Peter Parker

Without Joseph Banks, Cook’s first voyage might have been a failure

Apart from collecting hundreds of valuable species, Banks negotiated crucially with the Tahitians, and even foraged food for the crew

Portrait of Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds. Credit: Getty Images

When the wealthy young Joseph Banks announced that he intended joining Captain Cook’s expedition to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus, friends asked why he didn’t instead do the Grand Tour. ‘Every blockhead does that,’ Banks replied. ‘My Grand Tour shall be one round the whole globe.’

It was a wise decision, and his voyage on HMS Endeavour would be the making of him. He returned with an extraordinary haul of natural history specimens and would thereafter more or less fall into important roles on the strength of his experiences, whether it was as the unofficial director of Kew, which he would make into the world’s most important botanical garden, or ‘head of Australian affairs’, enthusiastically promoting the newly discovered country as a penal colony.

He had so many interests that he sometimes neglected more important tasks, such as publishing a florilegium of the Endeavour expedition or the journals he kept of the voyage, and this lack of rigour led some to dismiss him as a mere amateur. Toby Musgrave instead champions Banks as one of this country’s most important and influential naturalists, without attempting to gloss over the less appealing aspects of his life and career.

‘Hunger is certainly most excellent sauce,’ said Banks, as everyone sat down to a dinner of broiled shags

Having studied botany, ostensibly at Oxford but more productively with a private tutor, Banks managed to attach himself to an expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador when he was just 23. He would subsequently claim, with some justification, that he was the first ‘man of Scientifick education’ to join a voyage of discovery in order to make a study of the flora and fauna encountered there, something that became standard practice thereafter. He later became instrumental in sending other botanists all over the world to gather plants for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and this led to his deserved reputation as ‘the father of modern scientific plant-hunting’, ultimately responsible for the introduction of innumerable plants into English gardens.

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