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Enlightenment: Natural world
Hans Sloane, Natural History of Jamaica, a book
London, AD 1707 and 1725
This book provides a remarkable account of the travels and observations made by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) while he was in Jamaica, an important turning point in his activity as a collector.
Sloane went to Jamaica in 1687 as physician to the Duke of Albermale, the newly appointed governor. Before his departure he had compiled a list of animal and plant specimens required by friends such as the English naturalist John Ray (1627-1705). During the fifteen months he was there he also assembled for himself a fine collection of plants, insects, shells, fish and other specimens.
The full title of the two-volume account of his travels was A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, etc. of the Last of those Islands. It was the first traveller's account to include illustrations, full Latin names and a detailed catalogue of the natural history and other artefacts found.
When he returned to London, Sloane tried to bring back live animals from Jamaica. Sadly the ‘guana' (lizard) fell overboard, the crocodile died, and a yellow snake escaped and was shot. But the descriptions and illustrations in his book provide us with important information about Jamaican vertebrates. He describes, for example, how the snakes were useful for destroying the black rats that had arrived on European ships and ate the sugar cane. Later when the snakes couldn't keep pace with the rats, Indian mongoose were imported but they were so effective that the snakes faced starvation. The mongoose also ate many lizards that were native to the islands. Sloane described and illustrated one of these, the great galliwasp, which later became extinct.
K. Sloan (ed.), Enlightenment. Discovering the (London, The British Museum Press, 2003)
A. MacGregor (ed.), Sir Hans Sloane, collector, sc (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)
K.D. Kriz, 'Curiosities, Commodities, and Transplanted Bodies in Hans Sloane's Natural History of Jamaica', William and Mary Quarterly, 57:1 (January 2000), pp. 35-78