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The Multifarious Mr. Banks

Dr. Toby Musgrave—

Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) was only twenty-five years old when in 1768 he convinced both the prestigious Royal Society and the bureaucratic Admiralty that he should join HMS Endeavour as expedition natural historian. He personally paid a fortune to undertake the three-year voyage led by Lieutenant James Cook (1728–79), and en route became the first European to make an extensive study of the natural history and anthropology of Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. He is said to have had an affair with the ‘queen of Tahiti’ and, upon his return, he jilted his fiancée. Later, as a close personal friend of King George III, he persuaded the monarch that he was the man to develop the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Under Banks’s leadership it became the world’s leading botanic garden, a position it still holds today. It was from Kew that Banks co-ordinated another voyage to Tahiti, in order to collect breadfruit trees, a venture that culminated in the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. Banks also became the longest-serving president of the Royal Society (1778–1820), and while in the chair was accused of scientific bias, of being a ‘virtuoso’ and of national disloyalty in a time of war. He was also the target of satirical lampoons and caricatures which dealt indelicately with his sexual mores and latterly his royal friendship, ‘the great South Sea Caterpillar’ who was ‘transformed into a Bath Butterfly’. But Banks was also – among his many other achievements – the man who advocated Mungo Park’s exploration of Africa, championed the establishment of a new penal colony at Port Jackson, contributed greatly to the planning of Matthew Flinders’s first circumnavigation of Australia, and from London expended much effort securing the long-term viability and success of New South Wales; work for which he earned the sobriquet ‘father of Australia’. 

Charismatic and engaging, Banks inspired easy friendships that enabled him to develop and work an extensive and influential network. Perennially curious, his gift of finding interests in common with people of all ages and classes made his life one of rich discovery in the widest sense. Self-determined and enterprising, with a keen ability to discern opportunities, he was a consummate organiser who effectively progressed projects from conception to conclusion. He was honourable and deeply patriotic, but he could also be stiffly polite, withering in rebuke, overbearing and unforgiving, and certain contemporaries commented on his social unconformity.

Banks was one of the most prominent and influential men of his age: a leading scientific influence on the English Enlightenment and a pivotal figure in the development and expansion of British domestic and imperial ambitions. Heralded as the most famous man in England when he returned with Cook from his first circumnavigation, he became the centre of a network of more than 600 international correspondents, including the great Carl Linnaeus (1707–78). Yet in the century following his death, Banks fell into obscurity. In an age of subject specialisation, new generations of scientists excluded him and dismissed his contributions as ‘amateur’. He continues to be a curiously neglected figure in his native country, overlooked in part because, unlike his peers Joseph Priestley (the innovative research scientist) and Lord Robert Clive (the military adventurer-coloniser), his interests were almost too broad: although certainly a man with many sides to his character, many accomplishments to his name, he is difficult to classify and label under a single heading: he lacks a single unique accomplishment by which historians might simply categorise him.

A savant, a dedicated improver in the true Enlightenment sense and a strong believer in the Baconian model of scientific discovery, he loomed large over an age when science and Britain were both rapidly advancing and expanding their spheres of influence. It is time we take a new look at this compelling gentleman, who through his multifarious achievements, shaped the world.

From The Multifarious Mr. Banks by Dr. Toby Musgrave. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Dr. Toby Musgrave is a plants and gardens historian, independent scholar, and consultant. He is the author or coauthor of eighteen books, including The Plant Hunters, An Empire of Plants, The Head Gardeners, Paradise Gardens, Heritage Fruits and Vegetables and The Garden.

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