The Immortal Banks

Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph BanksNot again, I hear you groan! This woman needs help – always rambling on about Sir Joseph Banks, even when he isn’t the ostensible subject of the blog. I agree, I am besotted – but none the less, you must read the Endeavour journal, edited by J.D. Hooker in 1896.  It is an extraordinary piece of writing, not least because it is far from clear whether it was ever intended for publication. This edition is divided into chapters, but begins as a conventional journal, with dated entries, and reads like an aide-mémoire which would enable Banks and Daniel Solander to identify the date and approximate location of the discovery or naming of a new species of life, whether animal or vegetable. It is a bonus that he also jotted down notes on people and events, and that he had a keen eye and a GSOH, but Hooker sometimes abridges – ‘here follows a list of 229 animals and plants’; ‘here follows, in the manuscript, a list of 316 plants collected by Banks near Rio de Janeiro’; ‘here follows a list of 104 phanerogamic and 41 cryptogamic plants’ – so that the journal now perhaps reads much more like a narrative account than was originally intended.

On the other hand, there are several chapters which contain not individual journal entries but a long description or summary of experiences in a particular area: ch. VII is a ‘General Account of the South Sea Islands’, and there are further accounts of New Zealand, New South Wales, Savu and Batavia. Indeed, Banks specifically says in the ‘General Account of New Zealand’: ‘I shall spend a few sheets in drawing together what I have observed of the country . . . premising that in this . . . I shall give myself liberty to conjecture and draw conclusions.  . . . in the daily Journal, however, the observations may be seen, and anyone who refers to that may draw his own conclusions from them, attending as little as he pleases to any of mine.’ A short and anonymous Journal of a Voyage Round the World, in His Majesty’s Ship ‘Endeavour’ was published in 1771, and has since been variously attributed to Solander, or two of the ship’s officers, or Banks himself: this is only 130 pages long, unlike Hooker’s edition of 466 pages, but I must go and have a look at it, to see if the content matches at all.

The history of the manuscript journal seems to be that it was given at one point to Robert Brown, the last of Banks’ librarians at his home in Soho Square, who was going to write his biography. Brown could not complete the task, and the journal, along with many other manuscripts, passed into the hands of Lord Brabourne, Jane Austen’s great-nephew, and a relation of Banks’ wife Dorothea Hugessen. He, though a great collector of books and manuscripts, sold some of the Banks material at auction in 1880. According to Hooker’s research, the journal was bought by an autograph dealer, who sold it to an M.P., who sold it to an Australian, who sold it to another Australian, who bequeathed it in 1907 to the State Library of New South Wales; a scholarly edition was published in two volumes by J. C. Beaglehole in 1963.  (Interestingly, the account of the transmission of the journal on the State Library’s website does not quite match Hooker’s.)

We learn from Hooker’s brief biography at the beginning that the youthful Banks was far too busy with natural history to worry too much about Greek and Latin while he was at Eton, but some of the Latin clearly stuck, and there is great exuberance in his naming of new species on Linnaean principles. It is bewildering to read of the sheer numbers of new specimens of all kinds which were dragged from the sea, plucked on land or (regrettably) shot down from the sky – to say nothing of the breezy confidence with which he determines that a particular specimen is new. Of birds caught in the rigging of the ship, ‘we called them Motacilla velificans, as the must be sailors who would venture themselves aboard a ship which is going round the world’. (Motacillae are wagtails, but all references to velificans (sailmaking) seem to come back to Banks’ journal and subsequent printed accounts of the voyage.) Or, from the sea: ‘We had the good fortune to find that [the specimens] were all quite new, and named them Medusa pellucens, Lepas pellucens, Clio, Cancer fulgens and Cancer amplectens’; the following day: ‘Find that the crabs taken yesterday were both new; called them vitreus and crassicornis.’

One tends to forget – partly because of the very confidence with which the explorers and writers tackle their subjects – how little of the southern hemisphere had been explored or mapped by Europeans at this stage. The image of the globe which springs (however roughly and inaccurately!) to mind when we think about Australia or Tierra del Fuego or Tahiti simply did not exist for Cook and Banks – the Pacific and Australia had been visited by perhaps 70 European ships in the previous century, and the Endeavour voyage was one of the first in which surveying and map-making was part of the remit. So that when Banks notes, ‘. . . that might be Cape Horn, but . . . all we can say is , that it was the southernmost land we saw, and does not answer badly to the description of the French, who place it upon an island’, one suddenly realizes that he is in literally uncharted territory. Indeed, the maps in Bougainville’s Voyage Round the World show that on his 1766–9 voyage, the entire area of eastern Australia and New Zealand is a blank, with uncertain lines trailing off into nothing to indicate conjectured coastline.

So here is Banks, setting out into uncharted waters, and having the time of his life. It is impossible to summarise this detailed, day-to-day account of an idyllic stay in Tahiti, or of the voyage up, down and around the coasts of New Zealand, and the difficulty of kissing the Maori women (because the red ochre mixed with oil with which they painted their faces would come off on you), or of the botanising in Botany Bay, and the encounters with Aborigines (all the natives everywhere are referred to as ‘Indians’) and ‘kangooroos’, or the rain and the frogs in Batavia, or the durian fruit, which tastes like ‘sugared cream mixed with onions’, or the vineyards of the Cape of Good Hope, and its ‘vivarium or menagerie’ of African birds and beasts. On 10 July 1771, he records, ‘This morning the land was discovered by young Nick, the same boy who first saw New Zealand: it proved to be the Lizard.’ And on the 12th, ‘At three o’clock, landed at Deal.’

That is the end of the journal. But Banks, not unlike Lord Byron forty years later, was about to undergo the experience of waking one day and finding himself famous. He went on only one other long voyage, to Iceland in 1772 (after his plans to sail again with Cook were thwarted: legend has it that he was planning to smuggle a mistress on board disguised as his valet – which according to another legend, Bougainville had successfully done), and hardly travelled abroad again. Instead, he used the influence which the voyage had brought him – as friend and adviser to the King, President of the Royal Society, patron and friend of explorers, geographers, botanists, astronomers, geologists, chemists – to foster the development of the sciences in Great Britain and around the world. And the title at the head of this blog? It was bestowed on him by none other than Linnaeus – speaking as one giant to another.


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