lauded for all across the internet? Even the British Museum proclaims that “It was Sir Hans Sloane who introduced milk chocolate for drinking.” Unfortunately it seems that Sloane and milk chocolate is a myth with little basis in reality.

Three tin-glazed earthenware chocolate cups, ca. 1740-1745. Image Credit: British Museum.

Three tin-glazed earthenware chocolate cups, ca. 1740-1745. Image Credit: British Museum.

Chocolate had been in use long before Columbus, with the Mesoamericans drinking a bitter but spicy chocolate drink. Following the Spanish conquest similar chocolate drinks spread to Spain and gradually began to slowly make inroads throughout Europe. It was not until shortly before Sloane’s birth in the mid-seventeenth century that chocolate began to enter the English consciousness as both a medicine and an exotic treat for the English elite. Sloane’s life witnessed an increasing prevalence of chocolate in England, although it remained a luxury. Its status as a luxury good and status symbol is underscored by the beautiful chocolate cups Sloane imported from Italy. Chocolate was thought to have many different properties, it could serve as an aphrodisiac or help with hangovers.

Trade-card 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate'. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Trade-card ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate’. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But contrary to popular belief Sloane did not invent the concept of milk chocolate. In fact, a great variety of milk chocolates and even icy chocolate cream recipes had been published for the English market in the seventeenth century.[1] Shortly after Sloane’s death in 1753 an entrepreneur named Nicholas Sanders brought Sloane’s Milk Chocolate onto the market. Sanders claimed to have an original chocolate recipe from Sloane as he battled against others attempting to purvey chocolate with Sloane’s name.[2] Sloane’s name remained golden, so far as chocolate buyers were concerned. The famous Cadbury Company even sold chocolate under his name in the nineteenth century. And of course, there is the modern Hans Sloane Drinking Chocolate.

As James Delbourgo has argued, Sloane–a rich baronet–would have had little motivation to get into such a grubby business as chocolate selling. Particularly “in an era that prized the public fiction of gentlemanly disinterestedness,” a close association with an item which had such negative, even racy connotations, would not have served his hard won image of virtue.[3] Sloane was a doctor and as such had been known to prescribe chocolate medicinally now and again. He even appears to have enjoyed it as a treat on occasion.

Sloane’s time in Jamaica had given him first-hand experience of the exotic, including the use of cocoa. His scientific publications included high quality illustrations of cocoa and he preserved a botanical specimen in his collection.

Chocolate suffered a bit of a branding problem in England since first entering the market in the seventeenth century. Promoters often attempted to improve its reputation by claiming that their recipes had sanction from the high and mighty, whether a king, or like Sloane–a famed physician to royalty.

In the eighteenth century, the lower classes were unlikely to consume chocolate, while chocolate took on decadent, even subversive associations in elite culture. Chocolate houses often catered to gambling (such as the famous modern gentlemen’s club White’s which was founded as a chocolate house) and on the political spectrum it included the almost-Jacobite Ozinda’s, with the Cocoa Tree serving as an unofficial Tory headquarters.

White's Chocolate House, London c.1708 coloured lithograph published by Cadbury. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

White’s Chocolate House, London c.1708 coloured lithograph published by Cadbury. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So why does the idea that Sloane invented milk chocolate persist? Well, it makes a nice story and, once a story becomes common, it can be difficult to correct. It is an easy and compelling tale to have the first inventor of something be a famous and important person who got it right the first time… Unfortunately the attribution of milk chocolate to Sloane is no more than just another tasty myth.

[1] Kate Loveman, “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640-1730,” Journal of Social History, No. 47 Vol. 1 (2013): 34-35.

[2] James Delourgo, “Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of the Cacao,” Social Text 106, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2011): 86.

[3] Ibid.                                                                          

How to Build a Universal Collection, or Nicknackatory

By James Hawkes

Sloane and me at the British Museum.

Sloane and I at the British Museum.

The sheer immensity of Sloane’s collection poses a daunting challenge for the researcher, especially given its present division among different institutions. It might be useful to consider Sloane’s collection alongside smaller and more manageable (not to mention intact!) ones.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom as part of a senior-undergraduate course offered by the University of Saskatchewan. Coins in Early Modern Collections of Curiosities was a hands-on study of coins in two early modern cabinets of curiosities: John Bargrave’s seventeenth-century collection (Canterbury Cathedral) and William Constable late 18th century cabinet of curiosities  (Burton Constable).

Although Sloane’s numismatic collection has physically endured better than, say, his beloved butterflies, we don’t have many details about this part of the collection. The catalogues describing Sloane’s coins disappeared during the Second World War.  But by studying other complete (if comparatively small) early modern collections of coins, gives insight into Sloane’s goals and influences.

Cabinets of Curiosities were intended to represent the whole of Creation in microcosm, something far easier to discern with intact collections. In our age of narrow specialisation, Sloane’s collection has been divvied up so thoroughly between the British Library, the British Museumn, and the Natural History Museum, that the universalising ambition of Sloane can be hard to see. Smaller cabinets also provide an appreciation for how the sheer size of Sloane’s collection made it so exceptional.

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

So, how do you go about building a universal collection?

The world is filled with strange and wondrous objects and if you are as serious about building a microcosm of it as Sloane was, then you’ll need to get your hands on some pretty weird artefacts. These can range from simple oddities like a “rope snapped by a strong man,” to an alicorn or even a horn from a woman’s head. 

Not all of Sloane’s contemporaries were enthusiastic about his penchant for collecting almost anything that fell into his hands. As Horace Walpole, one of the trustees Sloane appointed to posthumously oversee his collection said:

You will scarce guess how I employ my time; chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir hans [sic] Sloane is dead, and has made me one of the trustees to his museum. . . . He valued it at fourscore thousand; and so would any body who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams also expressed similar sentiments about the value of Sloane’s collecting in an ironic ode on the subject. In this poem he claimed that he was acquiring for Sloane’s “nicknackatory”  such fantastic curiosities as Dido’s sword, Eve’s snakeskin, Adam’s fig-leaf, Noah’s stuffed pigeon, a sultry glance from Cleopatra and a few “strains of Cicero’s eloquence.” He even suggested that Sloane’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction extended  to his medical practice… Sloane has acquired such invaluable medicine as: [1]

The stone whereby Goliath died, Which cures the head-ache, well apply’d.

It is certainly worth noting that Sloane’s medicine chest contained some items that we would now think of as pretty odd, such as holding bezoars (a mass from a goat’s intestines) as sovereign against poison.

Many major English museums originated–like the British Museum–in personal cabinets of curiosities, but these were so integrated with other collections that the institutions are uncertain about the provenance of a number of the artefacts in their care. For historians, this tendency to merge collections rather than to preserve them in pristine isolation (as the British Library treats stamp collections) may seem unfortunate.

However, this disregard of previous collectors and focus on the artefacts themselves was also the general practice of Sloane and his contemporaries. For instance, Elias Ashmole’s collection (which became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) was largely grounded in the Ark of the Tradescants. Sloane himself was (in)famous for how much of his incomparable collection was built on the wholesale acquisition of the collections of others.

Just as Sloane was attempting to present the world in microcosm, the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum can be seen as an attempt to represent Sloane’s collection in microcosm. Our class visit to the gallery was an opportunity to see items from Sloane’s collection, with its strange juxtaposition of naturalia and classicism. This gives a small taste of the experience that Sloane’s contemporaries might have had when visiting his in Chelsea so many centuries ago. It is a powerful moment to actually see the physical objects of centuries ago, rather than merely to read about them or look at pictures. The heady experience of actually seeing the objects is of course why–both in Sloane’s time and today–museums are so popular. Cliche but true, they make history come to life!

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012), 120, 126-128.