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Article for Garden History by Jennifer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
also visit Old London Maps
on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.
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