Joseph Banks: A Life 
by Patrick O’Brian.
Collins Harvill, 328 pp., £15, April 1987, 0 00 217350 6
Show More
Show More

That Patrick O’Brian would write a good book about the early life of Joseph Banks was to be expected. Banks combined the enthusiasm and practical competence of one of O’Brian’s fictional heroes, Jack Aubrey, with the passion for natural history of another, Stephen Maturin. Moreover O’Brian’s accounts in his novels of 18th-century seamanship are, like Tolstoy’s battle pieces, better historical description than most historians manage: it was clear that the variety of incident in Banks’s voyage to the Great South Sea with Cook, which matches that of any fictional adventure, was a subject made for him. What was not so obvious was that Sir Joseph’s long years of official business, as President of the Royal Society and member of various boards and committees, would be made, if anything, more interesting than the excitements of young Banks’s few years of active exploration. The book, like Reynolds’s picture of Banks in his twenties, which O’Brian much admires, is an attractive portrait. It is continuously interesting and coloured by the cheerfulness of a lucky subject.

O’Brian makes ample acknowledgement to the scholars who have edited the mass of material relating to Banks and his work. Sometimes, infected perhaps by the amiable manner of the correspondence, he makes little bows towards them which suggest the literary address of another age: ‘... studied by Mr H. B. Carter over a period of years: they form the basis ... of his closely detailed and percipient book His Majesty’s Spanish Flock ... a work of the most devoted scholarship running to some five hundred pages that I have often consulted, never without profit.’ His tongue may be edging towards his cheek, for his own achievement in creating from the archives a being convincingly of his period, and consistent with the accounts of his friends and enemies, has been largely achieved by removing the apparatus which might muffle the voice of Banks himself. The generous extracts from journals and letters allow us to imagine we are overhearing the headlong flow of the fifty-letter-a-day man who is quicker to find his meaning than its most correct expression.

Banks came from a Lincolnshire landowning family who had risen in a few generations from obscurity to wealth. He was sent to Harrow at nine years of age. He learned little and was transferred to Eton at 13. Liveliness, energy and good spirits were always more evident than scholarship, but it was at Eton that he discovered the interest in botany to which he was to owe adventure, advancement and delight. At Oxford he carried on the study, importing a tutor, Israel Lyons, the son of a Cambridge silversmith. Lyons’s lectures were attended by ‘as many as sixty voluntary paying pupils in a university that probably did not possess a thousand solvent undergraduates, and this at a time when science, apart from mathematics and astronomy, had little standing’ – one of the examples O’Brian uses to temper Gibbon’s description of his ‘idle unprofitable’ Oxford months.

Young Banks has the virtues of a hero in an old-fashioned school story. Frank, sometimes impulsive, not bearing grudges, a good friend (but too long-suffering to be a good judge of character), physically strong, unsnobbish and cheerful. To such a man natural history, in its robust adolescence, had much to offer. Rarity did not then immediately suggest extinction, and a good ornithologist needed to know how to shoot; filling cabinets with eggs and skins and herbarium sheets with roots and flowers was science, not rape. And there was much to be done: a European crag might still deliver a new variety, ‘nondescript’ meant unrecorded, not uninteresting, and a Pacific landfall promised half a dozen opportunities to attach the name of a friend, colleague or patron to an animal, plant or bug.

The truly significant outcome of all this collecting and classifying came a generation later with Darwin. But in looking forward one can lose sight of the sense of astonished wonder which gave the taxonomists an appetite for course after course of new discoveries. Literally so, in some cases. O’Brian writes that ‘to those who find the number of birds he killed distressing it may be some little comfort to know that having been measured, weighed, scientifically described, and in some cases drawn, they were at least eaten.’ Albatross proved popular on one occasion, even though fresh pork was also on the table.

It could degenerate into mere collector’s mania, and even Banks found there was an end to his desire for more specimens. When, later in his life, Linnaeus’s heirs offered to sell Banks the great taxonomist’s herbarium and mineral and zoological collections, he passed the letter on to the young James Smith, who happened to be taking breakfast with him, and suggested he ask his father to buy them for him. Mr Smith obliged, and the Linnean Society was born. But against this – and by that time Banks was much engaged with other business – one can set descriptions of a flying fish, a crab or a bird in which terms of wonder and delight find their place among the technicalities of science.

His first expedition, carried out in 1766 when he was 23, was to Newfoundland and Labrador. There is a Defoe-like omnivorousness in the enumeration of plants and animals scientifically hunted and gathered, of excursions and dangers, of the habits of the Indians and of the practices of the cod fishery. The French who were established there were a good deal more fastidious than the English. When cleaning fish they wore a garment worthy of a germ-warfare laboratory: ‘a Case made of Bark to Cover them from their chins to their heels ... into this they Creep & Putting on sleeves and large woolen gloves split the fish in a manner without touching it.’

The apprentice expedition made Banks a suitable person to be the Royal Society’s representative when Cook took Endeavour to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. The party included the botanist Solander and the draughtsman Sydney Parkinson, but the journal says almost nothing about the men who shared Banks’s scientific responsibilities. He seems to have met the dangers of the voyage with the unreflecting confidence of a healthy animal. A day after losing two companions from exposure while on a day’s hike into the Tierra del Fuegan hills Banks was asking for a boat to haul the seine, and the near-fatal drama of Endeavour’s grounding on the Great Barrier Reef was met with a coolness which almost makes one doubt the confessions of fear Banks makes in his journal. Around Banks’s account of what was seen and done O’Brian’s narrative fills in details of the horribly overcrowded (and therefore carefully mild-mannered) society – utterly various in class, temperament and ability – of which Banks was a member for the three years of Endeavour’s circumnavigation.

The Great Southern Sea, empty on European charts save for the odd island and caterpillar of coast, proved to have been well explored already by skilful native navigators who had populated most of what was habitable. That there was endemic tribal warfare was, in part, due to population pressure. Later the vulnerability of the islanders to European diseases cruelly reduced numbers, and European aggression, military or cultural, disintegrated whole societies. But when Australia’s arid heart and the non-existent Southern Continent had been subtracted from the guessed-at riches of the South Pacific there was a less capacious reservoir for European overflow than might have been supposed. The moral dilemmas which Cook sensed seem to have impinged less on the younger man.

He was young, and coming home famous made him self-important. He had what O’Brian calls a sudden rush of pomp to the head. As a result, he missed the next boat south. A new expedition was planned. Banks demanded a larger ship and a greater degree of personal control than the Admiralty was willing to allow. In 1772, when Cook sailed, Banks was not on Resolution. This seems to have been a serious disappointment to at least one other person. Cook wrote from Madeira:

Three days before we arrived a person left the island who went by the name of Burnett he had been waiting for Mr Banks arrival about three months, at first he said he came here for the recovery of his health, but afterwards said his intention was to go with Mr Banks ... he was about 30 Years of age and rather ordinary than otherwise and employed his time Botanizing &ca – Every part of Mr Burnetts behaviour and every action tended to prove that he was a Woman, I have not met with a person that entertained a doubt of a contrary nature.

The same year Banks took the team he had assembled for the Resolution voyage to Iceland. It was a useful if unremarkable excursion, and for Banks it marked the end of active exploration.

O’Brian compares the change in Banks’s life at this time to that which affects a shellfish when, having passed through the free-swimming phase of its existence, it settles down on its chosen rock. Banks’s principal place of attachment was the house in Soho Square in which were assembled his herbarium, collections and library. There were also the family estates in Lincolnshire, and eventually Spring Grove, a house outside London. He lived with his sister, even after his marriage, and the amicable nature of family relations is recorded in letters which detail the activities of Banks and his ‘Ladies’. The naturalist of course kept records, so we know that Banks himself approached 17 stone in his gouty old age (his opponents in the matter of fen draining called him the Bull of Revesby). His wife was 9 stone 6 in 1781 and 13 stone 12 in 1794. His sister Sophia rose from 11 stone 8 in 1778 to 14 stone 3 in 1794. When Banks was well into his seventies a drunken coachman overturned the carriage in which this substantial trio were travelling. ‘We were obliged,’ Banks wrote, ‘to lie very uneasily at the bottom of the coach for half an hour before assistance could be got to lift us out. We all bore our misfortunes without repining or any demonstration of the follies of fear.’ Flesh had not overwhelmed the resilient spirit.

Banks was only 36 when he was elected President of the Royal Society. His success had something to do with his friendship with the King, and the astronomers and mathematicians tended not to regard him as their intellectual equal. But he was assiduous, regular in his attendance at council meetings, and eager to promote the Society’s interest. It was around the Society that the most substantial part of Banks’s public life developed. In Lincolnshire, he took his turn, competently but unwillingly, as Lord Lieutenant, and was an influential agricultural improver.

The King’s merino sheep were a continuing interest. Banks was able to use his connections with Continental scientists to help assemble the flock and its management was for many years his responsibility. Although the intention was to improve English breeds, the experiment’s huge success was in Australia when, against Banks’s recommendation, merinos were transported to Botany Bay. The convicts transported there earlier, this time on Banks’s advice, had a much less easy time. Bligh (one of several friendships Banks sustained in the face of appalling behaviour) was not a good governor, but had at least been a botanical hero, suffering for the Bounty’s cargo of breadfruit trees. The exploitation of the convict and ex-convict population by an avaricious soldiery was painful to Banks, who had a discoverer’s tenderness for the place.

During the Revolution he did what he could for French scientists. He saved no necks during the Terror, but the degree to which scientific proprieties could override chauvinism was remarkable. In 1796 the Government of the Republic wrote to Banks asking for the return of the collections made by the d’Entre-casteaux expedition. These had been seized by the Royal Navy, passed on by the British to the de jure King of France, and offered by him to the Queen of England. She followed Banks’s advice that she should not ‘chuse to encumber herself with the stuffed animals’, and passed them on to the British Museum, but kept examples of plants. Other material was destined to go to Banks himself. Convinced of the justice of the French case (they said it was not the King but the National Assembly which had funded the expedition in the first place), Banks persuaded the various recipients to relinquish their spoils and returned them to the French authorities: ‘I confess I wish much to learn from his specimens some of those discoveries in the natural order of plants which he must have made, but it seemed to my feeling dishonourable to avail myself even of the opportunity I had of examining them: I of course did not look them over; all will be returned to him.’ His niceness of feeling here may seem a little self-congratulatory, but in a letter declining the Order of the Bath at its first offering, when it could have appeared a reward for political services (he later received it at the King’s direct behest), he writes with almost Johnsonian authority.

The authority he had – morally, scientifically, and in advising the Government on matters of policy – came in part from his real achievements as a botanical explorer. It could not, however, have been exercised – nor indeed could the botanical exploration have been undertaken – if he had not had money. Money could not have bought his position, but it could not have been supported without it. Much of his patronage was personal – the employment he gave to Solander, or the support of Ferdinand Bauer the draughtsman, who received an annuity in Banks’s will in order that he might carry on his work at Kew.

He seems to have borne no grudges, and in disputes to have come down on the side of common sense. This is not, of course, always the right side, but Banks did well with it. In the deliberations of the Board of Longitude, for example, he was with the chronometer-makers. A very accurate watch might be a less elegant solution to the problem of determining longitude at sea than the measurement of the distance between the Moon and the fixed stars, the consultation of tables and a little calculation, but it was much simpler, and did not depend on calm seas and clear skies.

Although some found him overbearing, his general amiability is well attested, most convincingly in the memories of those who knew him when they were young and he was much older. There is a description by a young woman, Maria Josepha Holroyd, of a visit shortly after he finally received his Order (O’Brian points out that it was the custom to wear one’s ribbon on all occasions): ‘The Red Ribbon has made no alteration to Sir Jo. in any other respect than that there is a red ribbon across his waistcoat. He sprawls upon the Grass, kisses Toads, and is just as good a nondescript Otaheitan as ever.’ In other words, a rare Tahitian speciman.

Toad-kissing was an old habit, as he once explained: ‘I have from my childhood, in conformity with the precepts of a mother void of all imaginary fear, been in the constant habit of taking toads in my hand, and applying them to my nose and face as it may happen. My motive for doing this very frequently is to inculcate the opinion I have held, since I was told by my mother that the toad is actually a harmless animal; and to whose manner of life man is certainly under some obligation as its food is chiefly those insects which devour his crops and annoy him in various ways.’

O’Brian takes Sir Humphry Davy to task for his condescending summing up of Banks (‘a tolerable botanist ... no profound information ... entertaining and unaffected ... too personal ... made his circle too like a court’) but his book demonstrates that one could agree with most of what Davy says and still have a high opinion of Banks’s usefulness. He carried out the functions of a couple of research councils, a substantial trust fund, and an all-purpose advisory body – I suppose Lord Rothschild is the closest contemporary comparison. One can understand the resentment of a socially awkward self-made man (as we are told Davy was) when so much seemed achievable, not by genius, but by good fortune, energy, enthusiasm and amiability.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences