Joseph Banks (1743-1820)

When Joseph Banks proposed to take a scientific party on James Cook's first voyage of discovery, his family and friends thought that such a journey was far too dangerous for him. Why didn't he pursue the usual sort of OE for young gentlemen of the time - a grand tour of Europe? He retorted that every blockhead did that. His grand tour would be one round the world.

Such was the stuff of the intelligent, adventurous, and self- possessed twenty-five-year-old who led his party on board the Endeavour in August 1768. His curiosity about the natural world around him had been evident from his boyhood. At school at Eton, he decided he'd far rather study plants and animals than Greek and Latin. His first botany teachers were the local women who gathered the plants for apothecaries, the medicine-makers of that time. He'd pay them sixpence (a good sum in those days) for each bit of information they could give him.

When he went to Oxford University, he wanted to study botany. There was nobody able to teach it there, so he organised a botanist from Cambridge University to come to Oxford and take classes.

Not only was Banks a 'can-do' sort of person - he also had the personal wealth to back it up. His income came mainly from the family estate in Lincolnshire, and throughout his life he was lavish in his expenditure on the pursuit of science. The Endeavour voyage was his second major field trip. (His first was to Newfoundland in 1764.) It was estimated to have cost him about £10,000 (worth more than NZ$1.5 million today) to mount it.

The Endeavour expedition was an opportunity for Banks' curiosity about life generally to be given free range. He energetically pursued his scientific duties, but his journal of the voyage also reveals perceptive and humane observations of new peoples encountered and their cultures. Cook entrusted him with the management of trade and relations with local people during shore visits. These two men, very different in background as well as personality, had a remarkably harmonious relationship for the whole of the voyage.

The legacy of this voyage was immense. It boosted the profile of science. The vast collection of plant specimens Banks and his colleague Daniel Solander brought back became the basis for one of the best herbariums in the world (now in the Natural History Museum in London). Some of the specimens they collected in New Zealand are now held in Te Papa's botany collection. The hundreds of plant drawings made by artist Sidney Parkinson on the voyage kept groups of artists and engravers employed, at Banks' expense, for years preparing them for publication.

Banks hoped to take a bigger and even better equipped party on Cook's second voyage in 1772, but his accommodation requirements proved impossible to fulfil without endangering the safety of the ships. He withdrew from the voyage in pique and went on a field trip botanising in Iceland instead.

From then onwards, Banks became more a promoter and patron of science than a researcher as such. He met King George III as a result of his south sea travels, and this started a lifetime friendship between the two. In 1772, the King appointed him scientific adviser at Kew Gardens. It was Banks' influence and organisational skills that set up the gardens as a centre of practical botany, with a growing (in both senses of the word) collection of plants that might be ornamental or useful in some way from all over the world. He also organised the introduction of plants useful for commercial harvest into other countries, for example, of tea from its native China into India, and of breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies.

In 1778 Banks was elected president of the Royal Society, a position he held till his death in 1820. He was knighted in 1781. His house in Soho Square, with its well-stocked library and its museum, became a centre for people working and interested in science from all over the world. In this way, the results from his great scientific expedition were made available, even though the publication of his plant illustrations had to wait over 200 years to come to fruition.

More information

Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa Collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.

  • Beaglehole, J C. editor. (1962). The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771. 2 vols. Sydney: Public Library of New South Wales and Angus and Robertson.
  • Beaglehole, J C. (1974). The Life of Captain James Cook. London: A & C Black.
  • Hooker, Joseph D. editor. (1896). Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks Bart, KB, PRS: during captain Cooks first voyage... London: Macmillian.
  • Morrell, W P. editor. (1958). Sir Joseph Banks in New Zealand, from his journal.
    Wellington: Reed.

Other images of Joseph Banks in Te Papa's collection

  • The Right Hon: Sir Joseph Banks, Bart. K B, date unknown, by A. Cardon, engraving


Portrait of Joseph Banks
Date unknown
By Joyce Aris after Sir Joshua Reynolds (original painted in 1775); oil painting
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