General articles | Biographies | World Open Gardens | Practical Guides | Recipes

Medieval to 16th century | 17th - 19th century | Garden Restoration | The Nonsuch Restoration Project

~ Informative articles on the history of gardening and garden restoration ~

Joseph Banks:

On a World-Wide Treasure Hunt for Fame.

An Article for Garden History by Jennifer Ward



A true child of the mother country, Sir Joseph Banks epitomized all that Britain came to stand for in the late eighteenth century. The expansion of empire and introduction of European ways to the "new world" were among his chief interests. All manner of plant life, from flower to fern, were the other. Banks had a way of fusing his botanical pursuits with more literal ones — journeys that took his across the entire globe.

Joseph Banks was born in London to the wealthy William and Sarah Banks, and attended Harrow and Eton boarding schools. As a boy, he was said to have kissed toads to dispel the myth that they caused warts — truly the action of a budding naturalist. With training in these schools, arguably among the best in the world, Banks was well-prepared to move on to Oxford by the 1760s at only seventeen. Banks' time at Oxford proved to be a catalyst for his interest in botany. Moreover, it was in those years that he inherited a significant sum of money that would quickly propel him to the forefront of scientific development. The money also enabled him to jump right into employment as a full-time botanist, with almost immediate success. The field was growing considerably at the time at which he entered it. Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, had revolutionized the taxonomy of plants earlier in the century, and his work was well-known and established by the time Banks graduated. Linneaus himself proclaimed Banks immortal when he learned of all the species his junior had seen in his short lifetime.

Banks became a globetrotter at a young age. He graduated from Oxford at the age of twenty, and travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador three years later to accrue samples. His publication of these plants under the Linnean system was the first of its kind, helping to advance him even further in his field. It was his role on the HMS Endeavour though that made Banks one of the most famous men of the eighteen-century. Appointed chief botanist by the Royal Society on this 1768-1771 voyage, Banks would carry it to fame; at least in the eyes of British imperialists. Banks promoted the development of New South Wales in Australia, and it is believed to have been his idea to send British convicts to Botany Bay. Thus, Banks played a key role in Australia's development as a British colony — a role which made him a hotly contested public figure in his era, and a questionable historical figure in ours.

Banks' role on the Endeavour was not simply to advance the mother country's ways, although that became a central part. As the chief botanist on board, his role was to track and trace the flora of Australia, New Zealand, and other distant lands. Just as the lands were to be mapped geographically, so were their contents: cultural and natural. The voyage was the first of British cartographer and explorer James Cook's expeditions. The intention of the journey was mapping, but also to track the transit of Venus across the sun — the rarest of all predictable astronomical phenomena. It would be only the second observation of this occurrence in history. In addition to map making and star gazing, the expedition was monumental in the plant world. Banks kept a detailed journal and sketchbook of the native species plants in the area. His collections generated European interest in the Pacific Islands, and are among Britain's most treasured historical data of contact with other cultures. Excerpts from his journals are available on the Australian government's website. The voyage continued to Brazil and other parts of South America, and Tahiti. While in Brazil, Banks recorded the first scientific description of bougainvillea, now a common garden plant, named after Cook's French counterpart, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

Banks' career did not end there. He became president of the Royal Society in 1778, a post that he held for forty two years, and which was aspired to by all scientists. Though it is said that he held it somewhat autocratically, the prestigious title allowed him to guide the course of science well into the nineteenth century. In its chair he was able to encourage scientific dialogue with foreign scientists, promote the introduction of plants into other countries, and foster scientific advancement on a whole. It is in fact because of him that many young scientists were able to find inroads into discovery and scholarship. In 1781 Banks was made a baronet, and received the order of Knight Commander of the Bath in 1795. The Banks Islands near Vanuatu in the Pacific were named after him by Captain Bligh. Throughout his life he continued to encourage discovery, and was directly responsible for both George Vancouver's voyage to the Pacific Northwest, and William Bligh's to the South Pacific. He was also a mentor, his most famous protégé being the Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, accompanying botanist on Captain Vancouver's voyage. Banks knew that botany was not the most profitable of trades at the time, and so went out of his way to find jobs for aspiring botanists.


Perhaps his involvement most relevant to gardening history is his establishing of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew with his friend King George III. Some time later, Banks came to hold the position of honorary director. Through the gardens, Banks helped to advance British ways to the rest of the world by demonstrating how the earth's botanical treasures could be shared through travel. In doing so, was also able to introduce many foreign plants to his homeland. His achievements at Kew are said to be remarkable among botanists. When the Endeavour first set sail, Kew nurtured a humble 600 species. In 1813 it boasted 11,000.

Joseph Banks was tangentially a political figure as well. He was an informal advisor to King George III of the UK, a friend to French scientists during the Napoleonic War, and a supporter of Benjamin Franklin both before and after the Revolutionary War. It was Franklin who pleaded with his country not to interfere with Cook's voyage, and because of him that this voyage became so successful and important to Britain. Banks was also a financial supporter of William Smith in his 10 year effort to draw a geological map of England — the first map of a whole country in history. Though he eventually slowed to a rather sedentary pace (a curious opposite to his younger, exploratory days) and fell into ill health, Banks had many friends. He stayed vivacious and gracious, and was held in high esteem by many. He died in London at the age of 77.

Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

Copyright © Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty Ltd 2006
No material may be reproduced without permission
unless specifically stated otherwise