Sir Joseph Banks

views updated May 23 2018

Sir Joseph Banks


English Naturalist

In 1768 Joseph Banks took part in the first expedition of Captain James Cook (1728-1779), from which he returned to England with a thousand new species of plants, a thousand more of birds and fish, and "insects innumerable." While still a young man, however, Banks ended his days as an explorer to become president of the Royal Society, and later a sponsor of expeditions to Africa, Australia, the Pacific, and the Arctic.

Born in London on February 13, 1743, Banks came from an exceedingly wealthy family with an enormous estate in Lincolnshire. He undertook his early education at Eton, and it was there, at age 14, that Banks, as he later recalled, discovered his calling in life. One summer evening, he was walking near the school when he suddenly became aware of the variety of flowers growing along the lane. Inspired to study nature, thereafter he learned as much as he could about botany. Upon arriving at Oxford University and discovering that it had no professor of botany, the young heir (his father had died when he was young) simply hired a botany professor from Oxford's rival, Cambridge, and brought the instructor back to Oxford to teach him.

After graduating from Oxford in 1763 and gaining his full inheritance the following year when he turned 21, Banks became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1766. He went on his first voyage later that year, aboard the Niger to collect plant specimens in Newfoundland and Labrador. Returning to England, he soon learned about the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to sail with Captain Cook as onboard naturalist. Banks would have to pay his own expenses, and those of his staff, but that was no problem for him, so in 1768 he left England with Cook aboard the Endeavor.

The crew had many adventures and misadventures along the way, and in Tahiti Banks allowed himself to be tattooed—one of the first Westerners to do so. He is also rumored to have engaged in amorous involvements with at least one of the beautiful Polynesian women he met. But he also found time for work, and as the ship sailed from Tahiti to New Zealand and Australia, he collected numerous specimens of animal and plant life. He returned to a hero's welcome, receiving praise from King George III (destined to be a lifelong friend of Banks's) and Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778).

Ego seems to have gotten the better of Banks for a time, because only his hubris can explain why he failed to join Cook on the his second voyage in 1772. Banks insisted on bringing a staff of 15 people, including two horn players, which would require the building of extra cabins on deck. Cook ordered these cabins torn down because they would make the craft unseaworthy, yet Banks refused to reduce the numbers of his staff. So Cook left without him—a fact Banks rued for the rest of his life—and, except for a voyage to Iceland later that year, Bank's travelling days were over.

The second phase of his career began in 1778, when the 35-year-old Banks was elected president of the Royal Society, perhaps the most honored position in the scientific world at that time. In this capacity, he established a large library of travel books in the British Museum, a library still in existence more than two centuries later. He also influenced exploration in many ways, including his suggestion to Captain William Bligh (1754-1817) that he sail to Tahiti to collect breadfruit—as Bligh later did on his infamous Bounty voyage.

Banks was particularly interested in the exploration of Africa, to which end he formed "An Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Inland Parts of Africa" in 1788. Over the next 17 years, the African Association, as it was called, sent a series of failed expeditions to find the source of the Niger River in West Africa. Most notable among the many explorers sent out by the African Association was Mungo Park (1771-1806), who drowned while looking for the elusive source of the river.

In addition to his Africa endeavors, Banks sponsored an 1801 voyage to Australia by Matthew Flinders (1774-1814), and from 1817 became involved in renewed efforts to find a Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. At this point in his life, however, he was becoming increasingly infirm, having been confined to a wheelchair since 1804 due to gout. He died on June 19, 1820.


Sir Joseph Banks

views updated Jun 11 2018

Sir Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) was an English traveler and animal and plant breeder, but most of all a scientific promoter. His whole adult life was directed toward the advancement of science.

Joseph Banks, born on Feb. 13, 1743, in London, was the son of William Banks of Revesby Abbey, Lincolnshire. At age 9 Joseph entered Harrow; 4 years later he transferred to Eton, where at age 15 he started a lifelong interest in natural history. He entered Christ Church, Oxford, in 1761, but he found botanical studies so stagnant that he had to go to Cambridge for tutoring.

In 1764 Banks began his travels. He collected plants in Newfoundland, toured western England and observed its natural and human history, and then in 1768 embarked on the Endeavour on Capt. James Cook's first voyage of exploration in the Pacific. Although most of the results of Banks's expeditions were never published, these findings did seep into the general body of knowledge through his key positions in science and his personal generosity in allowing people to use his materials.

After 1772 Banks became increasingly involved in administering scientific undertakings in England; his personal botanical collections, which were to become the finest private ones in England, consumed some time, however. By the mid-1770s Banks was supervising the collection and propagation of plants from all over the world at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. In 1778 he became president of the Royal Society. For the next 42 years he presided over the scientific academy, developed an acquaintance with most branches of science, and became one of the most distinguished members of the scientific community. He encouraged and administered George III's introduction of Merino sheep into England between 1788 and 1820.

Banks used his considerable power and influence beneficently. During the dark years between 1789 and 1815, when the English government was almost exclusively concerned about surviving the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, Banks helped plan and looked after the interests of New South Wales, Australia, in London. On several occasions he also intervened with his own government and Napoleon's to protect scientists and their property against seizure.

Further Reading

Banks's personal papers were widely scattered in the 1880s but are slowly coming into print. See, for example, Warren R. Dawson, ed., The Banks Letters: A Calendar of the Manuscript Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks … in Great Britain (1958). A major collection of material on Banks is in the Sutro Library of the California State Library, San Francisco Branch, which issued some material in New Source Material on Sir Joseph Banks and Iceland (1941). J.C. Beaglehole, ed., The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771 (2 vols., 1962), is a model for other editors to follow.

A recent biography of Banks is Hector C. Cameron, Sir Joseph Banks, The Autocrat of the Philosophers (1952). Older, but also of value, is Edward Smith, The Life of Sir Joseph Banks (1911). □

Banks, Sir Joseph

views updated Jun 11 2018

Banks, Sir Joseph (1743–1820). Explorer, and for over forty years president of the Royal Society. Educated at Harrow, Eton, and Christ Church, Oxford, Banks developed an extra-curricular interest in botany. Graduating in 1763, instead of going on a grand tour, he sailed to Newfoundland and Labrador on HMS Niger. Inheriting great wealth in land in 1764, he resolved to join Captain Cook's voyage to observe Venus from Tahiti and then to search for the unknown southern continent (1768–71). Accompanied by a staff including artists and the botanist Carl Solander, he observed ethnography and botany in Tahiti, New Zealand, and New South Wales. Returning a hero, he was in 1778 elected president of the Royal Society, holding the office to his death. Having learned his science as one of a large and expensive team involving the armed forces, not unlike modern ‘big science’, he spent his working life administering it. Seeing unity as strength, putting down what he saw as rival institutions, but promoting the Royal Institution, Kew Gardens, and the colonization of Australia, he became the formidable autocrat of science in Regency Britain.

David Knight

Banks, Sir Joseph

views updated May 14 2018

Banks, Sir Joseph (1743–1820) English botanist. He was the senior scientist of the group who sailed to Tahiti with Captain James Cook aboard HMS Endeavour in 1768. At Botany Bay, Australia, Banks collected (1770) examples of plants hitherto unknown in Europe, including the shrub banksia named in his honour. Upon his return, he helped establish the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, w London, and financed several international plant-collecting expeditions. In 1778 he became president of the Royal Society.

Banks, Sir Joseph

views updated May 11 2018

Banks, Sir Joseph (1743–1820) A British explorer (he sailed around the world with James Cook), who was a noted patron of science and did much to promote research and sent botanical expeditions to many countries. During his voyage on the Endeavour he named Botany Bay. His herbarium, now in the possession of the Natural History Museum (formerly the British Museum (Natural History)), and his books and manuscripts, now divided between the British Library and the Natural History Museum, are of major importance. He was honorary director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, became president of the Royal Society in 1778, and was knighted in 1795.

About this article

Sir Joseph Banks

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic