Statues of Sir Hans Sloane15 minute read

Some have dismissed the importance of “these ‘dead’ statues whose identities are known to few today had slaving interests” (Dresser, 2007, pp. 169), highlighting that imperial statues are often remnants of a forgotten past, stuck stranded in the present, that the general public remains ignorant to (Cherry, 2006, pp. 661 and 662 and 664). Yet, I would side with Cherry who argues that in spite of this imperial statues remain as culturally significant, even more so now, as we recognise the postcolonial interpretations of such artefacts in our neo-imperial age (Cherry, 2006, pp. 664). I am going to highlight why such imperial statues remain culturally significant through a critical engagement with the unique case of the statue of Sir Hans Sloane, highlighting how his statue brings about different interpretations, such as the sanitised intended representation of the man and one that recognises his implicit and explicit imperial ties (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27 and Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174 and Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and 7).

In addition, as seen with with recent developments in America, the movement of statues with comparable histories filled with racial exploitation, often brings into the forefront these racially exploitative or imperial histories behind them (McWhirter and Ellis, 2015). However, I am going to argue that this is context specific. With the case of Sloane, the movement (Dresser, 2007, pp.166) may have actually reified the intended representation (Dresser, 2007, pp, 169), with this reification is only compounded by having a copy of the statue that is placed at its original location (Dresser, 2007, pp.166). Yet, this movement of the original to The British Museum (Dresser, 2007, pp.166) also provides the context to make the contested histories, such harbingers from an imperial past (Cherry, 2006, pp. 664) more clear.

Finally, I will discuss Sloane’s statues within the current cultural climate, comparing his statues to other imperial artefacts and assessing how, for the general public at least, his statue has become “stranded in the present” (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665), avoiding controversy. I will also suggest how we might rewrite the memory of Sloane (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665) without allowing for an amnesia, not just for the man himself, but for his reprehensible nature of his imperial ties (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665)

Imperial statues can be seen as remnants of a forgotten past, stranded in the present, that the general public remains unaware of (Cherry, 2006, pp. 661 and 662 and 664). However, in spite of this, I still view them as culturally significant, even more so now as multiple interpretations can be ascertained from such artefacts, including postcolonial interpretations in our neo-imperial age (Cherry, 2006, pp. 664). I am going to highlight how the memory of such imperial statues remains partial, and how their racially exploitative pasts can be reawakened suddenly (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63), with the help of notable historians (Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and Drescher cited in Dresser, 2007, pp. 164). This is because memories are subject to change, either by resurrecting old meanings or generating new ones (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63) as can be seen with the statue of Sir Hans Sloane with the intended representation and postcolonial readings of the imperial artefact.

To be able to better assess how the memories surround Sir Sloane’s statue are memories are subject to change (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63) and how his statue can be interpreted in various ways, I believe some context is needed about Sir Sloane himself with both his imperial ties and the achievements he is heralded for. In regards to his achievements, Sir Hans Sloane, was a doctor to the royal household, and to the Governor of Jamaica (The British Museum, 2014, pp. 5), being “the first physician ever to receive the hereditary title” (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27) He succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as the President of the Royal Society, as well as serving as President of the Royal College of Physicians, the only person to do so (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 28). He introduced milk chocolate to England, from Jamaica, and later sold the recipe to the Cadbury brothers (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 25 and 27) and his collections founded The British Museum (De Beer, 1953, pp. 2). Also, in 1712 Sloane bought the Manor of Chelsea, renting it out, for which as a token of the gratitude, the Society of Apothecaries commissioned a statue of Sloane by John Michael Rysbrack, which was erected in the middle of the gardens, where a copy can still be found. (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 28). However, his rise in London society was made possible by an astute marriage, in 1695, to Elizabeth Langley a heiress and widow of sugar plantation owner, Fulk Rose (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27 and Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174), thus his imperial ties provided Sloane the wealth to pursue his philanthropic and collection-based endeavours (Dresser, 2007, pp. 173 and 174).

Now bringing in this contextual information, about Sloane, we can begin to understand why his statue is culturally significant and why memories are subject to change, either by resurrecting old meanings or generating new ones (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63). This is because we see how there is the intended representation of Sloane, which sits alongside modern day postcolonial readings of this imperial artefact. It could be argued that Sloane’s statue was not created with the intention to represent slavery interests, by either the commemorators nor, so far as we know, would this be part of Sloane’s own self-image (Dresser, 2007, pp. 169). This is likely due to the fact that the Society of Apothecaries who commissioned the statue were indebted to Sloane (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 28 ) and thus they played an active role in ensuring the intended representation of Sloane’s statue was one  which heralded his generosity (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 28 ), to the detriment of whitewashing his colonial ties (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27; Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174 and Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and 7).  Furthermore, these intended representations of imperial figureheads came during a time that “slavery was such a part of the fabric of things that no-one could have the abolitionist discourse to challenge it” (Dresser, 2007, pp. 169). Thus these sanitised self images could have influenced the nation’s self image, so much so that Sloane’s figure has not be “critically scrutinised enough to perpetuate the silence” around his imperial ties (Dresser, 2007, pp. 169).

However, this memory of Sir Hans Sloane is “partial and one that can be contested” (Cherry 2006, pp. 664) and since I side with those who note that our “present is markedly neo-imperial” (Cherry, 2006, pp. 664), I would interpret his statue in a much more critical and nuanced light. Whilst Sloane is a man of great intellect and generosity and that should be admired, some of his achievements and the wealth that allowed him to be a philanthropist came from the enslavement and exploitation of Jamaican people (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27, Chelsea Physic Garden website, 2017 and Dresser, 2007, pp. 173 and 174). This is arguably much more serious and current representations of the man should reflect the gravity of his actions.

 

Figure one Bust of Sir Hans Sloane
Figure 1: Bust of Sir Hans Sloane and cabinets featuring items from his collection in the Enlightenment Gallery, the British Museum.

 

Figure two Statue of Sir Hans Sloane by John Michael Rysbach in the Chelsea Physic Garden
Figure 2: Statue of Sir Hans Sloane by John Michael Rysbach in the Chelsea Physic Garden

 

When I consider the movement of the original statue to The British Museum and a copy being placed in the original site (Hawkins, 2010 pp. 28 and Dresser, 2007, pp.166), it provides a nuanced, layered cultural significance that most other imperial statues do not possess. I would argue that the movement of the original statue, and the introduction of the copy (Dresser, 2007, pp.166) unlike other cases, arguably reifies the original sanitised representation of Sloane (Dresser, 2007, pp. 169), heralding him as an important intellectual figure that should inspire awe, by placing them in locations that “remind us of Sloane’s roles as both “a naturalist and benefactor” (Dresser, 2007, pp. 173). Although I believe that the movement of the original statue also provides the context for Sloane’s colonial links to be “unearthed, contextualized and made explicit” (Dresser, 2007, pp.164).

For instance, if we consider the placement of the original statue in the museum that Sloane’s collection founded (Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and De Beer, 1953, pp. 2-3), it is arguably a ‘homecoming’. It can be seen to be celebrating of his philanthropic endeavours in providing his personal collections as the foundation of The British Museum (Singer, 1953, pp. 1274), thus reifying this intended representation (Dresser, 2007, pp, 169) of Sloane as a figure to be heralded. There is evidence that The British Museum itself plays an active role in reification of this whitewashed representation of Sloane, as in their guide for self directed tours, they make reference to his job as a doctor to the British Monarchy and the Governor of Jamaica, whose collections are housed in the museum (The British Museum, 2014, pp. 5), without mentioning how he profited from his ties to slavery, which allowed him to collect his ‘curiosities’ (Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 5 and 6).

This is only compounded by having a replica of the statue in the Chelsea Physic Garden (Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and Hawkins, 2010 pp. 28). By replacing the original statue in the garden (Dresser, 2007, pp.166), it would seek to highlight Sloane’s role as “the Garden’s primary benefactor”, who purchased the Manor of Chelsea and leased the garden to ensure its “survival for years to come” (Chelsea Physic Garden website, 2017). Whilst the Chelsea Physic Garden website mentions how Sloane profited off the sale of chocolate, providing him the wealth to be philanthropic and lease the garden (Chelsea Physic Garden website, 2017), they place the emphasis on his generosity, rather than Sloane profiting off the knowledge of Jamaican women (Chelsea Physic Garden website, 2017). This is unlike notable historians, such as Delbourgo, who help us to constantly rethink the past behind such immortalised imperial figures (Chelsea Physic Garden website, 2017; Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and Drescher, 2001 cited in Dresser, 2007, pp. 164). This reification is likely due to the fact that both The British Museum and the Chelsea Physic Garden are historically indebted to Sloane (Singer, 1953, pp. 1274, Hawkins, 2010, pp. 28 and Chelsea Physic Garden website, 2017) and thus they actively play a role in reifying the intended representation of Sloane’s statue, to the detriment of whitewashing his colonial ties (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27; Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174 and Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and 7).

In spite of this reification, the meaning of Sloane’s statue is “not set in stone” and can be subverted and transformed (Dresser, 2007, pp.164). As I have previously stated the movement of the statue also provides the context for Sloane’s part in Britain’s imperial history to be “unearthed, contextualized and made explicit” (Dresser, 2007, pp.164). Whilst Sloane’s colonial ties have remained dormant for long periods (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63 and Dresser, 2007, pp. 174), I believe the movement and placement of Sloane’s figure in the Enlightenment Gallery in The British Museum, surrounded by artefacts he collected (The British Museum, 2014, pp. 5), provides the means for this history to be reawakened suddenly (Çelik, 1999, pp. 63). By placing the original statue, in the museum alongside his collections (The British Museum, 2014, pp. 5), we can begin to see the imperialist nature of Sloane’s fascination with and collection of ‘curiosities’ (Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 7 and 15) . For example, if we were to consider the collection and displaying of Sloane’s ‘curiosities’ (Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 1-3), we can also see how the colonised cultures are objectified (Mitchell, 1992, pp. 292-295). Sloane’s collection and The British Museum itself, in its representation of  former colonies’ cultures, sets up the colonised world as a picture, on display there for the investigation of the dominant European gaze (Mitchell, 1992, pp. 293).  In this sense, Sloane’s statue is no longer “decontextualized from the tissue of the imperial history” that lead to its creation (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665). The new location, in my view, only serves to highlight how Sloane indirectly and directly profited from colonial Jamaica (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27; Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174 and Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and 7), which then gave him the financial means to pursue his philanthropic endeavours (Dresser, 2007, pp.173 and 174). The two cannot be disentangled and thus with it’s new location, we can interrogate this past from a postcolonial standpoint, and begin to rewrite it (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665), placing more on an emphasis on Sloane’s means and not his ends.

Furthermore, whilst the original is a site that tries to focus on the colonised cultures (The British Museum), this imperial site is arguably much more symbolic of the coloniser culture. Thus I would agree with Çelik that Sloane’s statue, within The British Museum, as a symbolic site for the coloniser culture, has continued to maintain its cultural significance in the postcolonial era (Çelik, 1999, pp.63). This is because of its “capacity to change and acquire new meanings allowed them to act also as places of memory for the colonised” (Çelik, 1999, pp.63) and not just of Sloane himself. Thus with the movement of the original statue, the significance of Sloane’s imperial ties (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27 and Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174 and Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and 7). becomes much more apparent.

 

Figure three “‘Bomber’ Harris Monument,”
Figure 3: “‘Bomber’ Harris Monument,”, 29 October 1992, Photo by Christopher Hilton, found in MacKinnon, 2013

 

In spite of a postcolonial reading becoming more apparent with the movement of the statue (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27; Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174;  Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 1-3 and 6 and 7 and Mitchell, 1992, pp. 292-295), when we consider the current cultural climate, what it is intriguing about Sloane’s statues is that they have seemingly not raised any controversy, unlike Sloane’s immortalised peers. This is even more surprising given the cultural climate in America where the questioning the racially exploitative history of statues has risen exponentially in salience, as seen with calls to remove Confederate statues (McWhirter and Ellis, 2015).  Furthermore, fellow imperial statues in London, such as the one that commemorates Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, have faced controversy (Wheatcroft, 1994) and protests over the years. Harris’ statue was vandalised with red paint and “SHAME” was scrawled across the plinth that holds his bronze figure (Hitchens, 2012). This was a call against his arguably excessive bombing of German cities (Wheatcroft, 1994). Furthermore, Cherry notes Ken Livingstone’s calls to remove Napier’s statue at the turn of the 21st century and that there has “been occasional canvassing to remove military statues in Britain” (Cherry, 2006, pp. 663). Yet, Sloane’s statues have not faced such controversy and I speculate this to be because his imperial ties are not as obviously violent than his contemporaries. His less violent imperial ties may explain the how his statue has become stranded in the present (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665), which is only made more difficult for due to the intended representation of Sloane, in which his legacy is presented in a way which “renders the connection between his philanthropy and his slavery interests invisible” (Dresser, 2007, pp. 174). Thus, I would argue that there are ways we could rewrite the memory of Sloane for the public, in a way that doesn’t allow for amnesia regarding his imperial ties (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665). We could do this by adding plaques that detail his links to slavery, thus ensuring a postcolonial revision of the memory that surrounds Sloane (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665).

I have noted how in spite of being stranded in the present (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665), Sloane’s statue can be read in multiple ways, with those who have benefited from his generosity reifying the sanitised representation of Sloane as “both a naturalist and benefactor” (Dresser, 2007, pp. pp. 169 and 173) and yet this meaning is “not set in stone” (Dresser, 2007, pp.164) and it can interpreted in a postcolonial sense, that recognises Sloane’s ties to slavery (Hawkins, 2010, pp. 27; Dresser, 2007, pp.166 and 174 and Delbourgo, 2007, pp. 6 and 7). This is even more obvious with the movement of the original to be placed in the British Museum, surrounded by his collections, where Sloane’s objectification of colonised cultures is more apparent (Mitchell, 1992, pp. 292-295). Yet given the current cultural climate McWhirter and Ellis, 2015 and condemnation of fellow immortalised imperial figures (Wheatcroft, 1994; Hitchens, 2012 and Cherry, 2006, pp. 663), thus far Sloane has surprisingly avoided controversy and a postcolonial revision of the memory that surrounds him (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665).

Thus, I would argue that implications of assessing the case study of Sloane’s statues, is that moving the statue to a location that can help re-contextualise the artefact is not enough (Dresser, 2007, pp. 166 and Çelik, 1999, pp. 63), by itself, to help revise the memory of such imperial figures, although they do make a positive difference. Whilst we want to avoid the amnesia that may occur with the removal of such imperial statues (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665), many would want to address the history behind such figures. I would suggest that we need to place plaques that detail the figure’s colonial links, thus helping to ensure an explicit postcolonial revision of the memory that surrounds such imperial artefacts (Cherry, 2006, pp. 665).

 

Karyn Storey


References

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