Joseph Banks

Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales

Joseph Banks; mezzotint after a painting by Benjamin West, circa 1773

In 1772, aged twenty-nine, the English naturalist Joseph Banks gave up traveling abroad. He had sailed around the world with Captain James Cook on the Endeavour and had just returned from Iceland. That was enough. Apart from a short trip to the Netherlands in 1773, he stayed firmly on British soil for the rest of his life. It was not, however, the end of his involvement with global expeditions. In Planting the World, Jordan Goodman demonstrates Banks’s determination to send botanists across the seas whenever an opportunity offered—to Africa and China, South America and Australia. His aim was to increase knowledge and to build up an unrivaled private collection of plants, but also to promote British mercantile and imperial ambitions, and—a more personal goal—to make the royal garden at Kew the outstanding botanical garden in the world.

The son of a wealthy Lincolnshire landowner, Banks was born in 1743 and educated at Harrow and then Eton, where his passion for botany began as an escape from boring classical studies, and where he made friends who would later create a powerful network in high government office, much as old Etonians still do today. At Oxford, he again gave natural history precedence over classics, so much so that he hired the botanist Israel Lyons to give lectures. Like many members of his social class, he did not finish his degree—when his father died in 1761, he was rich enough not to bother. Instead he plunged into the social and scientific world of London, becoming a fellow of the Royal Society in 1766. While studying the collections at the British Museum, he met the assistant librarian Daniel Solander—a pupil of his hero, Carl Linnaeus—who became a lifelong associate and friend.

In 1766 Banks traveled to Labrador and Newfoundland, collecting specimens of flora and fauna and minerals with his old schoolfriend Constantine Phipps. Next, helped by his personal connections, he persuaded the Royal Society and the Admiralty to let him join the Endeavour expedition. At his own expense he took a team of eight men, including Solander and two artists: Alexander Buchan (who died in Tahiti) for the landscapes and Sydney Parkinson (who perished from fever in Java on the way home) for the natural history. The overt aim of the expedition was to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti, where they spent three months, an indulgent stay for the womanizing Banks, who often spoke of the delights of the uninhibited Tahitians, “enjoying free liberty in love.”

Once the observations—used to calculate the distance between the earth and the sun—were complete, sealed Admiralty instructions ordered Cook to explore the southern Pacific territories of New Holland (now Australia) and New Zealand. The long voyage was a collector’s dream, and when the expedition returned to England in July 1771, the dashing Banks, even more than Cook, was lauded as a hero. A month later he was introduced to George III, who became a close friend and came to rely on Banks for the care of the royal gardens at Kew. Within a decade Banks’s connection to Kew, then run by the Scottish gardener William Aiton, was a central feature of his life. In 1796 he told the Spanish ambassador that for years he “exercis[ed] a kind of superintendence over His Royal botanic gardens.”

Keen to join Cook’s second expedition on the Resolution, which set out in the hope of finding a large continent in the Southern Ocean, and sure that his status would allow him to do as he pleased, Banks gathered a huge entourage for the voyage, including a French chef. He also persuaded John Montagu, Lord Sandwich—a fishing crony and fellow clubman and socialite, and now Lord of the Admiralty—to let him alter the ship to carry the plants he planned to collect. When the Resolution then proved too top-heavy to be seaworthy and had to be returned to its original state, the furious Banks chartered another ship, the Sir Lawrence, and took his entire party off to Iceland. The country, he felt, was new to botanists and zoologists, but his particular quest was to see Iceland’s volcanoes, as volcanology was a topic of growing debate in discussions about the formation of the earth; as well as Icelandic lava, he brought home priceless manuscripts of Icelandic sagas and two dogs—Hekla and Geysir.

Goodman recounts Banks’s youthful adventures briskly and soberly, but a lively account in Toby Musgrave’s The Multifarious Mr. Banks suggests why he initially suffered from a damaging reputation as a dilettante in the scientific community.1 Gossip buzzed about his engagement to Harriet Blosset, the ward of the famous horticulturalist James Lee, whom he often consulted at the Vineyard nursery at Hammersmith. Harriet diligently knitted waistcoats for Banks all the time he was away on the Endeavour, only to be ditched upon his return and paid off with the enormous sum of £5,000 (causing Banks a spot of bother with Lee, but they still collaborated in later years). Another story concerned an illegitimate child, and yet another told how the Resolution had stopped at Madeira to take on board a certain Mr. Burnett, who had not heard that Banks had left the expedition. Mr. Burnett turned out to be one of his mistresses in disguise.


But from then on Banks settled down. In 1777, a year after he was elected to the Royal Society, he moved to Soho Square with his sister, Sarah Sophia Banks—an inveterate collector herself—where he installed his great library and herbarium. The following year he was elected president of the Royal Society, and in 1779 he married the heiress Dorothea Hugessen, adding to his already substantial wealth. At the same time he leased (and later bought) the estate of Spring Grove on the heathlands at Heston, just north of London, where he laid out gardens and built greenhouses and hothouses.

Leaving Banks on shore, Goodman, a historian of medicine and science, now an honorary research associate at University College, London, turns his attention to the “adventurous history” of the botanists, naturalists, gardeners, and ship captains who carried out his vicarious plant-hunting across the world, shining a light on individuals whose achievements are relatively uncelebrated. The book is particularly strong on the minutiae of planning, negotiating, and financing these ventures, and on the disasters that so often beset them.

The earliest project developed from Banks’s suggestion that Francis Masson, Kew’s official collector, sail on Cook’s second voyage to collect plants from the Cape of Good Hope. Cape plants had been in British collections since the seventeenth century, but when Banks and Solander had stopped there with the Endeavour, they realized the mild climate favored unusual plants that might flourish more easily at Kew than the tropical palms that needed a greenhouse and artificial heat.

In the Cape, Masson worked with another pupil of Linnaeus’s, Carl Peter Thunberg, and briefly with the fine botanist Lady Anne Monson (who was en route to India with her husband). Over three years he sent countless packets of seeds and dried plants back to London, and in 1775 he returned with a large collection. The four hundred new species that Masson claimed he added to Kew included heathers, protea, geraniums, the bird of paradise Strelitzia reginae (named for Queen Charlotte), and the first specimen of Encephalartos altensteinii, a cycad, repotted in 2009 and, according to Goodman, “believed to be the oldest living pot plant in the world.” For the next two decades Masson collected in Madeira, the Azores, the Canaries, and the West Indies. In 1797 Banks sent him to North America and Canada. He died in Montreal in 1805, aged sixty-four, having collected for Kew for over thirty years.

Not all the expeditions in which Banks was involved were prompted by botanical curiosity and acquisitiveness. In 1779, after the loss of the American colonies prevented the British government from sending convicted felons to work on tobacco plantations in Virginia and Maryland, a committee was set up “to examine how far, Transportation might be practicable to other Parts of the World.” Banks was called to make suggestions. Without hesitation, he answered, “Botany Bay.” He had only spent a week in this marshy inlet on the east coast of New Holland, yet he declared that the climate was like that of Toulouse; the soil was good for crops, cattle, and sheep; fishing was good; timber was available; and the few inhabitants would be “willing to share their land.” The idea was then dropped for some years, but in 1783 Banks backed a proposal by the American loyalist James Matra for a settlement in New South Wales, which matched the hope of Lord Sydney, the home secretary, that it might serve as a base for transporting convicts.

In 1785 the government seized on a new destination, Das Voltas Bay in modern Namibia. Before a ship could leave to examine the site, Banks made sure that a naturalist or gardener would be on board, choosing a young Pole working at Kew, Antoni Au (who later styled himself “Anthony Pantaleon Howe” and “Hove”). Das Voltas turned out to be barren, windswept, and entirely unsuitable, but Howe sent back seeds of almost one hundred species from various stopping points on the West African coast, and from then on he joined Banks’s stable of collectors. (Banks later increased his West African collection when he arranged for Linnaeus’s student Adam Afzelius to go to Sierra Leone in 1792, following the request of the abolitionist William Wilberforce—a founding director of the Sierra Leone Company, whose aim was the settlement of freed slaves—for a good botanist “conversant with Tropical plants” who could survey the area.)


After the failure of Das Voltas, attention swung back to Botany Bay, and Banks found himself planning details with Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet and soon the first governor of New South Wales. He also provided cuttings of vegetables, fruit trees, and herbs, and seeds of vegetables, wheat, barley, rye, and oats for the settlement. In return, whenever the fleet landed for provisions, Phillip sent back seeds and plants in packet ships heading to London, including, from Rio de Janeiro, a complete ipecacuanha plant (whose root, ground to powder, was used in European medicine) preserved in rum.

In New South Wales, the settlement soon moved from the marshes of Botany Bay a few miles north to Port Jackson on Sydney Cove. But although the British names rang with confident possession, the plants and animals died, and soon the settlers and convicts were facing starvation. When the Second Fleet sailed urgently in September 1789, carrying vital supplies, Banks arranged for one of the ships, the Guardian, to carry trees and plants, many from his own garden, in pots in a special “coach” built on deck. Two Kew gardeners, James Smith and George Austin, went with them. During the voyage they were to protect the plants from wind and saltwater and from shipboard animals and vermin, and to water them carefully: “Plants on board a Ship,” Banks wrote in his detailed instructions, “like cucumbers in February, require a constant attendance.” When they landed the gardeners would teach horticulture to the convicts and collect plants and seeds for Kew.

All was in vain. In mid-ocean, some 1,250 miles southeast of the Cape, the Guardian hit an iceberg. The ninety-three pots of plants went down with the ship. While two thirds of the men on board miraculously survived and the convicts among them were freed, Smith and Austin were among the forty who died.

Banks’s connection with New South Wales was far from over. In 1800 he sent the independent-minded George Caley there to hunt for new plants. Caley proved one of the most successful collectors, largely because he went his own way—he was “Singular & Whimsical,” Banks warned. He valued indigenous knowledge and made close friends with local guides, explored the Blue Mountains, and undertook a separate expedition to Tasmania. During the same period, Banks also supported the young Lieutenant Matthew Flinders in his plans to circumnavigate the continent in the Investigator expedition of 1801–1803, making sure that the ship was fitted out with a special cabin to collect living plants.

For each expedition, Goodman builds up a picture based on meticulous research in original sources, tracking the complex official and personal negotiations, the funding, planning, and appointments, as well as the details of shipbuilding and plant care and the trials of the voyages at sea and the collectors on land. Plant-collecting and transplanting emerge as an unconsidered facet of British imperialism, undertaken with little concern for native peoples, who were judged bluntly as “hostile” or “friendly” and often regarded as a form of natural curiosity. Banks was complicit in this, and Goodman illustrates vividly how adept he was, all through his career, at piggybacking on different government, diplomatic, and mercantile ventures.

Engravings of Clerodendrum paniculatum and Leea rubra, two of the plants originally drawn by Sydney Parkinson in Java during the Endeavour expedition

Editions Alecto Ltd/Trustees of the National History Museum, London

Engravings of Clerodendrum paniculatum (left) and Leea rubra (right), two of the plants originally drawn by Sydney Parkinson in Java during the Endeavour expedition, circa 1770; from Joseph Banks’ Florilegium: Botanical Treasures from Cook’s First Voyage, with texts by Mel Gooding, commentaries by David Mabberley, and an afterword by Joe Studholme. It is published by Thames and Hudson.

His position as president of the Royal Society gave him not only a voice but a place on government bodies, including the Board of Longitude and the Royal Observatory, and after 1793 the new Board of Agriculture. Beyond this, he worked closely with the Privy Council Committee for Trade, chaired after 1786 by his friend Charles Jenkinson, Lord Hawkesbury, and exploited a wide network of allies such as Evan Nepean, a powerful administrator at the Home Office, the Admiralty, and eventually the Privy Council, and old Etonian allies like Phipps, now Baron Musgrave, a member of the Board of Trade and the Board of Control for India. Relentlessly, Banks cajoled and pressured these and many other friends into supporting his plans.

Banks’s collecting ambitions often coincided with British mercantile interests. One early venture, arising from the 1783 plans of Banks and Matra, aimed to promote commerce between New South Wales and the Pacific coast of North America. Traders would buy furs in Nootka Sound, in modern Vancouver Island—a rich trade that Cook had noted when he stopped there in the Resolution—and sell them, theoretically for vast profits, in China. Two expeditions set out, in 1785 and 1786.

On the second, Banks’s collector, Archibald Menzies, sailed as the ship’s surgeon, his brief including the collection of new plants in North America, and wherever possible in China and Japan. The fur trading was not overwhelmingly successful, but Menzies returned with over one hundred significant new plants. A few years later Banks sent him on a second long trip, joining George Vancouver’s Pacific expedition of 1790–1795. Over the years, in harsh conditions, he searched for plants on islands and coasts from Hawaii to Alaska, from California to Chile. Seeds were sent home, but almost all his living plants were lost on the return journey. A few special ones were saved, including “a beautiful Pine” from southern Chile—the first monkey puzzle tree to arrive in Britain.

Another potentially profitable venture was the quest in the late 1780s to replace the Spanish monopoly on cochineal from Mexico with insects raised in Madras on special grass or imported spineless Mexican cactus: the dye could thus be produced and sold by the East India Company. This idea—ultimately fruitless—was suggested to an excited Banks by the East India Company surgeon James Anderson. A more ambitious Indian project, also proposed in 1787 and keenly supported by the Board of Trade, which was anxious to help Manchester cotton factories, was the introduction of a finer kind of cotton from India to the West Indies. Banks sent Anthony Pantaleon Hove (formerly Howe) to Gujarat with instructions to find a successful cotton grower and spy on him as closely as he could, making detailed notes on soil, manuring, rains, sowing, and harvesting. Hove was to send seeds to Soho Square, saying they were for Kew, and to write the information he gleaned in Polish, sending it to his brother in Poland. As a reward, he was promised a plantation of his own.

To Banks’s dismay Hove overspent wildly, and it seemed that he had been sent to the wrong area besides. But the collection he brought home was impressive—not only 23 kinds of cotton, but 170 varieties of seeds and 80 varieties of living plants, among them nutmeg and balm trees and a mangosteen. Banks, once appalled by Hove’s extravagance, now robustly defended him, and all his debts were paid.

Over the years, Banks’s voyage with Cook returned often to his mind, prompting several substantial projects. Among them was the introduction of breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. Breadfruit, which the Tahitians roasted or fermented to a paste, seemed to epitomize their carefree life. “Scarcely can it be said that they earn their bread with the sweat of their brow,” Banks had written in his Endeavour journal, “when their chiefest sustenance Bread fruit is procurd with no more trouble than that of climbing a tree and pulling it down.”

In 1772 Valentine Morris, the lieutenant governor of St. Vincent and an Eton friend, wrote to Banks about the possibility of growing it on the island, and around the same time the West India Committee, a band of powerful merchants, agreed to underwrite the project, seeing it as a cheap way to feed their slaves. But then the American War of Independence intervened, and the scheme lay dormant until it won government support in 1787. Banks took charge of the details and arranged for the First Fleet, returning from Botany Bay, to collect the trees and take them to the West Indies.

But in a new plan, the Navy Board bought a special ship, to be converted for the purpose: the Bounty, captained by William Bligh. On board the trees would be cared for by the gardener David Nelson, whom Banks had employed before. In Tahiti they collected over one thousand breadfruit plants, placing them in pots in the cabin and tubs and boxes on the deck. All seemed set for a successful voyage. Then, on April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers took control of the ship, casting Bligh and eighteen others adrift. Nelson watched from the launch as the Bounty sailed into the distance, breadfruit and all. A few days later all the plants were thrown into the sea. Yet this was not the end. In 1791 Banks seized a second chance, with Bligh as his captain again. This time all the plants arrived without incident in St. Vincent and Jamaica, before Bligh and his crew sailed hastily home at the start of war with France.

Banks’s reach was global, although some places gave a richer haul than others. India was especially lucrative, since Banks had many contacts in the East India Company and in government, including Henry Dundas, head of the Board of Control, and he was consulted both on the founding of a botanical garden in Calcutta and on the introduction of tea to the subcontinent. But one country evaded him. His real land of desire, from a botanical viewpoint, was China: his library shelves groaned with material on Chinese natural history, including manuscript drawings of plants. But this vast territory was out of reach to collectors. Imperial decree confined European merchants to the port of Canton, and the only British allowed there were the men of the East India Company.

Banks’s first chance to obtain Chinese plants came through the company. In 1782 John Duncan, a Scottish doctor, working as the company’s surgeon in Canton, began to send plants to Banks, many bought in local markets, and in 1788 his brother Alexander took over. Alexander Duncan collected for Banks for the next eight years, sending home magnolias, water lilies, azaleas, camellias, chrysanthemums, and finally four much-sought-after tree peonies, only one of which survived the voyage home.

In 1792 Banks had another try. While helping to plan George Macartney’s mission to the Qianlong Emperor, he enrolled Macartney’s friend and secretary George Staunton as his botanical collector and made sure the large entourage included two gardeners.2 From a diplomatic standpoint the trip was a humiliating failure, but Staunton’s haul for Kew, including Rosa bracteata, the “Macartney Rose,” delighted Banks, who liked to imagine that “our King at Kew & the Emperor of China” might “Solace themselves under the Shade of many of the Same Trees & admire the Elegance of many of the same flowers in their respective gardens.”

Planting the World tracks Banks’s projects in detail and illustrates dramatically how difficult it was to move plants around the world before the invention in the 1830s of the closed, glazed Wardian case, in which condensation kept plants damp while protecting them from sea spray. However often Banks designed new shelters for his plants and gave instructions for their care, time after time they were ravaged by saltwater, scorched by heat, pinched by cold, or lost in shipwreck.

Yet although he was downcast at the losses and his efforts were sorely hampered during the French wars, his optimism and energy were unbounded. When the wars ended, his driving goal was still to make Kew supreme among botanical gardens. In 1814 he managed to persuade the prime minister—his old friend Lord Hawkesbury, now Lord Liverpool—that the garden’s expenses and the plant collectors’ salaries should be paid from the public purse. His last projects before his death in 1820 included the sponsorship of an expedition to the Congo blighted by fever, the appointment of a naturalist to accompany Lord Amherst’s mission to China (another mix of diplomatic fiasco and botanical success), and the glorious plant-hunting of James Bowie and Allan Cunningham in Brazil. From Rio de Janeiro Cunningham told his brother, who was working at Kew, that the gardens “will shine in Melastoma, Malpighia, Banistera, Bignoniaceae, Gradeniae and many other new & interesting Genera.” Banks could not have wished for more.