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Specimen of cloth (asbestos) from Sandwich Islands
Museum number: X273
Asbestos occurs on every continent and cloth made from the fibres was used in ancient times. 'Sandwich Islands' was the name given to the Hawaiian Islands by James Cook in 1778 in honour of the then First Lord of the Admiralty, John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Todays name for the islands is taken from the name of the largest island, Hawaii Island. Experts are agreed that asbestos does not occur naturally in Hawaii so this cloth was presumably man-made using asbestos fibre from somewhere else. Its fireproof qualities may have made it a desirable acquisition for Dr Aitken or perhaps he was led to believe it was a rare local material.
A handwritten label on the wrapping records 'Specimen of asbestos cloth brought from the Sandwich Islands by D. Aitken Esq. / Surgeon / Kingsland'. [Kingsland was a village in the Hackney area of London, now swallowed up in the Dalston/Hackney area and its name only surviving in road names] The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 201, October 1856, records the death of what seems to be the same man: 'Aged 72, David Aitken, Esq., of St Paul's Terrace, Islington, Surgeon of the H.E.I.C.S. and late of Kingsland'. H.E.I.C.S. is the Honourable East India Company Service.
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