This essay explores the interpenetration of the botanical and the human in Hans Sloane's engagement with cacao as a species and chocolate as a commodity, in relation to his late seventeenth-century voyage to Jamaica, and subsequent claims that he invented milk chocolate. How, it is asked, did Sloane's natural history profit from its engagement with African slavery, and upon what techniques did it depend for its authoritative depiction of plant species? Of special interest is the relationship between description and illustration in his published Natural History of Jamaica (1707–1725), which featured intricate depictions of hundreds of specimens. Sloane's visualization of plant species was informed by specific early modern philosophies of nature and knowledge. Baconian dogmas about empiricism notwithstanding, botanical authority was constituted as much through the naturalist's prose as his engravings, and by embedding natural specimens in a web of reference that was commercial and ethnographic in character. Sloane did not envision a categorical distinction between what we would term botany and ethnography. Natural history, rather, provided a unified early modern framework comprehending the description of both things and people. Gathering intelligence about foreign peoples was part of the pious and strategic project of natural history. The article concludes by showing how Sloane's accounts of species contributed to an imperial choreography that included substantial descriptions of Jamaica's enslaved African population, in relation to early discussions of the possibility that “negroes” constituted a distinct racial group.
James Delbourgo; Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of the Cacao. Social Text 1 March 2011; 29 (1 (106)): 71–101. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-1210274
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