Empire in the Cabinet of Curiosities

Empire in the Cabinet of Curiosities

James Delbourgo

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Jamaican Cherry-Tree specimen drawn by Garrett Moore for Hans Sloane, 1687-1689, Sloane Herbarium, Natural History Museum, London.

This project explored the pivotal yet overlooked career of Sir Hans Sloane (1660—1753), in particular his voyage to Jamaica in 1687, its eighteenth-century aftermaths and, more broadly, the relationship between collecting, natural history, and colonialism. The project utilized extensive research in the British Library’s Sloane manuscripts, the collections of extant early modern plant and animal specimens in London’s Natural History Museum (including the Sloane Herbarium), and ethnographic objects in the British Museum. It examined the production of Sloane’s collections of Caribbean plants, animals, and artifacts, and his lavish Natural History of Jamaica (1707–1725) during the era of the Atlantic slave trade; the imperial origins of the collections that the British Museum was created to house after Sloane’s death in 1753 (from which the Natural History Museum and British Library were later derived); and finally the use of specimens and objects in the public campaign to abolish the slave trade in the late eighteenth century. The first major study of Sloane in over half a century, this project uses material culture as well as textual evidence to pose fundamental questions about what it meant to collect in global and crosscultural contexts in an age of enlightenment and empire.