Richard Collins: 200 years since the death of a botanical master

The names of literary giants and great philosophers spawn adjectives, ‘Shakespearian’, ‘Marxist’, and ‘Platonic’, for instance. Few scientific celebrities are so honoured, although ‘Darwinian’ has entered the lexicon.

This year sees the 200th anniversary of death of the man who gave botanists the term ‘Banksian’; the genus Banksia has some 170 plant species.

Joseph Banks, a John-the-Baptist figure to the great Charles Darwin, died on June 19, 1820.

Richard Collins: 200 years since the death of a botanical master

Banks’ life anticipated Darwin’s in many ways; both men showed little promise initially. Born to wealthy Lincolnshire parents in 1743, Banks attended Harrow and Eton but was considered an indifferent student.

As with Darwin six decades later, he was fascinated by the natural world as a boy. Both men, in their youth, neglected their studies to go hunting and insect-collecting.

Darwin would drop out of Edinburgh Medical School, to the dismay of his distinguished upper-class family. Banks went to Oxford but left without a degree.

In 1766, at the age of 23, Banks embarked on the first of the three voyages which made his name just as, 66 years later, Darwin would join Captain Robert Fitzroy, as “naturalist and gentleman companion”, on the four-year voyage of The Beagle.

The first of Banks’ sea journeys was to Canada, where he collected plant animal and geological specimens, many of which were lost in a gale during the journey home from Newfoundland.

On his second great venture, he joined James Cook’s expedition to chart the Transit of Venus in the southern hemisphere. According to biographer Tania Durt, he “alone was accepted as a supernumerary on the voyage, largely due to the sum of money he supplied to finance the expedition, which surpassed even that provided by George III”.

Although this would become one of history’s most famous voyages, it started inconspicuously.

Lieutenant Cook, being a man of humble origins, was not even afforded the rank of captain. While Darwin’s free-thinking views would enrage the snobbish autocratic Fitzroy, Cook was a humane and tolerant leader. His mental state would deteriorate fatally only later.

The three-year-long trek, down the east coast of South America, into the Pacific, and on to New Zealand and Australia, made Cook a celebrity.

Banks, who collected thousands of plant and animal specimens, many of them new to science, benefited from the reflected glory.

Cook entered the name ‘Botanists Harbour and Bay’ in his journal to honour Banks and his helpers, acknowledging the wealth of botanical specimens they had collected there.

During his third voyage, which he led himself, Banks remained closer to home, visiting Iceland, the Hebrides, and Orkney. He was the first naturalist to survey Fingal’s Cave, on the island of Staffa, which would later inspire Felix Mendelssohn to compose his sublime Hebrides Overture.

In middle age, Banks undertook less adventurous projects. As advisor to the king, he helped establish Kew Gardens as a leading botanical centre.

The Five Lion Trees survive there from his day. He supported sending William Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, to collect breadfruit in Tahiti.

Towards the end of his life Banks, now a grand old man encrusted with honours, suffered increasingly from gout. Eventually, unable to walk, he had to be wheeled about. His mental powers, however, remained unimpaired to the end.

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