Sir Joseph Banks: Botanical Rock Star or Bastard?

Sir Joseph Banks. It’s a name most Australians know. He was one of the old guys who hung about with Captain Cook, right? Right. The Banksia is named after him, right? Right. And Bankstown? Yep. There are a myriad of pubs, parks, schools, suburbs, and of course, plants named after the man. But who was he really?

According to David Hunt, author of Girt and maker of ‘Rum, Rebels & Ratbags’ podcasts, ‘Banks was a dude’. He was the guy who first introduced the word ‘tattoo’ to the English language, he had a thing for the ladies, and Doctor Spok from Star Trek was modelled on him. Well, well, well. It seems he wasn’t just ‘the plant guy’ after all…

Let me tell you a story:

It’s late in the 1760’s and James Cook has been enlisted to captain a voyage to the South Pacific to chart the transit of Venus. Banks, a very wealthy and passionate botanist, asks to come along, bringing with him Daniel Solander, a Swedish botanist who trained under Carl Linneaus (the father of taxonomy) and a bunch of botanical illustrators. They join around 90 sailors, dogs, chickens, cats, and even a goat, on the 32m long Endeavour.

Non-essential fact: The goat was one of the most experienced seafarers on board the Endeavour. At the end of its career it had circumnavigated the globe twice. True story.

The voyage starts in 1768. They head across to Brazil, around Tierra del Fuego, up to the South Pacific and Tahiti, where they get rather friendly with the local ladies, and then on to New Zealand where their engagement with the Maori is a little less than friendly (Banks is very unimpressed with them until they give him a human head for his burgeoning collection). On April 28, 1770, the Endeavour sails into what is now called Botany Bay. Cook initially calls the bay ‘Sting-Ray Bay’ but changed it after seeing Banks’s excitement over the local plant life.

Banks goes off foraging in the bush and comes back with all this novel plant life strapped to every inch of his body. He cleans out Cooks cabin and fills it with ferns, Banksias, and wattle’, Hunt says. ‘Cook is so overcome by the joy of his botanist that he re-names Sting–Ray Bay to Botany Bay.

The crew of the Endeavour spend around 10 days at Botany Bay. During this time Banks and Solander collect a huge amount of plants, and make many observations of the local indigenous people. In his Endeavour journal Banks writes:

‘Myself in the woods botanizing as usual, now quite void of fear as our neighbours have turnd out such rank cowards. One of our midshipmen stragling by himself a long way from any one else met by accident with a very old man and woman and some children: they were setting under a tree and neither party saw the other till they were close together. They shewd signs of fear but did not attempt to run away. He had nothing about him to give to them but some Parrots which he had shot: these they refusd, withdrawing themselves from his hand when he offerd them in token either of extreme fear or disgust.’

Throughout the entire Endeavour journey Banks and Solander collected over 1400 new plant species. Many of the Australian specimens are intact and some are held at the National Herbarium of NSW at the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, complete with handwritten notes by the pair, amended over time by others as taxonomical knowledge evolves.

Whilst nowadays Captain Cook is the big name of the pair, back when Cook and Banks returned to England from their three-year jaunt around the globe, Banks was the rock star.

According to Hunt, back then ‘Cook was just the guy who steered the boat. Now, Banks is regarded as just the plant guy. But at the time he had huge influence on British science, and British decision making about Australia. He was a scientific god of his era.’

It seems the fame got to Banks’s head. On returning home to England he dumped his 17 year old fiancé, paying her 5000 pounds to leave him alone, got another woman pregnant, and had a long term affair with his housekeeper. ‘He was a genuine playboy’, Hunt says.

Despite his bad behaviour, Banks was immensely powerful. He used to stroll with King George the Third through his garden, and was called upon anytime the British parliament needed to decide something about the goings on in NSW.

In fact, after the USA stopped taking convicts from England, it was Banks who suggested Sydney Cove could do with some petty thieves, murderers and rapists.

Because, of course, there was nothing there….Yep, like many of his time, he was a bit of an arsehole when it came to indigenous Australians. According to Hunt, Banks directed that terra nullius be applied to Australia, arguing that ‘Aboriginals were too uncivilised to make proper use of the land’. Hmmm.

So, Sir Joseph Banks, what a guy. He was driven to explore the world by his youthful desire for knowledge and passion for botany. His desires for women were well documented, and his desire for fame and recognition turned him into a ‘crusty old fart’ according to David Hunt. He died ‘a cantankerous old bastard’ in 1820 – grotesquely overweight, suffering from gout, confined to a wheelchair but ‘with the British empires bushiest pair of eyebrows’.

The actions, passions, and desires of the man with the eyebrows have impacted Australian life and culture in so many positive and perhaps less than positive ways. In regard to his contribution to the study of our native flora, he (and his pal Daniel Solander) is an absolute rock star. But, of course, he was only human, and with the light comes the dark, so he perhaps was also a bit of a bastard. Desire, huh? It inspires such greatness and such darkness. And it seems none of us are immune to its power…

Featured Image: ‘A Bastardised Banks’, by Georgina Reid. Original image source:  ‘Sir Joseph Banks’, Line engraving by N. Schiavonetti after T. Phillips. From Wellcome Library, London.