Tag: John Ray

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.

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 Friends in Early Modern England: Sloane and the Willughbys

The narrative usually associated with Sloane’s early career is one of luck, key patrons, and opportunities. It goes something like this… In 1685, aged 25, Sloane finished his medical degree at the University of Orange and moved back to London. Robert Boyle, his friend, helped Sloane to obtain an apprenticeship with the famous Thomas Sydenham. Two years later, Sloane had another wonderful opportunity when he became personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle, the new Governor of Jamaica. He returned to London in 1689, after the Duke died, but had during his stay in Jamaica found a wealthy wife and started an extensive exotic botanical collection. From this point, his career was set.

But Sloane’s correspondence suggests that Sloane worked hard to build up his own social and patronage networks. What often gets left out of the grand narrative of immediate success is that Sloane remained a household physician for four years to the widowed Duchess of Albemarle (who remarried, becoming Duchess of Montagu). A comfortable position, perhaps, but one of dependence. It wasn’t until 1693 that Sloane became an independent man. He began his private medical practice and became second secretary for the Royal Society. He also started a friendship with the Willughby family. In early modern Europe, patronage and friendship were closely related—the word ‘friend’ could refer to either, or both. Sloane’s relationship with the Willughbys reveals his care in cultivating friendships.

The Willughbys were a gentry family known for their naturalist interests. Francis Willughby (d. 1672) had been an active Royal Society member and his children Thomas and Cassandra also took an interest in natural history. Miss Willughby oversaw her brother’s gardens and catalogued her father’s library. They also had a connection with a close friend of Sloane’s, John Ray. Francis Willughby was Ray’s patron, giving him employment as household chaplain and tutor to the children and leaving him a generous annuity to continue his scholarship full time. Making friends with such a family could only help Sloane’s career.

Cassandra Willughby married widower James Brydges, Duke of Chandos in 1713. Sloane advised the Duke, who was involved in the Royal African Company, on botanical matters and slave inoculation. (Chandos family portrait by Kneller, 1713. Source: National Gallery of Canada, Wikimedia Commons. )

Sloane wrote the first letter to Miss Willughby on behalf of the Duke of Montagu in November. Lord Montagu enquired after the family’s health, remembering their ‘greate favours to his sonne the last summer’ (BL Sl. MS 4066, f. 164). In a second letter, this time on his own behalf, Sloane presented two favours (BL Sl. MS 4068, ff. 13-14). He shared the news that he had successfully proposed Thomas Willughby for fellow of the Royal Society and enclosed a recipe for cashew sugar enjoyed by Miss Willughby at Montagu House.

These were offerings to potential friends, but also emphasised Sloane’s scientific connections and sociability. The Royal Society nomination was Sloane’s initiative, ‘Mr Thomas Willughby giving me leave to propose him’. Sloane promised that when Willughby came to London, ‘I will wait on him & carry him thither’, something that further marked Sloane out as a well-connected member of the Royal Society.  Introducing the new Fellow was not just a courtesy, but gave Sloane a chance to show his own extensive network.

The recipe for Miss Willughby was particularly meaningful, suggesting at its most basic that he had attentively noticed her food preferences. Recipe exchange was also a form of social currency. Bonds were strengthened through sharing secret knowledge and assuming future reciprocity. The recipe also featured cashews, an imported, high-status food that casually referenced Sloane’s and Miss Willughby’s shared interest in botany. Sloane would later provide the Willughbys with other favours; his early offer of service to the family established a long-lasting relationship.

Willughby’s family home, Wollaton Hall (Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, 1773). Source: British Library, Wikimedia Commons.

In return, the Willughbys often consulted Sloane on medical matters. The correspondence does not specify other ways in which the Willughbys reciprocated, but there are hints. When Willughby thanked Sloane for his help in finding a house to rent, Willughby complained that he had not been able to come to London and instead hoped that he ‘could tempt [Sloane]’ to visit him in Nottinghamshire soon BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 13). The invitation was a return of Sloane’s help and indicated a genuine interest in seeing a friend.

Sloane also used his position with the family to request favours on behalf of John Ray’s family.  At Ray’s death in 1705, for example, his widow Margaret told Sloane that the family had been left with £40 annually. She appealed to Sloane to ask Willughby for half a year’s salary that would cover the costs from Ray’s illness and funeral. Willughby was indeed ‘very sorry Mr Ray has left his family in so ill a condition’ and given Ray’s reputation and service, was ‘willing to doe what you ask of me if there is reasonable occasion in charity to the widow to doe it’ (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24). Willughby provided other support to the family, sending £20 to Sloane for them and discussing a Ray monument (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 22).

Sloane’s assistance must have been effective. Margaret Ray thanked Sloane in 1706, sending her gratitude to Willughby. In this case, Sloane tapped into his other friendships to help the Rays.  The Willughbys were Ray’s patrons, with Thomas Willughby paying £12 more annually than his father’s will specified (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24), but Mrs Ray did not feel able to approach them directly.  Sloane, however, was in a good position to help, being Willughby’s friend and social equal.

When Sloane met the Willughbys, he was at a transitional point in his career. He was starting to be able to use his newfound status to expand his circle of friends and potential sources of patronage. By the early eighteenth century, Sloane had developed extensive scientific, medical and collecting networks through which he could obtain, give and negotiate favours. Sloane’s success was not just a matter of luck and important patrons, but was closely tied to his efforts in building relationships and exchanging favours, just as he’d done with the Willughbys. The idea of winning friends and influencing people as a career strategy is not just a twentieth-century concept…

And Sloane was very, very good at it.

A longer version of this case is discussed in my soon-to-be-out chapter, “Friend and Physician to the Family” in From Books to Bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and His Collections, eds. M. Hunter, A. Walker and A. MacDonald (University of Chicago Press, 2012).