Friday, April 16, 2010

Cochineal...Hans Sloane...British Museum

Hans Sloane
April 16th, 1660 to January 11th, 1753

Cochineal plantation

How does all of this fit together?

Bill Ashworth in the Linda Hall Library Newsletter wrote...

Hans Sloane, an English naturalist, physician, and collector, was born Apr. 16, 1660. While still a young man, as personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle, Sloane travelled to Jamaica, where he spent some fifteen months collecting plants and animals. He returned to England when his patron died, in 1689, and set up medical practice in London, at which he was quite successful, being physician to a succession of British monarchs. As time permitted, Sloane slowly put together two large volumes on the Natural History of Jamaica, which were published in 1707 and 1725. They provide a rich guide to the flora and fauna of this island, (as well as an unsettling description of the lives of the local African slaves). One of Sloane's most famous discoveries concerned chocolate, which was used as a native drink. Sloane found he could make it more palatable by mixing it with milk, and when he brought back his recipe to London, hot chocolate became all the rage. There is a picture of the cocoa plant in his Natural History. But my favorite image shows a cochineal plantation. Cochineal is a tiny scale insect that lives on prickly pear cactus, and from whose body is extracted a brilliant carmine-red dye. Most of the worlds cochineal came from plantations in Mexico, and the method of production of the dye was a closely kept secret. Hans Sloane’s collections and library were later sold, after his death in 1753, to the British government, which used them to create the British Museum.

A zillion years ago I bought my first chemistry set [the A. C. Gilbert Deluxe for $15.00 (a summer of lawn mowing)] and included in the set was a small bottle of cochineal. I never did experiment with it...I was more enthused that I made hydrogen captured in a test tube and ignited in a flame.

Hans Sloane

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