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Primer: Joseph Banks July 26, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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A young Joseph Banks, painted by Benjamin West, held at the Usher Art Gallery in Lincoln

Two decades ago Harold Carter, in his definitive biography of Joseph Banks (1988), and John Gascoigne, in Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment (1994), could both suppose that Banks (1743-1820) was a neglected figure in the historiography of science.  Following a surge of interest in natural history and the relationship between imperialism and the sciences, no such claim could now hold water — entire conferences are now dedicated to Banks and his milieu (.doc).  This post is intended mainly for my own benefit, to fill out my side interest in the culture of improvement circa 1800, but also just to help me get a personal handle on what now must be considered de rigeuer knowledge for any competent historian of science

The task of briefly summarizing Banks’ place in history is complicated by the reach of his interests, while it is simplified by the fact that he has very little place within the history of published science.  Banks was an institution builder, whose influence was derived from his ability to orchestrate the resources and interests of hereditary privilege and the state, as well as from his commitment to building and maintaining an intellectual community capable of supporting a new scale of work in natural history, estate improvement, and imperial development.

Banks caricatured as "The Botanic Macaroni" (1772)

Banks was born in 1743 to a wealthy family of the Lincolnshire landed gentry.  At that time, natural history was one of a number of possible interests that wealthy men and and women might cultivate.  “Virtuosos” took pride in assembling personal collections of rare and remarkable objects.  Likewise, interest in natural history became associated with well-traveled, foppish “macaronis”.  Banks first developed his interest in natural history within this culture.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, intensive work in natural history was at a low ebb, particularly in Britain.  However, in Paris Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707-1788, made the Comte de Buffon in 1773) made the Jardin du Roi an influential center for study, after he became the garden’s intendant in 1739.  (See this blog’s primer on Félix Vicq d’Azyr.) Meanwhile, Banks received an education typical for his background, attending Eton (1756-1760) and Oxford (1760-1765).  Although Oxford employed Humphrey Sibthorp (1713-1797) as Sherardian Professor of Botany, natural history was not a central part of Oxford education while Banks was there.

Banks apparently developed his own interest in the subject privately, as well as through student clubs dedicated to botany, fossils, and antiquities.  In 1764, before leaving Oxford for London — without a degree, for which as a gentleman he had no need — he arranged for mathematician and botanist Israel Lyons (1739-1775) to come from Cambridge to teach a summer course on botany.

After moving to London, Banks met Daniel Solander (1736-1782), a Swede who had studied under Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) and was working at that time for the British Museum.  Solander became Banks’ mentor in natural history, and it is perhaps a sign of the limits of natural history in Britain that Banks’ association with Solander and the museum led quickly to him becoming a fellow of the Royal Society in 1766.

The same year, Banks joined the HMS Niger on fisheries protection duty off Newfoundland and Labrador, giving him the opportunity to undertake botanical and zoological field study outside of Britain.  Upon his return in 1767, he undertook further natural historical work in the British countryside, and was able to put himself forward to be part of a voyage arranged by the Royal Society to the South Seas to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, and to undertake natural historical surveys.  From 1768 to 1771 Banks (and Solander, among others) sailed with Lieutenant James Cook aboard the HMS Endeavour.

The Endeavour voyage gave Banks an enormous opportunity to conduct observations and do fieldwork in uncharted territories of the South Seas, New Zealand, and “New Holland” (Australia).  Upon his return, Banks was catapulted to fame, alongside Cook, and became known to King George III.  He was in line to accompany Cook on his second voyage aboard the Resolution, but indignantly withdrew when the Admiralty balked at his attempts to influence the planning of the voyage.  Banks would only make one further voyage, to Iceland.  Thereafter, he became a leading authority in natural history, and a fixture in the politics of the Royal Society.

In 1773, the king gave Banks authority to organize scientific work at the royal gardens in Kew outside London.  In the 1760s, John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute (1713-1792, briefly Prime Minister in 1762-63) was an important patron of (and later a failed systematizer in) British natural history.  He had already convinced the king to dedicate part of the gardens to botany.  Under Banks’ influence, Kew would surpass the Chelsea Physic Garden as the center for botanical research in Britain, and would become a key site for attempts to adapt plants to new climates.

Over the course of the 1770s, Banks oversaw the engraving of specimens and drawings from the Endeavour voyage in preparation for publication, but this process ran aground on the practical burdens of publishing lushly illustrated natural history.  Specimens and drawings were confined to the residence Banks acquired in 1777 in Soho Square in London.  Banks opened his collections and library there to naturalists, and it became an important center of study in subsequent years.

Banks was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, and would serve until his death over 40 years later.  His time in this position marked not only his longstanding preeminence in British scientific life, but a period of substantial influence in British politics and trade.

As president of the Royal Society, Banks courted controversy by encouraging the naming of wealthy patrons to fellowship, keeping power over Society affairs in the hands of his allies, and encouraging the growth of natural history in the Society’s work.  In the 1820s and 1830s, reformers would link his presidency with their perception of the languishing of British mathematics and the dominance of a culture of aristocratic amateurism.

Banks was certainly a central figure in the growth of a new culture of science and learning in Britain, which indeed appealed to amateurs, but also resulted in the expansion of dedicated geographical sciences.  He oversaw an enormous growth in British global botany (and, to a lesser extent, zoology) as a component of the British imperial project, and he was one of the British proponents of the employment of the Linnaean system and the system of Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748-1836) as a means of organizing the intellectual products of natural historical work.

The end of the eighteenth century also saw the rise of new sciences connected to the causes of Enlightenment learning and practical improvement.  Banks had become a member of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1761, a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1766, and a member of the upper-crust, classicist Society of Dilletanti in 1774.  Banks’ own interest in antiquities was mainly confined to an amateur interest in the history of his native Lincolnshire.

Banks’ Lincolnshire estate also provided an important impetus to his interest in improvement.  He became interested in sheep breeding in the early 1780s and soon became a recognized expert in the subject, and coordinated the building up of the king’s flock of Spanish sheep. Banks’ interest in flock improvement made him allies with the Scotsman John Sinclair (1754-1835) and an important supporter of the foundation of Sinclair’s Board of Agriculture in 1793.  As we have seen, interests in the chemistry of agriculture and tanning also fed into support for the foundation of the Royal Institution in 1799.

Beyond agriculture, Banks’ interest in sheep’s wool extended to the wool and textile trade.  Like most British supporters of the cause of improvement, Banks would likewise support the growth of mining (and, with it, mineralogy) and mechanized manufacture.  This situation, of course, is markedly different from the later Romantic division of industry from the pastoral, as well as contemporaneous debates in America over whether the new federal government should support the growth of manufactures or pursue Thomas Jefferson’s (1743-1826) vision of an agrarian republic.

Banks in 1812

Intellectually, Banks was a product of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the power of reason, and his work in the South Seas and subsequent support of imperial natural history helped spur an empirical dimension to the Enlightenment-era interest in the establishment of sciences of humanity and civilization.  Theories of society, polity, psychology, and language combined easily with reports of primitive peoples and antiquarian study of ancient civilizations.  Banks shared the Enlightenment’s skepticism of the moral authority of religion, albeit in ways that can be peculiar to modern sensibilities.  Notably, he defended the slave trade against religious objection until he was finally convinced that it hindered rather than advanced the agricultural development of the Empire.

Banks did not extend his Enlightened interests to political or anti-clerical radicalism.  Like many in Britain, he was repulsed by the violence of the French Revolution, but was eager to distance scientific work from its rationalism.  He approved of the esteem granted science in the wake of the Revolution, and did not hold a hard line against the more moderate post-Revolutionary governments.

Ultimately, in the case of Banks, the lavish attention recently paid to his imperial commitments seems entirely appropriate, with all of the difficulties in assembling a politically and morally simple narrative thereby implied.  He participated in the global expansion and reorganization of agriculture, with its attendant social disruption, human exploitation, as well as gains in economic productivity and availability of new goods.  He was a key proponent of the colonization of Australia, recommending the establishment of a penal colony at Botany Bay — so named during the Cook expedition in view of the remarkable fruits of Banks’ and Solander’s labors there.  (The colony was, however, established at Sydney Cove instead).

It may be tempting to suppose Banks’ crucial role in the resurgence of British natural history can be regarded as an unambiguously laudable achievement, but to do so would subtract from the wholeness of the vision of service that Banks pursued, seemingly very earnestly, over the course of his life.

The titles and authors of some early biographies of Banks give a sense of the range of perspectives from which he has been regarded.  The first account of Banks’ life was published in 1909 by J. H. Maiden, the director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens (1896-1924), entitled Sir Joseph Banks: The ‘Father of Australia’.  H. C. Cameron published Sir Joseph Banks, The Autocrat of the Philosophers in 1966.  In 1987, Sir Joseph Banks, A Life was published by Patrick O’Brian, best known as the author of the Aubrey-Maturin novels about the adventures of a Royal Navy captain and his ship’s surgeon, a natural history enthusiast, circa 1800.


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