If you have read the Aubery/Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian* then you are already familiar in a way with Sir Joseph Banks, as both the characters of Stephen Maturin, ship's physician and naturalist, and Sir Joseph Blaine, the beetle-collecting spymaster, are based on this important historical figure.

ImageJoseph Banks was born in 1743 to wealth and influence, and it was wealth and influence that marked the entire course of his life, in addition to his love of natural history. Like many schoolboys, he loved to roam the countryside collecting specimens, but few other schoolboys had their portraits done in oils holding expensive botanical prints.

At age seventeen he enrolled at Oxford, but the English universities of this century were meant for the education of clergymen in the Latin and Greek classics, not as places to study the natural sciences. Banks was a wretched student of the classics, but he used his own money to pay for a course of lectures in botany. Soon afterwards he left the university without a degree.

In London at age twenty-one, having inherited his father's estate, he began to associate with others interested in the sciences and corresponded with the great taxonomist Linnaeus. In 1766, he became the youngest person to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the center of scientific leadership in England.

It was because of his membership in the Society that Banks received his greatest opportunity, for in 1767 it sponsored a young navigator named James Cook to undertake a voyage to the South Seas to observe the Transit of Venus and to explore and map what was then believed to be the Southern Continent, Australia. Banks lobbied hard to be appointed as the naturalist for the expedition and offered to outfit the Endeavor as a floating laboratory at his own expense — for an amount that would be several million dollars today.

According to James Ellis, a correspondent of Linnaeus, "No people went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History, nor more elegantly. They have got a fine library of Natural History: they have all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing; they have even a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom at a great depth, where it is clear. They have many cases of bottles with ground stoppers, of several sizes, to preserve animals in spirits. They have several sorts of salts to surround the seeds; and wax, both bees wax and that of myrica; besides there are many people whose sole business it is to attend them for this very purpose. They have two painters and draughtsmen, several volunteers who have a tolerable notion of Natural History; in short, Solander assured me this expedition would cost Mr. Banks £10,000."

In the eighteenth century, natural history was still in the age of exploration, collection and classification. The voyage lasted threeImage years and cost a number of lives, but in terms of natural history it was a resounding success. In Australia, Banks and his fellow botanist David Solander collected over thirty thousand of specimens of previously unknown plants, more than thirty-six hundred new species — one of the most extensive and important botanical collections in history. Botany Bay was named in honor of their activity. On their return to England, both Cook and Banks became celebrities.

Cook began almost immediately to prepare for another voyage and Banks wished to be part of this second expedition as well, but his demands for fitting out the ship were so extravagant that Cook objected and the Royal Navy agreed with him. Banks later undertook a few voyages of smaller scope, but for the most part he spent the rest of his career in London. Cook was later killed by cannibals, so perhaps this was just as well for Banks.

He became the unofficial scientific advisor to King George III, in those days a liberal monarch interested in the advancement of knowledge. Banks sponsored botanists to travel the world to obtain specimens for the royal garden at Kew, in London. It is now known as the Royal Botanic Gardens and holds specimens of one out of eight known species of plants in the world. Later, he became a founder of the Royal Horticultural Society.

ImageIn 1778 he was elected president of the Royal Society and held the position for forty-two years, until his death. He promoted the breadfruit to British sugar cane planters to feed their slaves. Under his influence, the Royal Society sponsored the voyage of the Bounty to transport Tahitian breadfruit to Jamaica and the British West Indies. Although this voyage ended infamously in mutiny, a second expedition was successful in that the transplanted crop grew in its new location, but it never became widely accepted as a food.

Although today we would regard him as a scientific administrator rather than a scientist, he did make genuine contributions to botany, such as the first scientific description of the bougainvillea. However, his real legacy was in the many species of plants he introduced to the English world. The genus Banksia, of which he collected the first specimens, is named for him, as well as several species and many different plant cultivars. After his death, his collections and library enriched the Natural History Museum in London, where they can still be viewed today.

He never, however, became a spy.

*What? You haven't? Hurry to the bookstore! You're missing something!


O'Brian, Patrick, Joseph Banks: A Life (1997)

Plant Explorers