Category: Americas

Bad Blood and Indecent Expressions

By Matthew DeCloedt

Standing before the Jamaican government’s ‘Councill’ in the spring of 1689, an unnamed doctor explained how comments spoken under his breath could have been construed as defamatory. He was, the man said, simply unhappy with how the administration had treated him and might have accidentally said as much in the presence of others.

Bow Street. Credit:

Bow Street Trial. Credit:

Allegations of slander and libel were common features of public life in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies. Manuals were even available to help those accused of having spoken ill of the government defend themselves.[1]

Proof, in the form of witness testimony or a presumption of law, was required to convict an accused of libel in the 1680s. Such evidence established the defendant had the requisite state of mind when publishing defamatory material.[2] Without prima facie proof of sedition in the form of a printed text, the Council needed witnesses to substantiate the charge. In this case, it was the doctor’s word against his accusers’.

According to a letter written by H. Watson, resident of Jamaica, the doctor accounted for his actions before the tribunal by stating:

yt on ye sight of ye fleet sailing away [from Jamaica], & ye paym’t of his money not secured he might passionatly utter many indecent expressions, but not intentionally.

The doctor appealed to the rash character in every reasonable person, arguing that such sentiments could come out of anyone’s mouth. Hans Sloane must have disagreed, for it appears that he himself levelled the allegation against the doctor.

Sloane’s accusation of slander was substantiated by two witnesses who claimed they “heard [the doctor] say ye very same he spoke [to Sloane], w’ch they declared on their oaths”. Fortunately for the doctor, “severall witnesses… who were [near]by… either did not hear or would not remember w’t he spoke”.

Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Second Battle Of Virginia Capes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Watson does not divulge the Council’s final determination, so it is unclear whose word convinced it one way or the other. Regardless, the doctor claimed he would appeal to the Prince of Orange if he were found culpable. He expected “sudden releif from Coll Molesworth who is expected here [in Jamaica] w’th as much earnestness, as ye Turks expect Mahomet”.[3] In Watson’s view, therefore, relief was not anticipated anytime soon.

Was Sloane simply a patriot, unwilling to abide a slight against the Crown? Or, was there bad blood between himself and the doctor?

In the Natural History of Jamaica Sloane relays an account of one ‘Sir H. M. aged about 45, lean, sallow, coloured, his eyes a little yellowish, and belly a little jutting out, or prominent’. The Gentleman’s Quarterly claimed some years later that this patient of Sloane’s was Sir Hender Molesworth, not Sir Henry Morgan, as was previously supposed.

If this is true, Molesworth was one of Sloane’s patients and followed his instructions for a time. He seemed to be improving, but grew frustrated with the slow progress and consulted another physician. According to Sloane, his condition was not ameliorated by his personal habits. Perhaps it was the fact that he was unable

to abstain from Company, he sate up late, drinking too much, whereby he[…] had a return of his first symptoms.[4]

Sloane implored Molesworth to listen to his advice. Dr. Rose shared Sloane’s view and they convinced him to follow their directions once again.

Molesworth was getting better, but took a turn for the worse: “On this alarm he sent for three or four other Physitian”. The latter came to a conclusion that contradicted Sloane. The treatment Molesworth followed “almost carried him off”. Instead of going back to Sloane, he contracted a black doctor and his condition grew worse still. Finally: “He left his Black Doctor, and sent for another, who promis’d his Cure, but he languished, and his Cough augmenting died soon after.”

Molesworth died July 27, 1689. This is shortly after Watson’s letter reached Sloane, so it is possible that nothing ever came of Sloane’s accusation. Sloane might have taken offence at being replaced by a black doctor, choosing to exact revenge through trumped-up charges of treason. Whatever the case, there was likely a personal angle to the matter and Sloane does not seem to have acted as a disinterested protector of the Crown. Molesworth may have uttered indecent expressions, but Sloane was just as willing to dispense with good manners and reply in kind.

[1] C. R. Kropf, “Libel and Satire in the Eighteenth Century”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 8, 2 (1974-5), 153.

[2] Philip Hamburger, “The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press”, Stanford Law Rev (1985), 707.

[3] Could ‘Coll Molesworth’ have been a relation of Sir Hender Molesworth, whom he expected would come to his rescue?

[4] Sir Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (London: B.W., 1707), Volume 1, xcviii-xcix.

An Eighteenth-Century Botanist, Silk Merchant and Miner

Illustration of silkworm moth, 1792. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By Matthew De Cloedt

After reading Hans Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica Henry Barham saw an opportunity to strike up a correspondence. Barham first wrote Sloane in 1712, praising the utility of the NHJ and relaying that the two men had much in common. He then informed Sloane of his hopes to contribute to the project of researching the natural history of Jamaica, enticing him with unique information, odd specimens, and curious accounts of great slave healers.

Barham pursued each of his pastimes with great enthusiasm. A surgeon by trade, he was described by a jealous contemporary as a “Botanist-Silk-Merchant-Miner” after a political appointment by Jamaica’s Governor.[1] With a keen eye for business Barham used his knowledge of the island to impress upon Sloane the great economic opportunities it presented. There was more than a hint of truth to his critic’s contention, however, for Barham sought financial support from Sloane for ventures in botany, mining, mercantilism, and silk production.

In 1716 Barham traveled to London to explore the possibility of silk production in England. Staying at Great Carter Lane, he better acquainted himself with Sloane and was soon given the opportunity to present his short treatise, An essay upon the Silk-worm, to the Royal Society. Barham’s presentation must have gone well, for Sloane proposed him as a fellow in 1717. This was important, but only the beginning of the undertaking as far as Barham was concerned. As the investigation was “design’d for the Publick” what Barham really desired was exposure to individuals who could invest in his business.[2] To that end he sent Sloane multiple skeins of silk to be shown to the latter’s great network of contacts.

Sloane proved more useful than Barham could have imagined, connecting him to King George I’s physician Johann Steigertahl. In turn, Steigertahl ensured that Queen Sophia read Barham’s tract and promised to lobby the King on his behalf. This would have been a great coup for Barham, as he would have gained financial support and the royal seal of approval. Steigertahl assured Sloane the Queen was very interested in the possibility of producing silk domestically, assuring him the proposal was “well received when I offered it to Her Majesty.” Sophia believed it was possible to create an industry in England for she knew of “a good strong silk” produced near Luneburg. If silk was successfully cultivated in the German climate what was stopping the English from entering the market?

Steigertahl was required to stay close at hand while the Queen consulted with Mr. Appletree and Charles Spencer (third earl of Sunderland). Reassuringly, James Stanhope (first Earl Stanhope) promised Steigertahl he would personally speak to the King about the prospect of royal patronage for Barham’s silk business. Thus, Sloane was led to believe the prospects were good and the project might lead to collaboration with the Crown. Sloane’s letters to Barham are not in the collection, but given the positive tone of Steigertahl’s communications it would have seemed that there was a good chance Barham would soon be managing a silk farm.

Unfortunately things did not turn out as expected. Barham returned to Jamaica in 1720, either full of hopeful expectations for royal support or heartbroken that nothing came of Sloane’s correspondence with Steigertahl. Like his many other attempts to use Sloane to gather investors Barham’s attempt to produce silk in England floundered. Perhaps Barham was one of the many who lost opportunities after the South Sea Bubble burst.

Henry Barham truly was a “Botanist-Silk-Merchant-Miner.” Though his many attempts to use Sloane for material gain were failures he proved a useful contact. A significant amount of information that Barham collected on the medicinal qualities of plants in Jamaica was published in the second volume of Sloane’s important Natural History of Jamaica. However, recognition for his contributions to natural history was only part of Barham’s mission. Evident in his correspondence with Sloane is his desire to capitalize on the economic opportunities in Jamaica, England, and the Americas. He continued to write Sloane after the failure of his silk scheme, but his desire to become a wealthy man never materialized. Henry Barham died at his Jamaican home in 1726 in much the same position as when he first contacted Sloane.

[1] Raymond Phineas Stearns, “Colonial Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 1661-1788”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 8, no. 2 (Apr., 1951), 205.

[2] Henry Barham,“A Letter of the Curious Mr. Henry Barham, R. S. Soc. To Sir Hans Sloan, Bart. Vice-President of the Royal Society; Giving Several Experiments and Observations on the Productions of Silk-Worms, and of Their Silk in England, as Made by Him Last Summer”, Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), vol. 30 (1717-1719), 1036; Henry Barham, An essay upon the Silk-worm (London, 1719).

Hans Sloane’s New York Connections

I was just in New York at a rather fun Cookbook Conference, speaking on medicinal remedies in manuscript recipe books. As I was preparing for my first trip to New York, I idly searched the Sloane database, wondering whether Sloane had any New York connections. I found two letters that refer to New York.

Central Park, New York, February 2013. Photo Credit and Copyright: Mark Gudgeon. Used with permission.

The first is from Patrick Gordon, a naval chaplain, who wrote to Sloane in late April 1702. Gordon apologised for missing the last Royal Society meeting and recent Philosophical Transactions. He asked if there were any commands from the Royal Society for his upcoming residence in New York. Gordon noted that he would be residing in New York for several years. The Royal Society (and Sloane) relied on the reports of men deemed reliable (such as Gordon) for information about medical and scientific matters from across the world.

At present, no subsequent letters from Gordon are in the database, but letters from other men in North America suggest how this relationship might have functioned. Col. William Byrd, for example, wrote a few letters from North America between 1706 and 1710. He clearly referred to Royal Society directives in the information he gathered. Byrd even sent samples, such as roots to cure snakebites.

Sometimes requests for assistance came to Sloane from the other side of the world. On 30 October 1716, William Vesey of New York wrote to Sloane to thank him for medical advice.

The spires of the third Trinity Church (c. 1846) against the backdrop of 1 World Trade Center. Credit and copyright: Lisa Smith.

Vesey had been receiving Sloane’s advice for smallpox and was now recovering from it. Vesey, who was one of the early rectors of Trinity Church in Manhattan, had visited England in 1714-15.(1) As payment, Vesey enclosed five guineas. This was the equivalent of about £444 in 2005 and would have bought one cow in 1720.(2)

Sloane’s reputation as a physician was indeed international! That said, most of his patients from outside Britain and Ireland came from Jamaica, France and the Netherlands. Many were people who had travelled abroad (such as Isabella Pierrepont, the Duchess of Kingston) or, like Vesey, had heard of Sloane while in London (such as the Swedish ambassador, Count Carl Gyllenborg).

Although Sloane’s New York connections are not in themselves particularly impressive, they were a small part of a much wider global network of travellers and shared ideas.

(1) This I discovered on an amble about Lower Manhattan after writing this post. Vesey has a street named after him and is mentioned on the sign outside Trinity Church. See also the Wikipedia entry for William Vesey.

(2) This was calculated using the National Archives historical currency converter

Note: this entry was updated on February 13, 2012 with the information about Vesey’s occupation and travels.