One of my favourite letters in Hans Sloane’s correspondence is one written by twenty-eight year old Sloane to Sir Edward Herbert on the 17th of April, 1688 (British Library, Sloane MS 4068, ff. 7-9). It’s a lively account of Sloane’s experiences of the new world, including earthquakes and pineapples!
Sloane had arrived in Jamaica in December 1687, after a three month journey, to be the personal physician of the Duke of Albemarle, Governor of Jamaica. Although Sloane suffered from sea sickness during the journey, followed by a fever on arrival, he had settled into his new surroundings by April. His ailments had been but a trifle—“a little seasoning (as I call it)”—and he had since enjoyed perfect health. The climate, Sloane noted, was also more hospitable than people in England assumed. Mornings and evenings might be hot, but the rest of the day was temperate; “I’m sure”, he wrote, “I have felt greater heat in some parts of France then ever I did here”.
On the subject of local diet, Sloane wrote that the fruits were not as good as European ones. Pineapples, he thought, were “far inferior” to pippins, but the watermelons were “very good”. The local water was particularly excellent and he insisted that “it has preserved my life I’m sure”. Perhaps it had, since he was in good health—unlike the settlers he treated, such as the Duke of Albemarle and his crony, the Admiral Henry Morgan, whose dissolute behaviour was well-known. Many settlers, Sloane suggested, had “a false principle concerning the climate” and ended up killing themselves “by adding fewell to the fire & drinking strong intoxicating liquor”. Sloane’s letter hints at an underlying belief that whereas intemperate men would find a tropical climate difficult, a temperate man would find it temperate.
Since February, Sloane had come to “dread” the local earthquakes. He described the start of a local quake: “I finding the house to dance & cabinetts to reel I look’d out at window to see whither people remov’d house or no”. When he noticed the birds “in as great a concern as my selfe” and another shake occurred, he realised what was happening. He promptly “betook [himself] to [his] heels to gett clear of the house”. Before he even reached the stairs, the earthquake was over.
Sloane’s later report in the Philosophical Transactions (issue 209, 1694) is less humorous, but provides details about both the earthquake and his life in Jamaica. He was, for example, specific about the timing. Three small shocks occurred at eight in the morning, lasting only a minute. The report also included accounts from across the island. Ships in the harbour felt it, but one man on horseback didn’t even notice. A gentleman on his plantation “saw the ground rise like the Sea in a Wave” as it headed northward. Minor though it was, the earthquake still caused damage. Many houses were “crack’d”, “ruin’d” or lost tiles.
In the Phil. Trans., Sloane also revealed tidbits about his residence in Spanish Town and other Jamaican buildings. Sloane lived in a “high Brick House”. It must have been a good size, as he had to pass through two rooms to get to the staircase to go down. There was apparently a third (or fourth?) floor since “a pair of stairs higher” suffered the most damage from the tremors, with most items on the shelves falling down.
The island’s Spanish architecture, in contrast, was very practical: low houses consisting only of ground-rooms, with supporting posts buried deep in the ground. This, Sloane explained, was “on purpose to avoid the Danger which attended other manner of building from Earthquakes”. He noted, for example, that “Inhabitants of Jamaica expect an earthquake every year” and that some believed “they follow their Rains”. Given the frequency of earthquakes in the region and the impracticality of Sloane’s residence, it was a good thing for him that this was a minor one.
While in Jamaica, Sloane did more than collect flora and fauna specimens and treat his patients. He keenly observed the world around him, whether it was the taste of fruit and water or the style of local buildings. Sloane might harshly judge the habits of the settlers, but his 1688 letter reveals an otherwise affable and curious young man who was enjoying his stay in Jamaica, even if he didn’t care for pineapple.
 This referred to the process by which Europeans believed they would acclimatize to non-European climates, diseases, foods and waters.
 This fits with Wendy Churchill’s argument that Sloane attributed diseases to behaviour rather than to different climates or group complexions: “Bodily Differences? : Gender, Race, and Class in Hans Sloane’s Jamaican Medical Practice, 1687-1688”, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 60, 4 (2005): 391-444.