Spring - 2013 Banks1

Published on June 5th, 2013


Profiles in Natural History: Joseph Banks’ Endeavour

By Stephen H. Clayborough

Everybody must have daydreamed, at least once in their lives, that they were taking part in some great expedition of discovery. Those of us who have entertained this will o’ the wisp more than once will have come to rate the great historical discoveries according to the desirability of our own participation. 

So, on behalf of the scientifically bent, I’ll boldly claim that while there would be a certain satisfaction to be had accompanying Columbus or Magellan, it’s the post- Enlightenment (and largely scurvy-free) voyages of James Cook that hold the greatest attraction.  And while being a great navigator like Cook, fixing courses across the Pacific with sextants and other cutting-edge features of 18th century technology, certainly appeals, I find myself, as a biologist, mainly envious of one Joseph Banks, ship’s naturalist.

Born in 1743, Banks, unlike Cook, came from a privileged background; descended from landowning gentry with Swedish ancestry from Lincolnshire, he attended both Harrow and Eton and his head appears to have fit the cap of the 18th century enlightenment already at a tender age. An anecdote has the young Banks rubbing his face with a toad in order to disprove the old wives’ tale that the mere touch of this unpopular amphibian causes warts. While there may well be other good reasons for not rubbing your face with a toad, it suggests a willingness to experiment, and to do away with the old ingrown assumptions, and therefore an action very much in the spirit of the new scientific learning.


Banks, the botanist

A fascination with plants, which some have and others haven’t and can’t understand, led to correspondence with the greatest naturalist of the time, that great systematizer  of nature, Sweden’s Karl von Linné.  It was Linné’s methods Banks used to name and classify the many new species of which he’s credited with the discovery of.  Travelling on expeditions to Newfoundland and Labrodor (1766-1767) he encountered and described living specimens of the now-extinct Gairfowl , or Great Auk (more grounds for envy on my part ever since I came across the old, stuffed specimen of this remarkable bird in the Zoological Museum in  Oslo). Banks proved his sea-legs enough to be chosen as a member of Cook’s famous Endeavour expedition in 1768; he paid for himself, his team, and for all the cutting-edge scientific gear he brought aboard.

Now here was indeed an endeavour; a voyage to the southern hemisphere to observe the transit of Venus (the passage of the planet Venus directly between the Earth and the Sun.  We can use measurements of this to calculate distances within the solar system, knowledge considered worth risking scurvy for in 1768) from the island of Tahiti.  However, the Endeavour expedition had a further agenda; to make new and exciting discoveries in the South Pacific region.

The British Admiralty was especially interested in the whereabouts of the largely unknown southern continent “Terra Australis”. Banks and his naturalist companions, the Swede Daniel Solander and the Finn Herman Spöring, were to describe any new plants or animals they came across. A  dream come true for any biologist, even if it meant leaving his tearful betrothed behind.  The ship left Plymouth on the 25th of August, 1768, and only three days later the naturalist gang were eagerly describing new species:

In the Evening very calm; with the small casting net took several specimens of Medusa Pelagica, whose different motions in swimming amus’d us very much: among the appendages to this animal we found also a new species of oniscus.” (From The Endeavor journal of Sir Joseph Banks).

For non-biologists this translates as catching some jellyfish and finding among their tentacles, while chuckling at their swimming motions,  a whole new kind of marine woodlouse.

Seasickness seems to have dampened their enthusiasm somewhat, but after stopping off in Madeira and Brazil, the Endeavour found itself in Tahiti, whose nature and people Banks described thoroughly in his journal. Banks’ delight with the Polynesians and their culture extended to a certain degree to ‘going native’:

I was next prepard by stripping off my European cloths and putting me on a small strip of cloth round my waist, the only garment I was allowd to have, but I had no pretensions to be ashamd of my nakedness for neither of the women were a bit more coverd than myself.” (ibid)

It’s natural to assume that one thing led to the other in this land of ‘free love’. Banks also got himself a tattoo, to show King George, and spent further time singing, dancing and watching the Polynesian art of riding the surf.  He wouldn’t be the last rich youngster to do so.

Once the transit of Venus had been recorded, however, the good times were over, and amid much lamentation and tears from the Polynesian ladies, they were off again southward to discover new lands and new life.


Banks, the explorer

The great Dutch explorer Abel Tasman had sailed these waters over a hundred years before Cook, and had named the lands he discovered, appropriately enough, ‘New Holland’ and ‘New Zealand’ , as well as ‘Van Diemen’s land’. Tasman had only briefly been ashore, but had described the Polynesian inhabitants of New Zealand, the Maori, as being rather less than friendly.

Cook’s men found that the Maori could be friendly enough (though generally after a display of superior firepower), and Banks came close enough to give a fairly detailed account of Maori society, language and customs.  He even acquired a tattooed head to add to his ever-increasing collection of rocks, plants, animals and artifacts stored away in the hull of the Endeavour.  Banks’ journal is notably briefer in its description of the geography and natural resources of the islands; but he did note the complete lack of ‘quadrapeds’, land-living mammals.

The Endeavour then sailed to New Holland, the large, uncharted land-mass known as “Terra Australis”. After a hazardous encounter with the Great Barrier Reef (which caused the soaking of much of Banks’ collection), Cook finally found a “wonderful” natural bay to anchor in on the east coast of what we now call Australia. In honour of Banks and his botanist companions, Cook famously named it ‘Botany Bay’; a pleasant name that shortly came to hold much grimmer associations.

The description of the first meeting between Cook’s crew and the Native Australians of the region leaves one aware of a certain lack of communication. Still, this is one of the seminal moments of human history, and Banks was there, doing his best. In his journal he describes the ‘Indians’ in every detail, but there’s seems to be something unsatisfying about his highly scientific observations, as though he’s missing a deeper dimension,  a key, perhaps, to understanding the Native Australian perspective.  He wouldn’t be the last European, many of whom would have a much less sympathetic attitude, to do so.  At any rate, the natives seemed to be fairly uninterested in either the company or in the items offered them by the Europeans, and these first encounters fared peacefully and were fairly uneventful. Relations finally broke down during a second bout of repairs on the coast of modern Queensland, where a scuffle over sea-turtles prompted Cook and company to depart from the new continent.

Banks wasn’t the first European to see and describe the kangaroo (“To compare it to any European animal would be impossible as it has not the least resemblance of any one I have seen.”), but Cook’s crew may have been the first Europeans to shoot and eat one (“..provd excellent meat..”).  Banks also coined the name “kangaroo”, probably from the local Guugu  Yimidhirr tribe’s name for the grey kangaroo (and not from their word meaning “no idea”, as legend would have it). He also brought back from Australia numerous plants, birds and insects, all new to science.  And, of course, that was the difficult part; bringing it all back.

The Endeavour’s crew came to be plagued and ravaged by malaria and dysentery during the return trip, and Herman Spöring was one of several who died. Cook had, however, managed to keep scurvy (i.e. vitamin C deficiency, the scourge of pre-modern mariners,) largely at bay. His main weapon in this battle was sauerkraut, which does contain some vitamin C. Officers and sailors were obliged to eat some every day; and we should perhaps not blame those members of the crew who came to prefer the prospects of rotting with scurvy to eating yet another daily forkful of year-old sauerkraut. But Cook’s insistence saved lives; and the officers of the Endeavour were advised to loudly praise the merits of sauerkraut whenever crewmen were within earshot.  And so, finally, to a loud cheer of  “No more sauerkraut!”, the Endeavour sailed in to Deal on July 12 1771, and Banks, tattoo and all, sailed in to instant celebrity.

Banks was dropped at the last minute from Cook’s next expedition. He wanted to bring a set of English musicians with him to the Pacific, a far too extravagant idea for the no-nonsense Yorkshireman Cook, who shook his head and set Banks and his (possibly relieved) musicians tramping back to London.  Cook would later come to lose his life on this expedition, on the Hawaii islands, being first taken as the returning god Lono by the Hawaiians, then later clubbed to death after they’d concluded that he wasn’t.

As for Banks, he would go on to receive honours and titles, including the Order of the Bath and the presidency of the Royal Society, and to lead a life of further achievement.

Banks continued to show an interest in botany; promoting the great collection of plants at Kew Gardens that exists to this day. A whole genus of Australian plants, the Banksias carry his name.


Banks, the Aussie

Banks remained a key figure in the development of British Australia. The transport of convicts to Botany Bay was partly his idea; one that, for better or worse, came to change that continent forever. To some, this places Banks among the scoundrels of history; a grand colonizer and exploiter, whose ideas would bring death and misery to the original inhabitants of Australia. Others may choose a more nuanced view, taking into consideration Banks’ sympathy for the original Australians, and the original (misguided) humanitarian considerations that lay behind the idea of transportation. Banks described himself as a ‘bird of peace’, waiting patiently for the Napoleonic Wars to end so he could get back to his schemes, most notably his plans for Australia.

Maybe he should have known better in terms of that continent; but, to use a cliché, everyone is a child of their time. The men and women of the European enlightenment sought to improve the world as they discovered into a better functioning one, fit for “enlightened” people to live in. Seen thus, the “improving” of Australia can be said to be Banks’ greatest achievement. It’s always worth noting, though, how the ‘progressive’ ideas of one well-meaning man rarely translate smoothly into reality.


Banks, in Britain

At home in Britain, Banks was not immune from either criticism or parody; his presidency of the Royal Society caused something of a split between his allied naturalists and the more mathematically-inclined members, (who tended to look at natural history as the pursuit of dilettantes).

It became therefore important to Banks to prove the usefulness of natural history; more particularly how knowledge of botany could improve conditions (and economic output) from one of the British Empire’s most valuable acquisitions, the ‘West Indies’.  Banks’ idea was to transfer breadfruit trees from Tahiti to the West Indies so as to provide the slave population of these colonies with ‘wholesome and pleasant food…procur’d with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down’.

This would lead to the famous Bounty expedition; a scheme to transport said trees across the Pacific, ‘round the horn’ of South America and to a new home in the Caribbean.  Banks’ innovations for changing the interior of the ship, HMS Bounty, to accommodate the trees, included an elaborate watering system and a stove to keep the trees warm at the colder latitudes. A less brilliant idea, perhaps, was the appointment of one William Bligh, one of Banks’ uncle’s employees, as ship’s Captain.

The story of the mutiny on the Bounty has been often told (and filmed); some tellings make Bligh out to have been a monster of cruelty, others have portrayed him more sympathetically. I think the observation offered by the great science essayist Stephen J. Gould hits the mark:  “Bligh..surely wins no awards for insight into human psychology”. This lack of understanding, combined with the crew’s new-found love for all things Polynesian thus explains why Banks’ breadfruit trees ended up being unceremoniously jettisoned into the ‘drink’, the Bounty in flames, the mutineers shivering on Pitcairn Island, and Bligh himself in a lifeboat paddling in the general direction of Australia.

But Bligh survived the ordeal, and in 1793 set out again for Tahiti, this time successfully bringing his ‘floating forest’ to the inhabitants of Jamaica.

Other grand schemes of Banks’ included the import, first to England, of the Spanish Merino sheep, which gave superior wool.  Exported to Australia, the Merino would come to define the European presence in that continent.

All in all, Banks’ contributions may be summed up by a quotation from a little book entitled Public Characters of 1800-1801, a collection of written profiles on notable people of that year (Thomas Jefferson, William Wilberforce, etc.). The profile on Joseph Banks contains this passage:

“That the culture of the breadfruit tree has been successfully introduced into our West India isles; that the colony in New South Wales has been reared to its present prosperity; that the natural history of the great territory of New Holland is continually more and more explored; and that even amidst the wars which now desolate the earth, the general commerce of men of learning and science is not entirely interrupted; are so many benefits, for which the warmest gratitude of philanthropy and science is due to Sir Joseph Banks”

The man himself is generally described as something of a ‘gentle giant’; a kind, indulgent  and stoic fellow, described by the great diarist James Boswell as “an elephant, quite placid and gentle, allowing you to get upon his back or play with his proboscis”.  Incapacitated by gout in his older years, he had to be wheeled in and out of the meetings of the Royal Society;  a far cry from the frolicking beneath the breadfruits of his youth. One wonders if the nostalgic romantic occasionally ousted the scientific realist as he sat in his bath-chair watching the English rain through the window and remembering the beaches and the dancing maidens of far-off ‘Othaheite’.

Joseph Banks died in 1820.


*Cover photo by Helen, photo of young Banks by Skara kommun, photo of plants by Bixentro, photo of sail ship by Mike Baird, photo of sail ship painting by Tilemahos Efthimiadis, sheep photo by Maia C.

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