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Joseph Banks 1743-1820

Sir Joseph Banks - 'The Leader'

Sir Joseph Banks was a natural leader above all else, one of those rare individuals with no political leanings or ambitions. He was a friend of King George III while maintaining an active and friendly correspondence with Benjamin Franklin, he supported and mentored botanical students from many countries, and he revitalize the royal pleasure grounds at Kew and turned them into to one of the world's greatest botanical gardens.

After missing the opportunity to sail on Captain Cook's second voyage, Banks arranged an expedition of his own to Iceland, which proved to be a modest success, but couldn't compare to his earlier exploits. Upon his return he set about organizing his collections, most of which may still be seen at the Natural History Museum in London. This letter by the Rev. W.Grevillia banksii by Ferdinand Bauer circa 1805 Sheffield, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, to Rev. Gilbert White (printed in Bell's edition, circa 1830, of White's 'The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne', first published in 1789), is perhaps the best surviving contemporary description of Joseph Banks' remarkable collection.

'… it would be absurd to attempt a particular description of what I saw there; it would be attempting to describe within the compass of a letter what can only be done in several folio volumes. His house is a perfect museum; every room contains an inestimable treasure. I passed almost a whole day there in the utmost astonishment, could scarce credit my senses ... I will endeavour to give you a general catalogue of three large rooms. First the Armoury; this room contains all the warlike instruments, mechanical instruments and utensils of every kind, made use of by the Indians in the South Seas from Terra del Fuego to the Indian Ocean. . . It may be observed here that the Indians in the South Seas were entire strangers to the use of iron … nor did our adventurers find the natives of this part of the globe possessed of any species of wealth which would tempt the polite Europeans to cut their throats and rob them. The second room contains the different habits and ornaments of the several Indian nations they discovered, together with the raw materials of which they are manufactured … Here is likewise a large collection of insects, several fine specimens of the bread and other fruits preserved in spirits; together with a compleat hortus siccus of all the plants collected in the course of the voyage. The number of plants is about 3000, 110 of which are new genera, and 1300 new species which were never seen or heard of before in Europe. What raptures must they have felt to land upon countries where every thing was new to them! whole forests of nondescript* trees clothed with the most beautiful flowers and foliage, and these too inhabited by several curious species of birds equally strangers to them. I could be extravagant upon this topic; but it is time to pay our compliments to the third apartment. This room contains an almost numberless collection of animals; quadrupeds, birds, fish, amphibia, reptiles, insects and vermes, preserved in spirits, most of them new and nondescript* ... Add to these the choicest collection of drawings in Natural History that perhaps ever enriched any cabinet, public or private ... 987 plants drawn and coloured by Parkinson; and 1300 or 1400 more drawn with each of them a flower, a leaf, and a portion of the stalk, coloured by the same hand; besides a number of other drawings of animals, birds, fish, etc. and what is more extraordinary still, all the new genera and species contained in this vast collection are accurately described, the descriptions fairly transcribed and fit to be put to the press. Thus I have endeavoured to give you an imperfect sketch of what I saw in New Burlington Street...'

(*The Reverend uses the term 'nondescript' to mean 'not yet scientifically described, rather than 'dull or uninteresting' as in the more common modern usage.)

Joseph Banks became Sir Joseph Banks in the spring of 1781 when he was made a Baronet, and would later be appointed to the Order of the Bath. He was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, a position he held for 42 years, the longest in the Society's history. He was one of the first vice-presidents of the Linnean Society, founded in 1788, was a major force behind the establishment of the Royal Institution in 1800, and was one of the eight founders of the Horticultural Society, which later became the Royal Horticultural Society.

Although no official post existed, Banks was effectively scientific advisor to King George III, working in several fields as diverse as improving British wool with the introduction of Spanish Merano sheep, developing the Royal gardens at Kew into a true botanic garden, and sponsoring plant explorers to travel to the far corners of the world to improve the garden's collections and discover new economic species.

Of his many protégés, there was one young man whom he met in February of 1806, who would at first prove a disappointment, but would eventually go on to save Kew Gardens from ruin. It was young William Jackson Hooker, who would turn down Banks' invitation from to travel to Java and collect for the garden, eliciting this letter from Banks;

'My dear Sir,

     Tho I really cannot think it possible that your relatives & friends in Norfolk can consider an Island half as large as England to be of a deadly & unwholesome nature because one town of it is notoriously so, I see their objections are urged with so much determination & eagerness that I am far indeed from advising you to despise them. I have however no doubt that arguments or injunctions equally strong will be urged by them if you attempt to extend your views further than the Exhausted arenas...

     I was about twenty-three when I began my peregrinations, you are somewhat older, but you may be assured that if I had listened to a multitude of voices that were raised to persuade me I should have been now a quiet country gentleman ignorant of a multitude of things I am now acquainted with and probably never attained higher rank in life but that of a country Justice of the Peace.'

Not taken to small endeavours, nor prone to rest on the laurels of his past accomplishments, Sir Joseph Banks conducted a number of the largest horticultural experiments undertaken in his day. One of his best-known experiments, though largely unsuccessful, involved the breadfruit trees he had first encountered in Tahiti. (Read 'The Experiment' - you might be surprised...)

Banks was instrumental in recommending and establishing Australia as a prison colony - which, compared to the inhuman conditions suffered in the barge prisons of pre-industrial England of the early 1800's, was at least a chance for many people to begin life anew.

When Sir Joseph Banks died in 1820 his library, herbarium, and vast collections of specimens, engravings, drawings, botanical paintings, and manuscripts were bequeathed to the Natural History Museum, where many of them may still be viewed today.

The Genus Banksia is named in his honour, along with many species of plants from around the world. The 'Lady Banks Rose', Rosa banksiae is named in honour of his wife, Lady Dorothea Banks.

Joseph Banks


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