Joseph Banks

Maori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks
Maori trading a crayfish with Joseph Banks, 1769, British Library, Add MS 15508, f. 12

Joseph Banks collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, many of which were unknown in Europe, during the Endeavour voyage. Watch Sir David Attenborough’s account of the man who transformed Europe’s knowledge of science and botany.


Who was Joseph Banks?

Joseph Banks was a botanist who collected thousands of plant specimens previously unknown in Europe on his voyage to the Pacific with James Cook.

How did Joseph Banks become interested in botany?

Joseph Banks was born in 1743 into a wealthy land-owning family in Lincolnshire.

In 1756 he was sent to Eton where, while struggling at the traditional subjects of Greek and Latin, he discovered his lifelong enthusiasm for botany. According to a story he told a friend later in life, this enthusiasm began when walking home one summer evening from swimming in the Thames. Noticing that the sides of the lane ‘were richly enamelled with flowers’, the thought struck him that ‘it is surely more natural that I should be taught to know all these productions of Nature, in preference to Greek and Latin’.

Botany was enjoying a huge growth as a public science during this period, prompted by the ideas on plant classification of the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and by the subject’s importance to commercial agriculture.

Joseph Banks’ voyage to Newfoundland

In 1766 Banks embarked on an overseas trip to collect plant and animal specimens in Newfoundland. On his return he began the work of cataloguing the specimens, helped by Daniel Solander, a Swede who had studied under Linnaeus and who was responsible for the natural history collections of the recently-opened British Museum. Banks also employed artists, including Sydney Parkinson, a young man from Edinburgh, to draw the plants.

The Endeavour voyage

On hearing of the Royal Society’s plans to send an expedition to the Pacific to observe the Transit of Venus, Banks offered part of the funding in return for berths aboard the ship (the Endeavour) for himself and his party, including Solander, Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, another young Scottish artist.

During the voyage Banks collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, many of which were unknown in Europe. He worked closely with James Cook and was important in building relationships with chiefs and other senior people in the places the ship visited.

In Tahiti he became friendly with Tupaia, the high priest and navigator who joined the voyage and sailed to New Zealand and Australia. Banks recorded the voyage in his journal, describing the cultures and societies of the places the ship visited. His artists drew many pictures, providing a unique visual record of these societies at the time of early European contact.

Although Banks did not return to the Pacific, Cook’s second and third voyages would also include parties of artists and collectors, and this would become a pattern for later expeditions.

Later life and career

From the 1770s onwards Banks was a central figure in British science and exploration, serving as President of the Royal Society (1778–1820), and as advisor to George III on the development of Kew Gardens. In the latter role he would be a key proponent of the transplantation of new crops and farming techniques across the British Empire and would make Kew Gardens the centre of a network of botanical research stations.

As a leading advocate for the establishment of a British prison colony at Botany Bay, he would play a key role in the British colonisation of Australia and later, other parts of the Pacific.

Book now for our James Cook: The Voyages exhibition, open until 28 August 2018.

Further information about the life of Joseph Banks can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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