Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2008

Joseph Banks, A Life, by Patrick O’Brian

joseph-banks I became mildly interested in Joseph Banks after reading 1788 by David Hill and so when I took Joseph Banks, A Life home from the library with a great pile of other books greedily gathered, it made its way to the top of the pile. The plan was to browse through it and take it back to the library fairly promptly.  Patrick O’Brian was familiar to me as the author of the nautical novels which were popularised by Peter Weir’s film, Master and Commander but on the basis of browsing some of the novels I had my doubts about his writing style.

It turned out to be more interesting than I’d expected, though there are rather too many digressions about the numerous acquaintances and associates of Banks, and some long, long slabs of correspondence and journals that I found dull.  But the facts of Sir Joseph’s life are far from dull.  He was an adventurous young man in the days when real adventure was to be had, and he discovered a love of botany almost by chance, for he was a dull scholar.  He made expeditions not only to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, and the Falkland Islands, but also to Iceland, and was the pre-eminent botanist of his day.  He was an affectionate, forgiving man with such a wide network of international friends that in times of conflict between Europe and Britain, he was once considered a potential spy!

He may indeed have made things unduly hard for the fledgling colony of New South Wales by his glowing reports of the soil’s fertility and suitability for agriculture, but he was very influential in the birth of the colony and retained a great affection for it thereafter.  He would have liked to have been a governor but his responsibilities in England and the onset of gout prevented it.  Amongst other things, he was an active president of the Royal Society, and a passionate collector acquiring botanical specimens from numerous friends and expeditioners.  He was in charge of a sheep breeding program for King George, crossing English Lincolns with Spanish Merinos (most of which were surreptitiously acquired through smuggling from Spain).  He also managed his own farm at Revesby as well as his large house at Soho Square where his collections were catalogued. 

He was intensely loyal to his friends.  He made some misjudgements of character such as supporting  William Bligh of  Mutiny on the Bounty fame, but his efforts were unflagging when various friends were imperilled during the Napoleonic Wars.  When hapless botanists happened to be out on a collecting expedition in remote places that changed hands according to the fortunes of war, chances are they would be captured as enemy, and there is extensive correspondence which shows Banks appealing for their release. 

O’Brian is at pains to point out that his biography is no hagiography, but he has painted a picture of a man who thoroughly deserved the accolades heaped upon him.  He was indeed one of the leading scientific figures of his time, and was largely responsible for the birth of Australia.  There is a park named after him at Botany Bay, and a statue there too.

800px-botany_sir_joseph_banks_park_4


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