Collecting the World: The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane
James Delbourgo
Penguin Allen Lane
508pp, 42 colour and 27 black-and-white illustrations and three maps
Hardback, £27.95
US edition, Harvard University Press, $35

When the British Museum opened its doors in 1759, it became the first free national museum in the world. Collecting the World is the first comprehensive biography of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), the collector whose 71,000 objects became the founding collection of the British Museum. It is a detailed and illuminating reconstruction of life in Enlightenment London, and an affectionate though sometimes critical insight into the mentality of the collector.

Born in Killyleagh, Ireland, Sloane studied medicine in London and France. In 1689, he established himself as a society physician in Bloomsbury Place, close to the eventual site of the British Museum. That was also the year in which Parliament settled the constitutional outcomes of the Glorious Revolution. Sloane, who was to treat Queen Anne and George I, became an intimate part of the 18th-century establishment, both socially and intellectually. In 1719, he was elected President of the Royal College of Physicians, and in 1727, he succeeded Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society.

Sloane had already begun his collection. In 1687, the year in which Newton published Principia Mathematica, Sloane travelled to Jamaica as physician to the island's new governor, the 2nd Duke of Albemarle. Prone to 'epic debauches', at one reception in Jamaica Albemarle drank so much that blood 'leaped out in a small stream' from his nose, while Sloane struggled to staunch it. Meanwhile, Sloane botanised among the slaves and sugar, built up a naturalist's cabinet, and collected medical case histories from among the settlers for his Natural History of Jamaica.

Sloane, writes Delbourgo, 'responded solicitously to white patients' complaints', but he 'repeatedly challenged slaves' statements about their health'. It was 'very ordinary', Sloane claimed, for 'servants, both whites and blacks, to pretend, or dissemble sickness'. He seems to have believed that Africans were constitutionally different: there was, he thought, a flesh-eating affliction that was 'peculiar to blacks', and he attributed this not to the appalling conditions of their slavery, but to 'some peculiar indisposition of their skin'. 

Back in London, Sloane's career took off. He was one of Daniel Defoe's 'amphibious' types, as comfortable conversing in grand houses as he was at negotiating in business. His rise helped to elevate the medical profession; in 1716, he became the first doctor to receive an hereditary baronetcy. Meanwhile, his 'cabinet of curiosities' expanded with the wholesale purchase of the complete collections of William Courten and James Petiver, forcing Sloane first to buy the house next door, and then to move to larger premises in Chelsea. When he died in 1753, the 93-year-old Sloane pulled off a final business coup, bequeathing his collection to George II on the condition that a grateful nation pay £20,000 to his heirs.

Sloane's early collecting reflected Britain's struggle for imperial expansion and the effort of dispersion that spread the nation's influence and scientific method around the world. It also mirrors the multiple processes by which European empires ingested the materials and ideas of the non-European world.

The origins of Sloane's collection in Jamaica, and his wrongful application of the scientific method to justify slavery, are part of that story, in what Delbourgo calls both its 'troubling' and 'enlightening' aspects. The British Museum is a monument to liberal civilisation, but its founder was very much a man of his time. Delbourgo, who is a professor at Rutgers University, artfully draws the global map of Sloane's imagination, showing us the world that made Sloane, and how he accumulated a world of objects in its image.
Dominic Green