Banks, A Biography

Grantlee Kieza  OAM
ABC Books, Sydney 2020.
RRP $39.99 

This is a large and extremely interesting book, laboriously researched, and stuffed full of fascinating details not confined to its subject, who, in himself, was truly a gargantuan figure.  Joseph Banks, whom David Attenborough hailed as “the great panjandrum of British science”, had a profound impact on our island continent 

The European “Age of Enlightenment (late 17th and 18th centuries) “ushered in such thinkers as Isaac Newton and Jonathan Swift” and while “British plantation owners were still rooted in the Dark Ages, crucifying or burning alive rebellious slaves in Jamaica, British and other European colonies, scientists and philosophers were challenging the old order.”  Although a “time of profound social, scientific and economic change, wealthy families still controlled most of the land”.   The Banks family traced its origins back to 14th century Sweden, when “Simon Banke had married an heiress of Newton, Yorkshire, during the reign of King Edward III.”   Sir Joseph’s father, William, “came from generations of wealthy English landholders and politicians, whose riches had snowballed over the previous half-century like compounding interest.”  

“Banks was an adventurous soul who possessed an endless curiosity.  With his money, his contacts and his physical courage, he could change the thinking of the whole world.” At the age of 23 he had the world at his feet, “he was a remarkable specimen himself.  One of the most eligible bachelors in England, he was strong, handsome, well-educated, adventurous and fabulously rich.”  

Banks’ good friend Lord Sandwich, shared his interest in botany “but had been even more intrigued by human anatomy from his youth as a member of the Hellfire Club, a meeting place for eighteenth century swingers…The rich wastrels, ‘men of fashion and loose morals’, who met at London’s George and Vulture Inn from the 1730s in gatherings focused on sex, drinking, gambling, blasphemy, and more sex.”  Kieza notes “With the lecherous Lord Sandwich by his side, his life could easily have devolved into one of debauchery and indolence like those of so many of the privileged profligates of the time.”  

But Banks wanted “to go where few European men had gone before…The roads to Paris, Venice and Rome were crowded with the gilded carriages of the young British well-to-do, while Banks chose a road far less travelled.”  

Banks’ was 23 at the time of his first expedition to Newfoundland.  He became a fellow of the Royal Society at just 24, in 1767.  The Royal Society, founded in 1660, “attracted the greatest brains in Great Britain”.  

It is difficult to imagine the wealth of the British upper classes, even in these days of increasing income disparity and proliferation of billionaires.    Joseph Sr. “paid the bargain price of 14,000 pounds for Revesby Abbey, a ruined twelfth-century Cistercian monastery with a dilapidated country mansion…and four hundred hectares of marshy fenland”, providing him “an annual return of 900 pounds”.  At his death, at 62, Joseph Sr “had acquired vast landholdings of fourteen estates throughout England, while he had grown so fat that it was not easy to find a horse to carry him.”  His funeral expenses were “about ten years’ wages for a farm labourer”.  Although “Joseph Jr inherited most of his father’s wealth…He also directed his son to provide alms houses for ten farmers who had landed on hard times, to provide each of them with 50 pounds a year, and to rebuild their local church.  He left 500 pounds for the Lord Mayor of London to build a children’s hospital.”  “Joseph Jr gave a beloved Revesby servant…300 pounds”, knowing they shared the same father. 

Compared to Cook

Kieza cleverly posits Banks’ wealth and social standing against those of James Cook, fourteen years older than Banks:  “At the same time that Banks was doing his best to avoid the birch at Harrow, James Cook had the winds in the sails of his budding career at sea”, born in a Yorkshire town “a million light-years from the privileged world of Harrow. The second child of a Scottish farm labourer, Cook’s first home, in contrast to Banks’s grand abodes in London and Lincolnshire, was a tiny, damp, dark mud-walled cottage with a dirt floor, thatched roof, precious few windows and little warmth against the savage northern winter.”    

“By the standards of the times Cook was a veritable giant, standing over six feet”, hard-working, earnest and dependable.  At 17, Cook, good with figures, worked for a merchant and draper in the coastal village of Staithes, “then home to one of the largest fishing fleets in England.”  The stories he heard “stoked his dreams of going to sea.”  Cook got his start ferrying coal “from the mines around Newcastle-on-Tyne south to London”, and cargo ships crossing the North Sea.  Banks’ monthly investment income was 500 pounds, while Cook’s starting salary was a mere one pound 4s.  

The Royal Society had sought support from King George III for an expedition to Tahiti in order to record the 1769 transit of Venus over the sun. Kieza describes the partnership between the Royal Society and the Admiralty in the expedition as one “in which the navy’s ambitions for territorial expansion could be concealed behind the veneer of a scientific voyage.”  Today we witness Space Exploration.  

A Whitby collier, “The Earl of Pembroke”, was purchased by the Naval Board for 2800 pounds and renamed “The Endeavour”.  Banks, only 24, despite little interest in astronomy, was excited at the prospect of discovering new species of plants and animals.  

Banks then spent 10,000 pounds of his own money (a British pound in 1775 being equivalent to nearly 170 pounds today, or around 300 Australian dollars) financing and equipping an accompanying expedition of his own.  As well as two of his pet dogs, Banks brought along and salaried eight others, including artist Sydney Parkinson (illustrator of flora and fauna), artist Alexander Buchan (illustrator of indigenous people, also tasked with recording their cultures), Finnish born Swede Herman Sporing (draughtsman and watchmaker), and four of his servants (two from his Revesby Estate, two black servants from his Mayfair home “to do the heavy lifting”), and the Swedish botanist, Daniel Solander, who had studied under Carl Linnaeus, “the father of modern taxonomy” and one of Linnaeus’ 17 “apostles”.  

Of the eight in Banks’ party, only Solander, and his two Revesby servants, Briscoe and Roberts, survived.  His two sub-Saharan servants of tropical origin froze to death in a hastily prepared collecting trip in Tierra del Fuego, when a sudden and unexpected mid-summer blizzard struck.  Banks returned with 30,300 botanical specimens and a thousand zoological specimens, increasing, by a quarter, the number of plants then known to Europeans.  

Kieza provides a salacious account of Banks’ rollicks in Tahiti:  “Despite his friendship with libertines such as Lord Sandwich, Tahiti was a sexual eye-opener for Banks.  While he taught local girls how to kiss on the lips, they had some surprises for him, too.”  The Tahitians dealt with the unintended offspring from such casual liaisons with infanticide.  Venereal Disease was already widespread, contracted from two previous landings by Bougainville.   Maori women were “as great coquettes as any Europeans could be and the young ones as skittish as unbroken fillies.”  The women wrapped their bodies with cloth and, beneath that, a string from the leaves of a highly perfumed grass around the lower waist from which hung a small bunch of the leaves of a fragrant plant covering her womanhood.   

Banks returned home after the three-year voyage, 11th July 1771, a great celebrity, with Cook largely overlooked in the fanfare, going home to his modest little home to learn his son born just after he departed had died in infancy, as well as his four-year old daughter.  Meanwhile, Banks’ home suddenly became a “centre of all things scientific in Britain”.  Linnaeus, keenly awaiting specimens from Terra Australis, suggested New South Wales be called “Banksia”, in honour of the “immortal Banks…an unequalled man…not only the glory of England but the whole world…” 

Kieza comments: “Banks had seen thousands of remarkable species, but he had never seen a creature with a head so large as the one gazing back at him from his mirror…after the meetings with the King, the laudatory press reports, the public adulation, and all the attention from the women, Banks seemed to forget who had actually been in command…He had only been a paying passenger, but in the months after coming home he grew to have enormous tickets on himself.”  

Dr John Stockard OAM

Part 2 continues next edition. 

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