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Sir Joseph Banks -A Voyage of Discovery

Posted Tuesday, June 5, 2007

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Joseph Banks & The Voyage of Endeavour

`The celebrated Botanist, Sir Joseph Banks was one of the principal characters aboard the original Endeavour'

The BBC tv. docu-drama, The Ship, tells the story of 21st century sailors following in the 18th century wake of Captain James Cook to Australasia aboard a modern replica of the Endeavour; many will be aware that the celebrated Botanist Sir Joseph Banks was one of the principal characters aboard the original Endeavour - which set sail from Plymouth on August 25th 1768 on an epic and historical three year odyssey on the high seas. However, they will perhaps be unaware of his Derbyshire connections, for Banks inherited the 1,200 acre family estate at Overton Hall, Ashover on the death of his uncle and guardian Robert Banks Hodgkinson in 1792.

Potted Biography

Joseph Banks was born in London in 1743, the son of a wealthy landowner. At Oxford University he developed a passion for Natural History and Botany and during vacations visited his uncle at Ashover where he took a great interest in the fauna and folia and learned estate management. At the age of 21 he became the youngest ever member of the Royal Society - and later became it’s longest-ever serving President from 1778 until his death in 1820, a total of 42 years. Joseph Banks was one of England’s foremost scientists and responsible for the establishment of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew; he was also a personal friend of King George 3rd who named Botany Bay in his honour, and had the plant species Banksia named after him.

Banks was just 24 years old when he joined the Endeavour, a wealthy autocrat whose presence aboard caused some consternation and not a little annoyance amongst the crew! Initially the principal objective of the voyage, organised by the Royal Society with the King’s blessing was to observe and record the Transition of Venus in 1769, that is the passage of the planet across the face of the Sun as viewed from the Earth. This would enable astronomers to calculate, amongst other things, the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The Admiralty agreed to send an expedition to make observations from Tahiti and the Royal Society received £4000 from the King to cover the costs. James Cook, then a Royal Navy Lieutenant was chosen to take the company to the southern seas, accompanied by Charles Green, astronomer royal. But a voyage of such magnitude needed to satisfy more than one objective. The Pacific was still largely unknown and at the very least Cook was expected to sail the southern seas in search of the so far undiscovered continent of Australasia, to discover new lands and take possession of any that promised benefit to the British crown.

When Joseph Banks heard of the proposed venture he successfully lobbied his friend Lord Sandwich, then head of the admiralty to obtain him a passage. The following letter from the Royal Society to the Admiralty was the result: “The Council have appointed Mr. Charles Green and Captain James Cook, who is to be commander of the vessel, to be their observers; besides whom, Joseph Banks Esq., Fellow of the Society, a gentleman of large fortune who is well versed in Natural History, being desirous of undertaking the same voyage, the Council very earnestly request their Lordships, that in regard to Mr.Banks’s great personal merit, and for the advancement of useful knowledge, he also, together with his suite, being seven persons more (that is, eight in all) together with their baggage, be received on board of the ship in command of Captain Cook”.

So within four weeks of sailing, apart from accommodating her naval complement of 85 crew on an already overcrowded vessel, the Endeavour had suddenly to find accommodation for Joseph Bank’s entourage which consisted of four servants, a secretary, two artists, namely Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, British Museum botanist Carl Solander, a vast amount of baggage –and Banks’s two dogs. Suffice it to say that the ship’s junior officers who had to give up their quarters were most upset!

Banks’s friends urged him to relinquish the voyage and to take the Grand Tour of Europe instead. His response was, “Every blockhead does that; my grand tour shall be one around the whole globe.”

The Journey to Australia

The voyage went smoothly until they reached Tierra del Fuego around Christmas and Bank’s two negro servants died from cold and exposure.

The Endeavour rounded Cape Horn and sailed north-west arriving in Tahiti on April 13th 1769, seven weeks before the transit of Venus was due. Whilst Green set up his observatory, Banks and Solander began cataloguing new species of plants, fish and animals and Cook noted in his journal: “Mr. Banks is enthusiastic and untiring. His mind is active and vigorous, letting nothing escape his observation. He is gifted with a manly presence and a genial but dignified manner, usually impressing the untutored savage on very short acquaintance”. Banks nevertheless had his problems. Artist Alex Buchan died of fever two days after reaching Tahiti and as a result Sydney Parkinson had the enormous task of producing all the illustrations. The Tahitian flies posed problems too, according to Banks’s journal, “they eat the colours off the paper as fast as they can be laid on, and if a fish is to be drawn there is more trouble keeping them off (it) than in the drawing itself. Many expedients have been thought of, none succeed better than a mosquito net which covers chair, painter and drawings, but even that is not sufficient, a fly trap was necessary to set within this to attract vermin from eating the colours”. In diligently recording his collected specimens Banks also had to contend with the problems of painting on a heaving ship in a cramped cabin and worked long into the night by candlelight. In Tahiti he records the discovery of `the remarkable bread-fruit, the staple diet of the natives, for which we bartered, raw or roasted. A glass bead as large as a pea purchased four or six bread-fruit and a like number of cocoa-nuts’.

After the transit of Venus had been successfully observed and recorded Cook set sail for the southern continent, plotted the coast of New Zealand and made several land excursions which enabled Banks and his team to record dozens of new plant species.

Arriving at the southern tip of Australia on April 19th 1770, Cook sailed more than 2000 miles along the east coast, plotting the coastline and discovering Botany Bay south of present day Sydney, where Banks and his team collected and recorded hundreds of new species of plants. Illustrations took time and Banks had to soak plants in wet cloths to preserve them, whilst small invertebrates and fish would not ‘go off’ too rapidly. Warm blooded mammals were another matter – especially as Parkinson drew them in the Great Cabin where the officers and crew had their meals! The scientists were most excited by the kangaroo; `a strange creature that moves upon its hind legs by a series of hops or jumps’ noted Banks whilst trying to catch one, and further observing, ‘the creature did not lack speed, for on the ship’s greyhound being brought to the chase, it could not outstrip the kangooroo’.

The ship ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef and was stuck fast for 36 hours. Banks records that they were saved from disaster because,‘an inspection of the damaged hull found that a piece of rock had broken off and was fixed firmly in the rent and this had saved us by delaying the influx of the water’.

Many in England had given the voyage up as lost as the months went by with no news from the ship, and newspaper reports feared the worst, but with the mission accomplished Cook headed for home.

The hull and rigging were in such an appalling state that repairs were essential before attempting the journey and Endeavour put in at the Dutch base of Batavia (Jakarta) on October 11th 1770. They left on Boxing Day with the ship seaworthy again, but the stay proved disastrous. Cook wrote, “We came here with as healthy a ship’s company as need to go to sea, and after a stay of not quite three months Malaria Fever left us in the condition of a hospital ship, besides the loss of seven men”.

Worse was to follow with another thirteen deaths from malaria and dysentery before they reached Cape Town on March 15th 1771.

Amongst them were Sydney Parkinson, Charles Green, and Banks’s secretary Herman Sporing. Banks and Cook were both dangerously ill but recovered, whilst three more died at Cape Town and new crew members were recruited before Endeavour embarked for Plymouth on April 15th, finally arriving home on July 12th after almost three years at sea.

Cook was praised by the Admiralty and promoted to Commander, but Banks was lionised and became the toast of London society and his fame spread throughout the world. He had discovered over 1000 botanical species previously unknown in Europe, yet despite spending over £7000 and employing 18 engravers to produce almost 1000 plates from the original sketches Banks failed in his lifetime to have them published. His fame and long Presidency of the Royal Society kept him busy for the rest of his life, and it was not until 1980 that Banks’s Florilegium was published and justice to his and Sydney Parkinson’s diligent and invaluable work on the Endeavour was finally done.

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