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Sloane in Jamaica

Sloane stayed in Jamaica for 15 months and spent all his free time exploring the island collecting hundreds of specimens. He made note of how the plants were used locally for food, medicine and in many other ways.

Title page to Volume 1, Sloane's Natural History.

Title page to Volume 1, Sloane's Natural History.

Among his collections was the first cocoa plant and he took a recipe for drinking chocolate back to England. Sloane continued collecting throughout his life and his collection formed the basis of the British Museum, from which the Natural History Museum was later founded.

Back in England, he made a careful list of all his plants. Later he wrote about his discoveries in his book called ‘Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, St Christophers and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs and Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Insects, Reptiles, &c. Of the last of those ISLANDS.

That's quite a title, so it’s usually called just the Sloane's Natural History.

Sugar and slaves

When Sloane arrived in Jamaica, the island had been a British colony for less than 20 years. Before that, it had been a Spanish colony for over 250 years.

The Spanish invaded the island in 1509 and more or less wiped out the island’s first people, the Tainos (or Arawaks) who came from South America.

The Spanish brought people from Africa to Jamaica as slaves to work on plantations of tobacco, coffee and sugar cane. Many escaped when the British arrived and lived as free people, but the British brought in thousands more.

Sugar was in great demand in Europe, but growing and making it was very hard work. Local people often refused to do it, so the British filled the labour gap by continuing the trade in enslaved people from West Africa.

Jamaica became the sugar capital of the world, and many British people made vast fortunes. Sloane himself later married the wealthy widow of a plantation owner.

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