Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2012 Issue

Exploring the Downtown National Library of Jamaica

Hsjama

From Hans Sloane's Jamaica.

A NATURAL CHAOS

In Octobre 1688, the Duke of Albermale died in Jamaica, probably from drinking too much of this wine his friends, and his physician, had warned him about as being much stronger than the one he would share with Henry Morgan in Europe. The Duke turned a deaf ear, and died. His widow decided to head back home and Sloane went with her, leaving Jamaica behind - probably with regrets.

As I was driving alongside the Rio Cobre towards the North coast of the island one day, I took a look at the luxurious vegetation that grows on the steep hills overhanging the river. This presence was so intense, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the burning desire to know this multitude, trees, plants, birds and insects ! It never lasted too long and I guess I will never come any closer in my life to what Sloane must have felt in front of the very same landscape, more than 300 years ago : the desperate wish to grab Life in its fullness, to put it into books, to classify, repertoriate, analyze… A botanical fury.


Unfortunately, the travel to England was quite fatal to Sloane's live collection : the crocodile fell sick and died, the Iguana went overboard and drowned in the ocean, while the gentle and giant snake was shot to death by a frightened sailor after it escaped from its jar. Back to London, the physician remained four years in the service of the Duchess before returning to private medicine « and set[ting] up what was to become an extremely lucrative practice in fashionable Bloomsbury, with clients including some of the richest and most prestigious figures of the day » (NHM). But he never gave up his intellectual and botanical occupations. In 1696, he published Catalogus Plantarum, a simple 232-page listing of the plants he had brought from Jamaica ; a first step towards the clarifying of the nomenclature, then subject to many confusions as the binomial system of Linnaeus was yet to be introduced. Carl Linneaus, as a matter of fact, came to visit Sloane’s « cabinet of curiosités » when still a young botanist, in 1736. In front of the 265 in-folio bound volumes of specimen (eight of them being dedicated to Jamaica) of Sloane’s library, Linnaeus felt dizzy, and had the feeling to face a « chaos » of knowledge. But what a rich one ! 12,500 pieces of vegetables, 6,000 shells, 9,000 insects, 1,500 fishes, 1,200 birds, the skeleton of a young elephant, an 18 feet long skeleton of a whale skull, as well as antiquities such as medals and coins (32,000), and an Eldorado for book lovers : « 50,000 bound volumes of published works (…) as well as an enormous collection of manuscripts and drawings on all manner of subjects, (…) undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive libraries of the time. » (editor) In his will, Sloane estimated he had invested 1,000,000 pounds in his collections.

THE WILL OF A BOTANIST

Sloane died a very wealthy man - milk chocolate, indeed, and his marrying the heiress of a West Indian planter. He also died an old man, at age 93. He remained the Secretary of the Royal Society for 20 years, up to 1723, but once his two volumes about Jamaica came out, he became a legend in his own time, and was appointed President of this prestigious Society, succeeding Sir Isaac (Newton). In 1741, he retired to Chelsea, aged 81. Meanwhile, he had also been very active in putting together The Philosophical Transactions, a scientific publication. In 1750, he published some testimonies of the dreadful earthquake that destroyed a large part of Port Royal in 1692, collected in Jamaica. They remain the best sources regarding this crucial event to date.


Proud of his collections - people who collect things tend, after a while, to consider that they are what they have - Hans Sloane could never find any existing institution worthy of his jewels and decided to leave them to the Nation under a few conditions. First, he wanted his two daughters to get 20,000 pounds each, as compensation. Then he wanted his collections to be accessible to the public. In June 1753, a few months after his death, the Parliament passed an Act to establish the British Museum to shelter his treasures. « The Government chose to raise the necessary funds by a national lottery, wrote the NHM, not an unusual practice in the 18th century. » Thus was born one of the most prestigious English institutions.

I closed the book in front of me, vaguely tired, all the figures still dancing in front of my eyes. For the first time in years, I suddenly felt like drinking a cup of milk chocolate. Guess I was not in the worst place to do so… « à la santé » of Mr. Sloane.

Thibault Ehrengardt / dreadzine(a)free.fr

Thibault Ehrengardt  writes from France.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

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