Sir Hans Sloan


Sir Hans Sloan

The first recorded evidence of the banjo is documented in the journals or sojourn of a British physician, explorer and collector by the name Sir Hans Sloan. Sir Hans Sloan, a noted physician in Great Britain, was commission by the British government to travel to the Carribean islands.  His Sojourn, a historical journal which  documents his travels and observations to the Caribbean, was written in 1687 and published in 1707.




The 1687 Sojourn entitled"A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christopher and Jamaica"1 addresses Sloan's observation of the slaves in dance and music as follows: 

The Negros are much given to Venery, and although hard wrought, will at pights, or on Feaft days Dance and Sing, thei. So~gs are all bawdy, and leading that way. They have feverl foQrs of I1nrmment in imitation of Lutes, made of fmall Goyr4s fitted with Necks, frung with Horfe hairs, or the peeled ftalks f climbing Blants or Withs.

Thefe Inftruments are fometimes made of hollow'd Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetted, having a Bow for its Neck, the Strings ty'd longer or (horter, as they would alter their founds. The Figures of fomeof thefe Infiruments are hereafter graved.

They have likewife in their Dances Ratdtes ty'd to their Legs and Wrifts, and in their Hands, with which they make a noife, keeping time with one who makes a found anfwecing it on the mouth of an empty Gourd or Jar with his Hand.

Their Dances confift in great ativity and firength of Body, and keeping time, if it can be. They very often tie Cows Tails to their Rumps, and add fuch other odd things to their Bodies in feveral places, as gives them a very extraordinary appearance.

Upon one of their Feftivals when a great many of the Negro Muficians were gathered together, I defired Mr. Baptife, the beft Mufician there to take the Words they fung and fet them to Mufick, which follows.

You muft clap Hands when the

Bafe is plaid, and cry, Alla, Alla.



To understand the Old English language, one needs to carefully interpret the language or translate it into modern English.  You will notice that the "s" in today's alphabet was written as an "f" in this period when the sojourn was drafted.   Sloan identifies that the Negroes had several instruments that imitated Lutes (popular in Europe for many centuries). These instruments were made from small gourds and fitted with necks. According to Sloan, they were strung with horse hairs or the peeled stalks of climbing plants or Withs.  Sloan further states that these instruments are sometimes made of hollowed timber covered with parchment or other wetted skin, having a bow for its neck.  The strings are tied longer or shorter as they would alter their sounds.  


Strum Strum Illustration

Illustrated in Sloan's sojourn are the instruments that he refers to as "strum strums". While it is highly likely that this instrument dates earlier than the slave trade, Sloan's illustration is valuable, since it is the first known pictoral documentation of the banjo.


Sir Hans Sloan's sojourn is an important piece of historical evidence which helps trace the history and origin of the banjo. While tracing an instrument's origin may be a time-consuming and sometimes seemingly a futile task, the sojourn at minimum, establishes a written timeline for studying the true roots of this instrument.  


Ironically, in reviewing the sojourn, it is noted that Sir Hans Sloan is recognized more for his botanical studies of plant life rather than for his observation about the musical and dance rituals of Jamaican slaves and native of Africa.  

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