Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2012 Issue

Exploring the Downtown National Library of Jamaica

Hsloanevoy

Hans Sloane's account of Jamaica.

BOTANY & CHOCOLATE

Though a work of natural history, Sloane’s book is still quoted in every civil history of Jamaica, its lengthy and versatile preface being one of the most interesting readings about the island. Everything of interest would attract his attention, as the oldest Spanish ruins in Jamaica, for example. When the conquistadore Juan de Esquivel took possession of the island in the name of Diego Columbus, in 1509, he established a colony named Nueva Sevilla. In the late 17th century, almost nothing remained of this first (or second, according to some) settlement that had been abandoned more than a hundred years ago. As a matter of fact, little was known of the Spanish reign in Jamaica. Sloane went to the North Coast to visit the ruins of Nueva Sevilla, especially those of the famous Peter Martyr d’Aghiera’s church. Martyr, the author of a respected body of work about the New World, never set a foot in Jamaica. He had been, nonetheless, appointed Abbot of the island – an honorary title - as he was an influential member of the Council of the Indies. The Spanish historian Padron suggests he was upset at the magnificent church the Abbot of the nearby Hispanola had erected ; so he ordered a bigger one to be built in Jamaica. Sloane gave a description of what remained of the ambitious front door of the building, including the wooden head of a saint with a knife going through his head. The size the church should have reached, if ever completed (which was never the case), gave an idea of the opulence of the colony at a time. The historical value of this testimony is so unique, it was reproduced word by word by the Barbadian Charles Leslie in his later A New and Exact History of Jamaica (1 vol. in-12°, Edinburgh, 1739, wrongfully credited to Sloane by Barbier in its French translation*, and still sold by most booksellers as Sloane’s account), and by almost every historian who wrote about the island ever since.

Hans Sloane also gave accounts of the sick he attended all over the island, including a certain « H.M » (Henry Morgan), whom he visited shortly before his passing, giving the last – and dull - description of the buccaneer. Sloane probably did not rest a lot. Still working as the personal physician of the Duchess, he would find time to roam the island to collect every natural specimen encountered. He loved plants and put them between two sheets of paper to dry them, planning to bring them back to the old and ignorant World. Whenever the subject of his attention was not so easily captured, he would ask his friend, the Reverend Garret Morr, to draw it from life – most of the copper-plates of the first volume were engraved from his drawings. Amongst the most intriguing things the botanist gathered were a live crocodile, an Iguana and a giant snake he said was tamed by an Indian it would follow like a dog to its master. Sloane noticed the inhabitants of the island were drinking a lot of chocolate, as a medicine. One of the most striking discoveries of the New World, chocolate, had then little in common with what we drink nowadays ; it was a thick mixture of cacao, spices, aromates and plants. « The nuts themselves are made of several parts, like an ox’ kidney, Sloane wrote about the beans of cacao, some lines being visible on it before broken, and his hollow within, its pulp is oily and bitterish to the taste. » When tasting the local chocolate, he found it « nauseous, and hard of digestion ». Never short of ideas, he sweetened it by adding some milk to it. The result was so palatable, he brought back his recipe to London where, according to the Natural History Museum (NHM) of London, it « brought him considerable income during his lifetime ». In the 19th century, long after Sloane’s death in 1753, his recipe was picked up by Cadbury. The wrappers read: « Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate, Prepared After the Original Recipe,» an achievement that could already fill any man’s life, as most kids around the world will tell you. But, believe it or not, Sloan had even more than milk chocolate to offer to the world !

*Histoire de la Jamaïque, alledgedly translated into French by a French Dragon (soldier) by the name of Raulin. 2 volumes in-12°, A Londres, chez Nourse, 1751 : 2ff, 285pp / 1ff, 248pp / 6 folding plates by N.B. de Poilly.

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