The Man Who Knew Almost Everyone

In an earlier post, we mentioned some of the people from very different backgrounds who met on equal terms in the context of the intellectual climate of Europe in the nineteenth century. Undoubtedly, one of the key figures in the ‘scientific revolution’ that had its beginnings in the Enlightenment was Sir Joseph Banks. Born in 1743 to a ‘county’ family, Banks attended Harrow, Eton and Oxford, but left the latter without taking a degree, and – like Darwin at Cambridge in the next generation ­– spent more time in the study of natural history than in following the university’s classical curriculum.

His father’s death left him wealthy, and able to pursue his scientific interests: he corresponded with Linnaeus, and became an advisor on science and agriculture to King George III, seeking royal patronage for expeditions which would not merely chart unknown areas of the world but also explore their plant and animal life. Banks’ own first voyage was to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766, but he became known to the wider public when he accompanied Captain Cook’s first expedition of 1768-71 (‘biographical  memoirs’ of Cook, ‘our great countryman’, can be found in Volume 9 of the Naval Chronicle) to South America, round Cape Horn and across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia. Banks and his companions collected, described and named around 800 new species. The famous portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painted in 1773, shows Banks as a man of action, about to leap up from his desk and set off for further exploration.

Banks was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, and continued in this office until his death in 1820. His influence in matters of natural history and geography was enormous, and his energy and enthusiasm boundless. He sent expeditions across the world to collect plants for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. He encouraged and found work for many of the great botanists of the rising generation, including William Jackson Hooker and John Lindley. He founded the African Association to encourage overland exploration of the continent of which the coast was mapped but the interior almost unknown to Europeans, and sent Jean Louis Burckhardt on the mission which resulted almost by accident in the discovery (by the West) of Petra. He was a founder member of the (later Royal) Horticultural Society; he sponsored Vancouver’s expedition to the Pacific North-West, and the voyage to transport breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean which led to the mutiny on the Bounty. He gave financial support to William Smith, who was attempting to create the first geological map of Britain; he was involved with Sir George Staunton in producing the official account of Lord Macartney’s diplomatic mission to China (we will be publishing more books on this fascinating initiative soon); and he was massively influential in persuading the British government to send both convicts and free immigrants to Australia (again, more books on this topic soon!), where the original settlement was made at Botany Bay, named during Cook’s voyage for the number and variety of new specimens Banks discovered there.

We have now reissued Banks’s journal of the voyage with Cook, and Edward Smith‘s 1911 biography. But his greatest work, the Florilegium, would defeat our current technological capabilities. Banks employed five watercolourists to work up the sketches produced on the Australian voyage, and then 18 engravers to make copperplate engravings of the paintings. None were published during his lifetime, and he bequeathed the plates to the British Museum. A limited edition of the 743 plates was eventually issued between 1980 and 1990.


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