Posted by: Rob Viens | February 28, 2013

Joseph Banks – Have Plants, Will Travel

On the 26th of February, the Beagle set sail over the continental shelf on a four-day trip to the Falkland Islands.  The ocean voyage was apparently rather quiet and Darwin didn’t have much to write about.  He simply stated:

“Put to sea & steered for the Falkland islands: at night it blew heavily with a great sea: the history of this climate is a history of its gales.” (Feb 26)

“Strong breezes.” (Feb 27/28)

But before departing, the Beagle spent a couple of days in the Bay of Good Success, where Darwin had first set foot in Tierra del Fuego two months earlier (see Stranger in a Strange Land: First Impressions).  While in the bay, he had a chance to again climb Banks Hill:

“After waiting for fine weather, on Monday I ascended Banks Hill to measure its height & found it 1472 feet.— The wind was so strong & cold; that we were glad to beat a retreat.— If we had been an hour later, the boats could not have reached the shore for us.— This was one of the hills I went up during our last visit, I was surprised that nine weeks had not effaced our footsteps so that we could recognize to whom they belonged.” (Feb 24/25)

Banks Hill was named after Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist on James Cook’s first voyage round the world. In 1769, Cook – on his way to observe the Transit of Venus in Tahiti – stopped in Good Success Bay (see The Transit of Venus). While exploring a “mountain” near the bay, a sudden storm rolled in and Banks and several crewmen were caught in an unexpected snowstorm.  Two men died as a result.

In many ways Joseph Banks’ story starts out a lot like Darwin’s. He was born to a wealthy family and was given the benefit of a solid education (in his case, it was Oxford). He began to make a name for himself as a botanist – even advising King George III on the need for scientific exploration (ok – that part is a bit different from Darwin’s story). However, like Darwin, what seem to have really established Banks as a scientist explorer was his ocean voyages.  At the age of 23 he was invited to join the HMS Niger on a voyage of exploration to the northeastern coast of North America (Newfoundland and Labrador), where he described many new plants and animals.

Joseph Banks a couple of years after returning from his voyage round the world (painted in 1773 by Sir Joshua Reynolds):

young Joseph Banks

His real opportunity to shine came when he was assigned to be the naturalist on the HMS Endeavour – under the command of Lieutenant James Cook. Cook’s orders where to sail to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, and (secretly) to look for the mysterious “southern continent”.  Cook himself was a junior officer at the time, but his record in the Royal Navy, along with his background in mathematics and cartography made him an ideal choice for the mission.

HMS Endeavour, leaving Whitby Harbour in 1768 (painted by the Earl of Pembroke in ~1790)

HMS Endeavour

During the three-year voyage (from 1768 to 1771), Banks was able to study the natural history of several part of the world, including Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia.   In all of these places the botanist described the plant and animal life and collected botanical samples to bring back to England. Like Darwin, when Banks returned home his adventures had made him famous in scientific circles and with the general public.

Banks spent much of the remainder of his long life studying botany and helping to promote scientific voyages and specimen collection trips.  He advised he king, contributed to the development of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (now the largest collections of living plants in the world), and remained active with the Royal Society throughout his life.  In fact, he served as president of the Society for 41 years. (Upon his death, the honor went to William Wollaston – namesake of “Woollaston Island” where Darwin was a couple of days ago.) He was also somewhat active in politics. In fact, it is probably a direct result of Banks lobbying that Botany Bay in Australia became an English penal colony. (Arguably, Banks just wanted an excuse for there to be a regular shipment of new plants returning from Australia and New Zealand.) After a long and productive career, Banks (who had also been knighted along the way) died in 1820.

Banks later in his life (1812) in his role as president of the Royal Society:

old Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks legacy lives on in the many plant species that now bear his name. (RJV)


  1. Those guys were lucky, travelling, collecting new species,I wouldn’t need to be knighted to came along …

    • I know – wouldn’t it be great to have the resources to travel around the world on a sailing ship. Your only real “job” being to explore the world around you!

      • Well, without resources and sailing ship I have to explore the world in my backyard 😉 , honestly the internet world exploring isn’t that bad either-with a cup of tea and some biscuits……I only wonder how this could become my only real job……

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