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Joseph Banks 1743-1820

'The Explorer' part I

Banksia speciosa, from  the painting 
by Ferdinad Bauer circa  1805. The original may be found at The Natural History Museum, London.Born into a life of privilege, Joseph Banks was the son of a wealthy Lincolnshire landowner, but managed to avoid the path that would seem to have been set before him. So many wealthy young men in his day would study only those subjects suitable for gentlemen, do their 'Grand Tour' of Europe and, finally, settle down to a life of elegant excess, having 'married well'.

Instead, young Banks craved knowledge. Ray Desmond recounts a prime example of this in his superb book 'Kew, The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens' (The Harvill Press with The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew - 1995, ISBN 1-86046-076-3)

'When he entered Christ Church, Oxford as a gentleman-commoner, the Sherardian chair of Botany was held by Humphrey Sibthorp who never published a scientific paper and delivered only one public lecture during the 35 years of his professorship. Sibthorp therefore did not object when Banks paid a young botanist at Cambridge to present a short summer season of lectures at Oxford - an early instance of his initiative and enterprise.'

In 1761, when Banks was only eighteen, his father died unexpectedly at the age of forty-two. This left the young man in position to inherit, when he came of age at twenty-one, several estates with an annual income of £6,000. Despite this new wealth, Banks appears to have kept his composure and did not succumb to extravagance or borrow against his future. This was probably due in no small part to his mother, a woman of considerable intelligence and insight. In a correspondence to a friend, Banks quoted her as telling Grevillia banksii by Ferdinand Bauer circa 1805. The original may be found at The Natural History Museum, London.him once that, contrary to popular belief, toads were not evil creatures and the source of warts, but in fact harmless and even beneficial creatures for their ability to control the local insect population. He also recounted how, as a boy he had delighted in rubbing toads on his face in an effort to shock and disgust his friends.

His first journey was to Newfoundland and Labrador with his friend from his days at Eaton, Lieutenant John Phipps. They sailed in April of 1766 and returned in January of 1767 with many collected specimens, including some 340 plants. While on this excursion Banks had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the youngest so honoured. At the time the Royal Society was more or less a gentleman's club for scientific investigation, requiring only a solid social standing and an avid interest in the sciences to be elected to a Fellowship.

Joseph Banks' next expedition was one of the great missions of discovery in history, as he joined then Lieutenant James Cook on his first journey to the South Pacific. The primary mission was to record the transit of Venus across the sun, and although astronomy interested Banks little, it was considered to be of vital importance to the improvement of navigation, and was an event that would not be repeated again for more than a hundred years. It was the secondary mission of the expedition that held Banks's interest; to record all manner of plant and animal life encountered.

Joseph Banks, at the age of 25, supplied an estimated £10,000 of his own money to equip the expedition. John Ellis wrote to Carl Linnaeus, describing the equipment for the mission;

'…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.'

The refit for the expedition cost £5,394, an expense covered by the Crown, while virtually all other expenses, such as scientific equipment, extra food and provisions for his team, were personally covered by Joseph Banks. The Endeavour originally cost £2,840 to build.
Although direct comparisons are next to impossible, these sums could well translate into millions in today's currency.

While Cook went about assembling a reliable crew, Joseph Banks gathered his own people. Daniel Solander, one of Linnaeus' best students, was so eager to join the expedition and explore the exotic flora of the South Pacific, that he could hardly contain himself when hearing about it. Their mutual interest in the natural sciences made it inevitable that they should work together. And so it was that one of the greatest botanising teams of all times was formed.

The Endeavour sailed from Plymouth on Saturday the 26th of August, after being delayed by a late summer storm. Despite the calmer weather, Banks was stricken with seasickness for several days. Several days later he recovered sufficiently to join Solander on deck, observing and recording every form of life encountered, from porpoises, birds and fish to every sort of seaweed they could snag.

Their first port of call was on the 12th of September at the port of Funchal, Madeira, where the two botanists were the first ashore. They headed straight for the British Consul to introduce themselves, where they were provided with accommodations, horses, and guides for the duration of their stay. This allowed them to collect almost 700 specimens in less than six days. The Endeavour set sail at midnight on the 18th, with the next landfall, Brazil, more than a month and a half away.

It was during this leg of the voyage that the traditional ceremony of crossing the equator was observed. Each new initiate was to be tied to an elaborate device the sailors had rigged, then dunked three times in the ocean. The alternative was to sacrifice four days' ration of rum (The daily ration of grog was one Imperial pint, that is 20 fluid ounces, or over half a litre of 94 proof liquor). Of the twenty-five crewmembers who qualified, Cook, Banks and Solander paid up, leaving the others to join the riotous celebrations and to get thoroughly soaked, and even more thoroughly drunk.

When the ship reached Rio de Janeiro the local Viceroy, Don Antonio de Moura, was suspicious of their mission and refused to believe that such an expedition would be carried out for purely scientific reasons. While the Captain wrestled with untenable politics, Joseph Banks had no intention of missing an opportunity to botanise. Sydney Parkinson, one of two artists to accompany Banks on the voyage, described their illicit forays thus;

'Having obtained a sufficient knowledge of the river and harbour by the surveys we had made of the country, we frequently, unknown to the sentinel, stole out of the cabin window at midnight, letting ourselves down into a boat by a rope; and, driving away with the tide until we were out of hearing, we then rowed to some unfrequented part of the shore, where we landed, and made excursions up into the country.'

In early December the Endeavour continued south, heading for the Horn and then on to the Pacific Ocean. Although Cook had to resist Banks many request to make landfall for the purposes of further study, he nonetheless took an increasing interest in the collections of his 'Gentlemen Passengers'. It was early in January of 1769 when the Endeavour first reached Tierra del Fuego in preperation for rounding the Horn. When Captain Cook realized the strength of the current through Straight le Marie, he knew he would have to bide his time until conditions were favourable. This afforded Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander a chance to make landfall and to investigate the local wildlife, while Cook and his crew restocked the ship's wood and water supplies.

The Sub-Antarctic summer is a fickle thing, and can prove fatal for the inexperienced explorer. Banks had decided that since 'The weather was vastly fine, like a sunshiny day in May, so that neither heat nor cold was troublesome to us' it was a perfect day for a short excursion inland. He wanted to reach higher ground to get a sense of the lay of the land, and look for any interesting alpine plants. His entire retinue joined him that day: Daniel SolanderRibes magellanicum - by Sidney Parkinson, the botanist; Herman Spöring, Solander's assistant; Charles Green, the astronomer; William Monkhouse, the surgeon; and Alexander Buchan, the artist; as well as four servants and two seamen to help transport the equipment and carry back the collections. Not all would return alive.

The terrain proved more difficult going that it first appeared, since what had looked like tundra proved to be a bog populated by extremely dense, waist-high trees. They pressed forward through the strange little forest when Buchan was struck with an epileptic fit. They built a fire and tended to the stricken artist, and seeing that he appeared to be recovering, Banks and Solander continued on. The two botanists did find some alpine plants, and were collecting specimens when Solander first noticed the sudden bitter cold. The sun disappeared behind thick clouds and snow began to fall heavily.

They were able to return to the main group where they found that Buchan had fully recovered. With the snow coming down hard it was difficult to see their way clearly, but Banks knew that the only option was to head back to the ship. After some distance Solander and one of the servants, Tom Richmond, were feeling the early stages of hypothermia and grew tired and lethargic. Banks tried to keep them moving, but was unsuccessful. On Banks's orders the others had moved ahead and established another fire in a clearing. Eventually Banks was able to rouse Solander and assist him through the dark to the makeshift camp while leaving another servant, George Dorlton, and a sailor to watch over Richmond. The sailor arrived at the camp around midnight, too drunk to make much sense. Banks took four of the hardiest men in his party and returned to where Richmond and Dorlton remained. Unable to get them back to the camp, Banks had his men fashion a crude shelter out of branches, and left his two grey hounds with the men to help keep them warm.

When they returned the next morning, Richmond and Dorlton were both dead. The dogs, however, were alive but reluctant to leave their friends.
As so often happens in a blizzard, they were much closer to their goal than they had realized, and were able to return to the ship, with the dogs, by just after noon.

Next - Tahiti

*Based on the originals at The Natural History Museum, London

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