Category: Networks

Lost Letters in the Eighteenth Century

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Sending a letter around the turn of the eighteenth century was an uncertain business. Although the Penny Post (1680) had enabled the daily delivery of letters within ten miles of London, letters were generally sent with travellers or servants or, perhaps, by diplomatic channels, over longer distances. As Alice Marples recently hinted, warfare, lost ships, highwaymen, pirates and unreliable bearers were potential barriers to delivery. Hans Sloane’s correspondents, not surprisingly, had much to say on the matter of postal problems–including, sometimes, the letter-writer himself!

The path of sending letters was sometimes complicated. William Fraser forwarded Sloane a letter from Dr Martini in Riga. Fraser had left Martini’s letter behind in Hamburg by accident and had only just received it once more. Any replies were to be directed to Fraser at Robin’s Coffeehouse, which he would then forward to Martini in Riga. Fraser’s letter was undated, so there is no telling how long it took for Martini’s letter dated 20 December 1717 to reach Sloane. Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich had a detailed back-up plan that he needed when he did not hear from Sloane, despite sending several letters, in 1716. He wrote to John Woodward in England who then forwarded Sloane a copy of the original letter.

This was a wise decision when letters and packages might be lost. Letters sent between countries were especially at risk.  Denis Papin, for example, only learned in 1709 that Sloane had sent a letter to him in France when a mutual acquaintance told him. Johann Philipp Breyne, writing from Amsterdam, was disappointed in 1702 when he discovered that Sloane had never received his letter from Rome, which had included (tantalizingly) a “curious account”. But even letters sent within England might go astray. In April 1702, Abraham de la Pryme, writing from Thorne, was unsure whether or not Sloane had received his last month’s letter about a man bitten by a rabid dog. To make matters worse, the Philosophical Transactions that Sloane had sent him had also not arrived!

Despite the problems, people seem to have trusted the post enough to send valuable items through it. William Sherard reported in 1701 that several prints had arrived from Paris and were at the post office awaiting payment of customs fees. Sherard also promised that his brother, once returned from Paris, would send Sloane some books. John Ray, in 1697, let Sloane know that he had finally received Sloane’s package of flower specimens.

Of course, sometimes lost letters were the ones ignored buried under Sloane’s piles of correspondence. In May 1704, Nehemiah Grew wrote to Sloane about one of Ralph Thoresby’s letters (subject unspecified). Sloane had apparently not yet responded to or returned the letter, despite his promises for over half a year. This, Grew complained, put him in a difficult position. He demanded that Sloane return Thoresby’s letter immediately. Sloane presumably returned the letter and it seems likely that the letter was eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions (1704) as the (delightfully titled) “An Extract of a Letter from Mr Ralph Thoresby, F.R.S. to Nehemiah Grew, Fellow of the College of Physicians and R.S. concerning a Ball voided by Stool”.

Sloane’s lack of a reply to Grew and Thoresby does, however, make me wonder how many of these ‘concerns’ about lost letters were actually Sloane’s correspondents issuing polite reminders to reply— a strategy that is as useful  in the age of electronic communication as it was in the eighteenth century…

October 9 is World Post Day: the celebration of the Universal Postal Union, founded in 1874, which allowed for the development of a reliable international postal service.

For more on early modern letters and post, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (2012).

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Early Modern Friendship

By Alice Marples

We all miss our friends – whether they leave for study, work or holidays, their sudden absence in our daily lives can leave a bit of a gap. Most of us are fortunate enough to expect to see them again, sooner or later. Early modern absences were different, especially if they involved a lengthy journey to the New World. With countries at war, and the dangers of both high-seas and unknown lands, letters could take a very long time to go halfway around the seventeenth-century world. There were any number of possible reasons for miscarriage, some more deadly than others. Letters exchanged across these absences can therefore reveal the ways in which routine gossip and friendly banter were used to mask loss and genuine fear.

Neither the correct country or period – but you get the idea! [By Francisco Aurélio de Figueiredo e Melo (1854–1916) via Wikimedia Commons]

While Hans Sloane was in Jamaica, he frequently wrote letters home to colleagues in the Royal College of Physicians, to his scholarly patrons, and to regular punters in various coffeehouses, telling extraordinary tales of the New World. However, there appears to be a difference in the letters exchanged, depending on whether the correspondents were Sloane’s London-based friends or his far-away friends .

Though the highly-esteemed naturalist, John Ray, was a close and loving friend of Sloane’s for many years, he was almost entirely taken up with his own botanical cataloguing work at the point of Sloane’s imminent departure, and seems to think only in those terms: “If you goe to Jamayca I pray you a safe and prosperous voyage. We expect great things from you, no less than the resolving all our doubts about the names we meet with of Plants in that part of America.” Because he did not regularly see Sloane–however frequently they corresponded or visited one another–Sloane’s absence was, for him, no more an insurmountable issue than usual.

Sloane’s physician colleague, Tancred Robinson, on the other hand, missed him deeply. His first letter, in Robinson’s typical off-hand style, covers anxiety with medical banter, betraying his sincere affection and strong sense of Sloane’s physical distance:

My deare Dr This hopes to find you Safe at St Iago notwithstanding the great reports at London of the Drs dying at Sea, and of his being taken by Pyrates; I sacrificed daily to neptune for your preservation, your friends at Dicks and Bettys were mourning for you, but I conforted them with Cordiall and Alexipharmick draughts, they are all well and are like to continue so if they hear often from you, for without your frequent prescription wee can neither have health or so much as life. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 30)

Sloane, too, seems to have preferred to use his correspondence with his closest friends as a way of maintaining the same relationship they had while in close proximity. For example, much of his correspondence with William Courten contained advice for the elderly man on his health, acknowledging that his concern had grown now that he was no longer close at hand to watch over him. Sloane sought to ease the separation by reminding his old friend that he could anticipate his words and, therefore, not miss him at all:

you know my opinion about severall of your distempers & I am almost confident I am in the right, I hope for my sake you will abstaine as much from excesse in wine as the too good & complaisant humour will suffer you, you cannot doe me a greater favour then to be careful of your own health… I have att all times discoursd soe largely my opinion of the state of your body that I believe you may remember every thing very particularly. (Sloane MS 3962, f. 309)

In a later letter, Sloane longs to be reunited (though not at the expense of Courten’s health, however imaginary!): “you may be sure the last I have already is delightfull to me for this is indeed a new world in all things, I wishd heartily for you to day if you could have been back in your chambers at night, I find this place very warme.” (Sloane MS 3962, f. 310)

By writing in a way that maintained the natural, nuanced tones of the friendships left behind, correspondents remained bound together across vast distances. At home, reading letters aloud could conjure up the image of a person in the space they used to occupy. Robinson, for example, deliberately seeks to provoke an anticipated reaction from Sloane:

Wee are all overjoyed to understand by yours… that you weatherd your voyage so couragiously, and was in such good health under a fiery Sun, and new climate. I read your letter to all your friends at Dicks, Bettys, Trumpet, etc. who return you their best services, and hearty wishes for your welfare. Mr Courtin shewd mee your letters, and we often sacrifice a bottle to you. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 33)

Robinson is here either comforting the famously temperate Sloane with the assurance he and Courten are dutifully following his medical advice… Or teasing him over their defiance in his honour! If the latter, it is highly likely that Sloane would have been equal parts entertained, touched and infuriated by his friends in this instance. You can imagine him rolling his eyes as he closed the letter.

Missed Opportunities in Early Modern Exploration?

A map of "Terra Australis" by Jan Janssonius (1657). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Joop Rotte.

A map of “Terra Australis” by Jan Janssonius (1657). Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Joop Rotte.

By Matthew De Cloedt

In early December 1721 James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos, requested a meeting with Sir Hans Sloane. Brydges, a shareholder in chartered companies operating in New York, Mississippi, and Nova Scotia, wished to gain Sloane’s scientific expertise and advise an expedition of the Royal African Company headed by a “good Botanist” named Mr Hay. Brydges sent Francis Lynn, the company secretary, to Sloane’s residence three days later to answer his questions regarding the venture and to inform him of “the Nature of Drugs, plants, and spices” they were expecting to gather on the expedition.

Though the Royal African Company had lost its trading monopoly after the Glorious Revolution it continued to receive support from prominent individuals. Men like Brydges bet on its success, for the potential financial losses were negligible compared to the possible returns should a profitable, new commodity be discovered. Sloane was a natural choice for Brydges. He was wealthy thanks to his Jamaican interests, well connected to global trade networks, aware of the riches to be gained from botanical commerce, and friendly with the family of Brydges’s wife Cassandra Willughby. Sloane obliged Brydges’ request and directed company officials in Whydah to collect particular plant specimens. [1]

Sloane regularly received invitations to lend his scientific expertise or invest in business ventures. When he supported a person or company he connected them to a network that included the royal family and contacts around the world. Rejected proposals ended up in his large collection of manuscripts. Some of the more interesting schemes point to what might have been had Sloane seriously backed their proponents.

In the spring of 1716, shortly after he was created baronet, Sloane received a letter from Woodes Rogers asking for all the information he had on Madagascar. The Royal African Company had excluded individual traders from the West African coast, driving them to East African trade centres. English attempts had been made throughout the seventeenth century to establish meaningful trade in Madagascar, which was dominated by the Portuguese and Dutch, but they had little success. Rogers was determined to break into this market.

Rogers had already been a Colonial Governor and privateer in the Bahamas, but wanted to take on a more ambitious project in starting his own colony on Madagascar. There is no evidence that Sloane even replied, but his large library, reputation as a traveler and natural historian, and place within the scientific community attracted Rogers. It would not have been the first time Sloane helped a pirate.

John Welbe wrote several months after Rogers to request Sloane’s assistance. Welbe was in prison for a debt he failed to repay and promised to undertake a voyage to “Terra Australis Incognita” if Sloane helped him. Welbe had long been seeking a patron to support his voyage and forwarded a petition he had written to the Crown of Denmark as evidence. That Sloane was apparently Welbe’s second choice after the Danes indicates how great a patron he was considered to be, or how desperate Welbe was to be freed from bondage.

The unknown territory had been spotted before, but no serious attempt at settling there had been made. With Sloane’s help, Welbe might have gained the support of others with financial and/or natural historical interests in what became Australia, but nothing came of the plan. There is no evidence Sloane bailed Welbe out of prison or even replied to his letter, but in any case he did not sponsor any voyage to the “Terra Australis Incognita”. It would take another prominent Royal Society member, Joseph Banks, to really put Australia on the map.

With his busy medical practice and duties to the government, Royal Society, and Royal College of Physicians, Sloane was too busy to deal with all of the schemes proposed to him. But the map of the world by 1720 might have looked different if Sloane had chosen to throw the weight of the Royal Society and his social network behind Welbe or Rogers.

Counterfactuals aside, Sloane was an ideal patron for international scientific and commercial expeditions, for he had first hand experience. When he traveled to Jamaica in 1687 he was, like Mr Hay, a “good Botanist” trying to make a name for himself using science, commerce, and foreign travel as the foundation for a successful career. Understanding why Sloane ignored Welbe and Rogers might be simple. The two did acknowledge Sloane’s scientific expertise, but focused on securing his financial support. Sloane was not afraid of making money, but he was equally as interested in the opportunity to contribute to science through exploration and commerce. Appealing to this desire might have been the best approach.

[1] Larry Stewart, “The Edge of Utility: Slaves and Smallpox in the Early Eighteenth Century”, Medical History 29 (1985), 60-61.

Timing is Everything

William Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

William Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. Uploaded by: Materialscientist.

By Matthew De Cloedt

Hans Sloane received many gifts from myriad places and numerous people. The two books that Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of Lincoln, sent on 24 July 1722 were different. The titles might not have been noteworthy, or even mentioned in his letter, but the thanks they represented were deeply personal. Edmund’s uncle, Dr Thomas Gibson, had recently passed away and Sloane had been the attending physician during his final days. The care and treatment made an impression on the family and they greatly appreciated his service.

But before Sloane had a chance to read Edmund’s thank you letter, he had three requests for recommendation letters to respond to: all wanting to replace Dr Thomas Gibson who had been the physician to William Cadogan, 1st Earl Cadogan.

As both a court physician and the President of the Royal College of Physicians, Sloane ordinarily attracted a great number of such recommendation requests. In this case, however, Sloane was an even better connection than unusual; his daughter Elizabeth had married the Earl’s younger brother Charles in 1717. The post was prestigious, for Earl Cadogan had served with distinction during the War of the Spanish Succession under John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. This was the opportunity of a lifetime and the competitors wasted no time in petitioning Sloane for support.

The applicants for the position were strong and each was aware of the need to secure Sloane’s assistance first. Philip Rose urgently wrote: “Dr Gibson being dead… I thought it improper to loose time”. Frank and to the point, Rose assured Sloane that he was worthy of the post and would forever remember whose patronage secured the job for him. Unfortunately, he had a black mark on his record–an outstanding debt with the Royal College of Physicians. It was not until 1728 that the debt was settled and this no doubt hindered his chances of preferment.

John Woodward was a noted physician, natural historian, antiquary, and active member of the Royal Society and Royal College of Physicians. He hoped to see Sloane at a dinner in Greenwich with apothecaries, where they might discuss the job, among other things. Woodward’s chances might have been hampered by the fact that he and Sloane had a spat over a decade before. During an argument over the nature of plant physiology and respiration Woodward insulted Sloane, refused to apologize, and then attempted to remove Sloane from his post at the Royal Society. This bad blood between the two led to Woodward’s absence from actively engaging in the Royal Society business. It, perhaps, would have taken a considerable amount of charm and interesting table talk to overshadow their previous conflict. (That said, Woodward–himself a collector–did write Sloane several other letters about their mutual interests after the dispute of 1710!)

Sir Richard Manningham, the celebrated man mid-wife, claimed to be embarrassed to ask Sloane for his support because of the “Considerable salary” attached to the post. He asked Sloane to “forgive this rash weakness and folly” on his part. Manningham was well qualified. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians in 1719, then was knighted in February 1722. There were no significant blemishes on his record to this point in his career, save his self-confessed boldness in contacting Sloane in the hopes of his support.

Each of the hopefuls vying to replace the late Dr Thomas Gibson recognized the importance of reaching Sloane first. The competitiveness of the medical profession required well-connected contacts like Sloane to gain the positions with the most prestige and largest remuneration. It is not clear whether or not any one of them got the job, but a cursory vetting of the candidates nearly three hundred years later suggests some had more faults than others. As Sloane was the late Dr Gibson’s physician, it might have helped their chances to lament the fact he had passed away instead of immediately requesting Sloane’s backing.

Citizen Science and Flying Ant Day, in 1707 and in 2013

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

Oecophylla smaragdina males preparing for nuptial flight, Thailand. Image credit: Sean.hoyland, Wikimedia Commons.

“What the heck!?” I spat, as an ant flew into my mouth. The winged ants were everywhere: crawling on the ground or (seemingly) flying dozily around. It was a warm and humid afternoon and I envied the laziness of the ants. But I had a tube train to catch and I hurried off without paying them much attention. It was only when I arrived in the centre of London and spotted more ants that I began to wonder what was happening.

This was the U.K.’s famed ‘Flying Ant Day’ in which Queen Ants and the males take to the skies in their grandly titled nuptial flight. Although this annual event occurs wherever colonies of ants live, I had somehow never noticed it on the prairies of Canada–only discovering this natural spectacle about ten years ago while walking the urban pavements of London.

The 2013 rush has apparently already started, with ants in places as diverse as Cambridge and Nottingham already having had their day in the sun this week. There have also been several seagull traffic deaths in Devon, caused by the gulls gobbling down too much ant acid.

Last year, the Society of Biology enlisted the aid of “citizen scientists” to keep track of times, dates and weather conditions of sightings. What they found was that the nuptial flight occurs after a low pressure system and within a tight time frame, usually over a few days. The ants also make their flights between four and six in the afternoon.

The idea of citizen scientists compiling data for a scholarly society strikes me as, perhaps, rather familiar: early modern Royal Society anyone? William Derham (1657-1735), for example, was a clergyman by day and a “citizen scientist” by night—specifically, an astronomer—who kept Hans Sloane and the Royal Society apprised of his star-gazing. (I discussed Derham’s interests in another post.) Derham also passed on observations from other people, including Mr Barrett’s* account of flying ants in 1707.

I was lately at our friend Mr Barrets, who desired me to acquaint the Society concerning the Flights of Ants (that made such a noise in London last Sumer) that he hath for many years last past constantly observed the Flight of that Insect on the very same, or within a day or two of that very day of the Month, on which they fell in London. About the year 1689 or 1690 (as I remember) he said he saw a cloud of them, and several times since he hath seen the same. He took it for a Cloud full of Rain approaching towards him, & was much surprized to find it a vast Number of Ants only frisking in the Air, & carried aloft as he imagined only wth the gentle Current of the Air. He is of opinion that they allways come fromward the Westerly points. I hope our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately, that we may make a judgment from what parts they came. The next day after they fell in London, I remember we had in divers places many of them, particularly at Mr Barrets, & South-Weal & Burntwood. I call them Flying-Ants, because Mr Barret (who is a good Judge) said they were such that he saw.

In 1707, people were as fascinated by the sight of flying ants as we are today, with the Flight causing quite a stir in London in 1706. Although observers weren’t even sure if the insects really were ants, or why they were flying in a mass, they were clear on three points: that it was a regular annual event, that air currents enabled the Flight, and that it occurred on multiple days across the south of England.

Over three-hundred years on, we’re rediscovering that Flying Ant Day is region specific in the U.K. and is affected by weather. It is intriguing that modern science still hasn’t explained the specific triggers for the Flight of Ants and has once again turned to citizen scientists to provide a larger data set for study. Despite Derham’s hope that “our curious Members will for the future observe them more accurately”, the Royal Society doesn’t appear to have taken much interest in the Flight of Ants. Maybe the Society of Biology will have more success.

If I happen to spot the Flying Ants this year, I plan to take part in the Society of Biology’s 2013 Flying Ant Day survey. This time, I’ll follow in the footsteps of Barrett and Derham by closely observing the natural world at my doorstep instead of dashing past it.

UPDATE, 22 July: The nuptial flight occurred in my London neighbourhood today, just before 5 p.m. I could not avoid observing nature on my doorstep, which had become a graveyard for a number of them. Here are two, caught in between a bit of flying around my garden. (And I did fill in my survey!)

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

Flight of the Ants, 22 July 2013. Image: Lisa Smith.

*Probably Dacres Leonard Barrett, a member of the Fuller family (relations by marriage to Sloane) and occasional correspondent of Sloane’s.

Letters Sealed With a Kiss in the Republic of Letters

Today is International Kissing Day. In June, on National Kissing Day (UK), I spread some misery instead of joy with a sad tale of a kiss. But kisses weren’t always so terrible. A quick search of the database reveals that men in the Republic of Letters were no strangers to sealing their letters with a kiss. Well… at least referring to kisses in their letters! Such letters highlight that eighteenth-century kissing was as much about gratitude and submission as friendship for then men of the Royal Society.

A nobleman kissing a lady's hand, Pietro Longhi (1746). Historical images of hand-kissing between men are difficult to find!   Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, photograph taken by user Ammonius.

Historical images of hand-kissing between men are difficult to find! This picture is a nobleman kissing a lady’s hand by Pietro Longhi, 1746. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Ammonius.

Richard Waller in 1696 wrote to apologise that he was proving a poor Royal Society secretary because he could so rarely come into London for the meetings. He did, nonetheless, promise that when he next saw Sloane, he “will not fail to kiss [Sloane’s] hand”. The letter expresses gratitude to Sloane who has been taking on the bulk of the secretarial work. In some ways, this seems equivalent to the modern “I could just kiss you”. But hand-kissing had a more significant meaning  in early modern Europe than simple affection and gratitude: to kiss someone’s hand was a form of submission. Waller’s gratitude was great indeed!

The reference to kissing in the letter of George Bennis suggests that Sloane was becoming an important patron relatively early in his career. Bennis—who otherwise left little mark on the Republic of Letters or Royal Society—wrote in 1698 that he had waited on Sloane several times, but had not been able to speak with him. As Bennis now needed to return to Ireland, he instead left Sloane some botanical samples along with the letter. In particular, Bennis noted his regret at being unable to kiss Sloane’s hand. Bennis’ kiss was one of deference to a potential patron, and another Irish man who had managed to make it big in Britain.

But sometimes a kiss is a mark of true friendship. A letter from well-known botanist William Sherard in 1699 referred to kissing within the context of friendship. The two men had several close mutual acquaintances (John Ray and Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, for example) and their correspondence over time shows a mutual interest in each other’s projects and lives. In this letter, he mentioned his excitement at returning home from Paris, along with various details about book buying and auctions. In addition to promising Sloane that he would make some purchases for him, Sherard exlaimed that he couldn’t wait to kiss Sloane’s hand very soon.

So far I have only found a handful of references to kisses in the Sloane correspondence, either in the database or in the manuscripts. This might be a function of data selection; a seemingly casual reference to kissing might easily be overlooked as a pro forma statement that didn’t need to be noted. That said, an early eighteenth-century guide to letter-writing, The Secretary’s Guide (1705), does not provide any samples between men that mention hand-kissing.The infrequency of kissing references suggests that any ones mentioned in Sloane’s letters are meaningful.

One thing is clear: we need to pay attention to these tiny details. A kiss was never just a kiss in the Republic of Letters .

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).

Sloane: Part of the Family

By Alice Marples

When thinking about famous figures in the history of science, it can sometimes be easy to forget that they were not working in isolation. A lot of recent research has focused on exploring the domestic contexts of scientific production, and paints a picture of kitchen table-top experiments and hoards of curious visitors mucking up the carpet. Men of science were the heads of households, supported (and, likely, just about tolerated) by their families and servants, who were often called in to help.

Yet, when I first began reading through Sloane’s correspondence, I was still surprised by the extent to which wives and children featured in the letters. The broad geographical shape and intellectual form of the international Republic of Letters, linking scholars who had often never met, necessitated a certain contractual form of conduct in epistolary exchanges: elevated, polite and very, very formal. Though the letters in Sloane’s collection are polite, the business discussed within them flows easily from formal to familial, with the knowledge exchanged alternating between the scientific and the social.

John Smybert, The Bermuda Group (1728-1739), Yale University Art Library. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The first letter from John Ray (1627-1705) – a naturalist-parson and patron of Sloane’s, easily the single person with whom he corresponded the most – concludes his discussion of the state of the scientific community with the request that Sloane should come visit Ray in Black Notley, as he and his wife would love to see him. There is a great deal of affection communicated through these letters, giving the impression that Sloane was very much part of the furniture within the Ray household.

Sloane’s increasingly long absences as he became busier and more successful as a physician and collector are mourned by Ray, his wife, and their daughters. After a relatively big gap in their communication in which Sloane is almost entirely taken up with administering to the rather-troublesome Lady Albermarle and her frequent health issues, we have this from Ray:

Monday last I received your kind letter attended with a rich Present of sugar to my Wife: They were both very gratefull & acceptable…. You have so highly pleased & obliged my Wife, that she is much in commendation of your generosity, & returns you her humble service & hearty thanks; wishing that you were here to partake of some of the effects of your kindnesse.

This present of sugar to the Ray family to make up for his absence was one which Sloane returned to again and again:

My little family are, I thank God, at present all in health…. We often tast of your kindnesse, & as often remember you, & talk of you. My wife salutes you with the tender of her most humble service. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 256)

Certainly lots of letters were written by current or future members of the Royal Society on account of the health of their family, such as Sir Godfrey Copley’s wife or William Sherard’s mother. Similarly, Sloane’s wife is present in many of the letters, with doctors, botanists and lords courteously asking after her whenever she is ill.

But networks built by demonstrable medical expertise and social power did not exist within a void. They were supplemented by personal connections maintained through everyday exchanges among friends and associates, and their families, all of whom were present within the learned community. For example, Sir Godfrey Copley felt compelled to beg on behalf of his wife that Sloane send her the reciept of Making Bacon like that of Westphalia. (Sloane MS 4036, f.188)

Wives swapped housemaids, passed on recipes and recommendations, and actively sought positions for friends and servants through the epistolary exchanges. Sons began working for individuals and companies after being recommended to them by those who knew their parents. Daughters were introduced to improving elder ladies, and written about fondly in letters between fathers. All these interactions appear in the letters as part of the scientific and scholarly information. These letters offer rewarding traces of domestic life, friendship, the role of women in patronage, and the familial world of natural history.

Sloane existed at the centre of a world-wide network of letter-writers, yet it is important to remember that often Sloane’s correspondence was not quite the same sort of exchange as that of the virtuous Republic of Letters. Time and again, there is evidence within the letters of the personal, informal and integrated worlds of families and friends behind this polite language and professions of worthy enterprise.

On this note, I leave you with the warm but exasperated postscript written along the edges of Sir Arthur Rawdon’s letter to Sloane, dated 30th March 1692:

My wife has made me open my letter agen to tell you that she is much troubled that you should write word that you were afraid the cause of my silence was that you had disobliged either her mother or her, she hopes you have a better opinion of them. (Sloane MS 4036, f.115)

Sloane was sometimes so deeply involved with the extended families and friends of his correspondents, that even his patron’s mother-in-law (assisted by his wife) was able to tease him.

Making Sense of Hans Sloane’s Collections

When Sir Hans Sloane died in 1753, the British nation purchased his collection and established the British Museum. Over the next two centuries, the collection was dispersed as new institutions were formed. The Natural History Museum, which opened in 1881, acquired Sloane’s plant and animal collections. The British Library, established in 1973, laid claim to the manuscripts and printed books. If this sounds orderly, it wasn’t!

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Box from the Herbarium at the Natural History Museum, with labels. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Just to give a hint of the complexity, it’s worth noting that bits of Sloane’s correspondence appear on the backs of natural history drawings that are held in the British Museum and some of his reading notes appear in printed catalogues at the Natural History Museum.

Considering the scope of Sloane’s collections, it is surprising that relatively little scholarly work has been done on them. But the three institutions are trying to bring Sloane’s collections back together virtually in a fascinating project, Reconstructing Sloane. The first step was The Sloane Printed Books Project, a catalogue that allows researchers to get a sense of what Sloane’s original library looked like and how it changed over time. The second step is a grant that has allowed the institutions to partner with Queen Mary University of London and King’s College London to fund three collaborative doctoral awards. Alice Marples, Felicity Roberts and Victoria Pickering have all taken on the challenge of reconstructing parts of Sloane’s vast collections. To my delight, they will be occasionally sharing the fruits of their research on The Sloane Letters Blog.

Alice (KCL ), who has a background in Enlightenment coffee-houses, is researching Sloane’s correspondence and manuscripts at the British Library. In particular, she is looking at Sloane’s network of colleagues, commercial traders and contributors to understand Sloane’s public persona. Through his correspondence, he was able to construct a space for material exchange, scientific endeavour and social interaction.

Felicity (KCL) has degrees in English and eighteenth-century studies. She is looking at Sloane’s natural history drawings, primarily held at the British Museum, to discover how Sloane interpreted and visualized the natural world. Her study is situated within London’s wider philosophical and literary culture, which disucssed concepts of nature, natural order, truth, beauty and authenticity.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Herbarium drawer filled with boxes of vegetable substances, Natural History Museum. Image copyright: Victoria Pickering, 2013.

Victoria (QMUL) previously studied the early modern transatlantic slave trade. Her project, “Putting Nature in a Box” examines Sloane’s collection of 12000 small boxes of vegetable substances, which included seeds, bark and curios. Using Sloane’s hand-written, three volume catalogue, she is tracing who sent what items, the origins of the substances, and Sloane’s intended uses for the objects.

What is, perhaps, most exciting about these projects is that they are not undertaken in isolation. The students and their supervisors at all six institutions (and occasionally, me!) have regular seminars. Along the way, seminars have included discussions about readings, visits to the collections or guest speakers. The interdisciplinary collaboration is providing us with an appreciation of the sheer size of Sloane’s collections and how each part fits together.  The students’ individual projects are enhanced by a wider understanding of curation, cataloguing and collecting: how Sloane’s collection has been constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed over time. With a collection so large and dispersed, collaboration is also the only way scholars will ever make sense of Sloane’s complete collections.

There are other advantages, too. “Working collaboratively”, writes Victoria, “provides a wonderful support network” and is “an interesting and exciting opportunity”—and besides, there is “nothing quite like being able to talk to another PhD student about your work and for them to know exactly what you’re talking about.” It is also, perhaps, the best way of studying a man who was a super-mediator in his own life, and one who valued the sharing of knowledge. As Alice puts it, this “collective engagement with knowledge production and diffusion is something that Sloane himself would no doubt appreciate!” 

No doubt.

Doctor Sloane and His Patients in Eighteenth-Century England

In April, I received the good news that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada had decided to fund my project “Reconstructing the Lives of Doctor Sloane and His Patients in Eighteenth-Century England” for three years.This may have resulted in an impromptu dance around the room, but fortunately the walls won’t talk…

The dance of death. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The dance of death. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This is in many ways a project born of snoopiness. I have always loved to read about the mucky details of daily life, and the letters written to Sloane offer much by way of gore, suffering and family quarrels. But one thing has always frustrated me in my research: the size of Sloane’s correspondence (upwards of forty volumes, depending on what is counted). So many letters, so many stories, so often hard to find!

The goal of this phase of the project is to complete the database, Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online, and to produce a series of microhistories about Sloane and his patients. While the collection remains indexed only by author (as it largely is still), it is difficult to navigate. The purpose of my database is to make it possible to search Sloane’s correspondence for details, such as people mentioned, social occasions, or specific illnesses. The database also makes it easier to find all references to a patient, whether made by a medical practitioner, friend or parent. This is when, to my way of thinking, things start to get really interesting.

The family records of the Newdigates, for example, show that Sloane treated several members of the family. Elizabeth Newdigate’s letters to Sloane reveal a troubled young woman, beset by family strife that included two siblings with insanity, a lawsuit by the eldest son, and the daughters’ mysterious suit before Parliament (which was dropped) for their father’s “unnatural acts”. Reading the family references in Sloane’s letters alongside the Newdigate papers will be useful in uncovering the family’s dysfunction and the wider context of Elizabeth Newdigate’s illness letters. Gender, age and status all played key roles in the disputes. By reading cases like these alongside available family archives, I can use the medical letters as a point of entry into understanding the moments of illness within the wider context of patients’ and families’ lives.

The database can also be used to trace relationships. Consider, for example, Sloane’s relationship with the Duchess of Albemarle.  Although Sloane went to Jamaica with the Duke of Albemarle, he remained the Duchess’ household physician when he returned to London and even after the Duchess remarried the Duke of Montagu. The Pierreponts were the Duchess’ birth family, while the Cadogans were related to the Duke of Montagu: both families were regular patients of Sloane’s. In 1719, Sloane’s daughter even married into the Cadogan family. The letters from this group of related families provide insight into the workings of patronage, kinship, and Sloane’s career, as much as their collective health.

Sloane himself is a fascinating subject of study. There are only a handful of letters about Sloane’s family and business in the correspondence, but there are also many small bits of scattered information: what he prescribed, others’ attitudes toward him, references to his opinions, details about property management, clues to his family and social life…  His family life, too, was important for his career. He married Elizabeth Rose (née Langley), who was from a well-to-do London family and a widow of a wealthy Jamaican landowner; her wealth aided his ability to maintain the appearance of a gentleman (important in attracting wealthy clients) and to collect objects from around the world (which reinforced the image of him as a man of science). At the height of his career, Sloane was President of the Royal College of Physicians, President of the Royal Society and a royal physician—a man very much at the centre of the medical and scientific community, with opportunity to influence the health of the nation.

Case histories such as these will allow me to examine the way in which social and political networks, state-building and power structures were reinforced in the everday life of the early modern household.

And, of course, maximise my snoopiness.