When asked by Radio 4’s Today programme about whether the British Museum ought to have left the bust of its founding father Sir Hans Sloane in place, only with a label pointing out that he had been a slave-owner, the historian David Olusoga replied: “Then we should get all of the statues from the Third Reich in Germany and the age of the Kaisers and the statues that celebrate Nazism and the militarism of Prussia and we should put them back on display.”
Having directly compared British imperial history to that of Hitler and the Nazis, he continued: “This is not to compare British history with German history, but there is a thing that mature countries do, which is they understand that not all of history can be celebrated.”
Are we a mature country if we no longer believe that the life and work of the botanist, physician, collector and president of the Royal Society Sir Hans Sloane should be celebrated, even though his wife inherited slaves, which Sloane did not free but instead profited from? Even the briefest consideration of the life of Sloane will convince most reasonable people that the British Museum, which claims that Black Lives Matter forced “a certain level of urgency” to its actions, has behaved disgracefully in so besmirching the memory of a good, decent man who allowed it to purchase the 71,000 artefacts that started its collection for one-quarter of the sum for which his executors could have sold them.
Sloane was a renowned doctor who was elected to the Royal Society of Physicians aged only 27. He worked unpaid every morning ministering to the poor, and devoted his salary to Christ’s Hospital. He developed the use of quinine for eye treatment, which was later employed to treat malaria. He was an early advocate of the use of inoculation to fight smallpox. He was instrumental in setting up the Foundling Hospital and Chelsea Physic Garden. He catalogued over 800 species of plants, concentrating on those with medicinal properties. Does that sound like a Nazi to you?