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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Hans Sloane

Hans Sloane (1660-1753) spent fifteen months on Jamaica between 1687 and 1689 as the personal physician to the governor of the island, the Duke of Albemarle. During his stay on Jamaica he toured the island extensively, making detailed notes about its natural history, productions and people and collecting hundreds of specimens of the local flora and fauna, even employing an artist, the Reverend Garret Moore, to record them.

Engraving of the little blue heronThe little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), from: Hans Sloane. A voyage to the islands, Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S Christophers and Jamaica ... London: printed by BM for the author, 1707-25 [Rare Books Collection FOL. QH109.H5 S9]In 1696 Sloane published descriptions of the plants that he collected on Jamaica in Catalogus plantarum quae in insula Jamaicas ponte proveniunt, a work which the botanist John Ray called ‘a great treasure.’ However, the work that guaranteed Sloane's scholarly reputation was A voyage to the islands.

The first volume, which was published in 1707, deals mainly with the flora of Jamaica, while in the second volume (shown here), published in 1725, Sloane also gives a detailed account of the island’s fauna, as well as its climate, agriculture and trade links and the lives and customs of its inhabitants, both slave and free.

As he had in Catalogus plantarum, in A voyage to the islands Sloane was careful to make detailed reference to and acknowledgment of the works of other authors, thus avoiding in large measure the confusion between species that plagued works of natural history before the advent of Linnaeus’s binomial system of nomenclature.

Both volumes of Sloane’s work are beautifully illustrated with engravings by Michael van der Gucht (1660-1725). The plate on display shows the little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), identified by Sloane as Ardea coerula, and several species of hummingbird found in Jamaica. The species named Mellivora avis maxima by Sloane is of particular note as it is endemic to Jamaica. Known in English as the red-billed streamertail or doctor bird, it has the scientific name Trochiluspolytmus and is Jamaica’s national bird.

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