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. 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. 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.
 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.
 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).