Joseph Banks

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Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks (February 13, 1743 - June 19, 1820) was the English naturalist and botanist on Cook's first great voyage (1768-1771) and some 75 species bear Banks' name. He is credited with the introduction to the West of eucalyptus, acacia, mimosa, and the genus named after him, Banksia.

Born in London to the wealthy William and Sarah (Bates) Banks, Joseph Banks was at Eton with Constantine John Phipps. He acquired a passion for botany while at Oxford University in the early 1760s; it was an exciting time for the field. In the decades following the revolution sparked by Linnaeus, and after inheriting his father's fortune, Banks set himself up as a full-time botanist. He soon established his name by publishing the first Linnean descriptions of the plants and animals of Newfoundland and Labrador.

He was promptly appointed to a joint Royal Navy/Royal Society scientific expedition to the south Pacific Ocean on HMS Endeavour, 1768- 1771. This was the first of James Cook's voyages of discovery into that region.

This voyage went to Brazil and other parts of South America, Tahiti (where the transit of Venus was observed, the primary purpose of the mission), New Zealand, and finally to the east coast of Australia where Cook mapped the coastline and made landfall at Botany Bay near present-day Sydney and at Cooktown in Queensland, where they spent almost 7 weeks ashore while their ship was repaired after foundering on the Great Barrier Reef. While here, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander made the first major collection of Australian flora, describing many species new to science.

While in Brazil, Banks made the first scientific description of a now common garden plant, bougainvillea (named after Cook's French counterpart, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville). Upon his return to England he was elected to be a fellow of the Royal Society and later served as their president from 1778-1820.

Before he left England, he had become a Freemason and is thus held to be the first Freemason known to have been in New Zealand and Australia.

It was the time in Australia which was to lead to Banks' second great passion, however, the British colonization of that continent. He was to be the greatest proponent of settlement in New South Wales, as is hinted by its early colloquial name: Botany Bay. The identification may have been even closer, as the name "Banksia" was proposed for the region by Linnaeus. In the end, a genus of Proteaceae was named in his honour as Banksia.

Upon his return home he left the British Isles only once more, on a trip to Iceland. The 1772 Iceland trip was taken on the Sir Lawrence along with the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander.

He was made a baronet in 1781, three years after being elected president of the Royal Society. The latter position he would hold for a record forty-two years, and from it he could direct the course of British science for the first part of the 19th century. He was directly responsible for several famous voyages, including that of George Vancouver to the Pacific Northwest of North America, and William Bligh's voyages to transplant breadfruit from the South Pacific to the Caribbean Sea islands; the latter brought about the famous mutiny on HMAV Bounty. The redoubtable Bligh was also appointed governor of New South Wales on Banks' recommendation, which in turn led to the Rum Rebellion of 1808.

During much of this time, Banks was an informal adviser to King George III of the United Kingdom on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a position that was formalized in 1797. Banks dispatched explorers and botanists to many parts of the world; through these efforts Kew Gardens became arguably the pre-eminent botanical gardens in the world, with many species being introduced to Europe through them.

Finally, Banks was a major financial supporter of William Smith in his decade-long efforts to create a geological map of England, the first geological map of an entire country in history.

He died in London at the age of 77.

Banks' impact on history was as a systematizer par excellence, very much in step with his times. He was also a major supporter of the internationalist nature of science, both being actively involved in keeping open the lines of communication with continental scientists during the Napoleonic Wars and in introducing the British people to the wonders of the wider world. As befits someone with such a role in opening the South Pacific to Europe, his name dots the map of the region: Banks Peninsula on South Island, New Zealand, and Banks Island in modern-day Vanuatu.


An excellent and finely-detailed biography of Banks was written by Patrick O'Brian. O'Brian based his characters Joseph Blaine and Stephen Maturin both to some extent on Banks (in the Aubrey–Maturin series of novels).

  • O'Brian, Patrick. 1987. Joseph Banks: A Life. The Harvill Press, London. Paperback reprint, 1989. ISBN 1-86046-406-8
  • Sex, Botany & Empire: The Story Of Carl Linnaeus And Joseph Banks. Columbia University Press. Patricia Fara. ISBN 0231134266 A short book about the exploits of Joseph Banks and his relationship with Carl Linneaus
  • Gascoigne, John, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: Useful Knowledge and Polite Culture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994. ISBN 0-521-45077-2 Hardback

External links

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