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Joseph Banks

Without doubt Englishman Joseph Banks[1] (1743-1820) was the pre-eminent scientific figure of the British Enlightenment. His influence on natural history and science during this period was evident across the world. He was a member of the Royal Society for 54 years, being President (the most senior scientific post in Britain) for 41 years from 1778 to 1820, also a founder of the (Royal) Horticultural Society, confidant of King George III, and a member of the parliamentary Privy Council. He was, in effect, director of the botanic gardens at Kew from 1773 to 1820.


Socially Banks was widely and closely connected to royalty, the wealthy, politicians, and many of Europe’s intellectual elite through both his personal correspondence and affiliation with many societies. Through his obsession with plants, his voyages of exploration, and his honorary Directorship of Kew he was in close touch with eminent explorers, nurserymen, botanists, gardener-botanists, and other scientists.

Following a period of exploration to the seaboard of north-west north America and then to Iceland he then set off round the world as naturalist on the Endeavour with Cook, during which he was the first to view and collect on the east coast of New Holland. Returning to Britain he became honorary ‘Director’ of Kew gardens where he converted the former royal estate into the hub of a vast plant exchange and distribution network for the British empire dedicated to economic botany, converting it into the world’s most vibrant plant-centre for both horticulture and botany.

Though a polymath, it was plants that were his major obsession, dominating his scientific interests. Through his involvement in horticulture, along with economic, descriptive and illustrative botany, he helped to create an era of ‘botanophilia’ – a preoccupation with plants that gripped Europe for about 100 years, giving plants a political status that will not be experienced again.

Joseph Banks (1743-1820 – Age 30)

Painted by Joshua Reynolds in 1773.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Early years (1743-1765)

Son of a wealthy Lincolnshire country squire Joseph Banks was born in 1743 at Westminster, London. Both his father and grandfather were members of the House of Commons and in keeping with his social status the young Joseph Banks was educated at home before entering Harrow School at the age of 9, Eton College when 13: then, after a period of illness brought on by a smallpox inoculation, he attended Christ Church College Oxford in 1760 as a gentleman-commoner. At Oxford he evaded the traditional course of classics by studying natural history, even paying a Cambridge botanist, Israel Lyons (who had written a book on the plants of Cambridge), to run a summer school in botany at Oxford in 1764 as compensation for the lack-lustre botanical curriculum presided over by Professor Humphrey Sibthorpe at Oxford.

Banks’s father died in 1761 when young Joseph was 18, bequeathing to his son the Lincolnshire Revesby Abbey estate. However, Joseph moved with his mother to Paradise Row in Chelsea in 1763, leaving Oxford University in 1764 (without a degree) to buy a house at 14 New Burlington Street between Regent Street and Savile Row. Here the illustration of some of his collections was commenced by Georg Ehret and Sydney Parkinson.

During the mid-1760s his time was divided between London, Revesby and Oxford. He now had a steady income from his estates and was able to live the life of a dilettante, indulging his interest in natural science and especially botany. From childhood Joseph had enjoyed the outdoors, roaming the Lincolnshire countryside, following up his botanical interests first in Oxford then London, taking advantage of his locality by visiting the Chelsea Physic garden. When Banks moved with his mother to London their home was situated near the east corner of the Chelsea Physic Garden which became one of his favourite haunts. Here he met Philip Miller who acted as a horticultural mentor, explaining about plant collections and the excitement of introducing new species into cultivation while at the same time introducing Banks to the circle of eminent horticulturists, nurserymen, and collectors of the day among whom were botanist Daniel Solander and well-known proprietor of the Vineyard nursery, James Lee.[2]

Banks also made regular visits to the British Museum where he spent time in the reading room learning more botany, and here at the museum he met and befriended Linnaeus’s pupil Daniel Solander, employed by the Museum to catalogue the collections. Banks was himself a Linnaean striking up a correspondence with the famous botanical classifier Carl Linnaeus in Uppsala, even planning to pay him a visit, although this never eventuated. At this time there was still controversy over the acceptance of the Linnaean system of plant classification. One major dissenter in England was Philip Miller who stubbornly refused to accept Linnaeus’s ‘system’ for many years.

Meanwhile he was also building up his other scientific and social connections. As a well-known and well-connected gentleman-botanist and patron of the natural sciences he was well known in society, even becoming a friend and advisor to King George III. It was this relationship that gave him the opportunity to fulfill one of his greatest life ambitions – to join a voyage of scientific discovery.

Voyage to Newfoundland & Labrador (1766)

In 1766 at the age of 23 Banks’s ambition was fulfilled when, instead o making the usual society ‘grand tour’, he sailed for Canada aboard HMS Niger, under the command of Constantine Phipps, collecting natural history specimens in Labrador and Newfoundland and gaining invaluable experience in the practical difficulties of managing plants and other natural history specimens at sea. He was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society in the same year (he was elected President in 1778). His familiarity with Linnaeus’s work meant that he was able to impress the scientific community by using the Linnaean system to classify the plants and animals that he collected on the voyage.

Cook & the Endeavour (1768-1771)

Having now established his scientific credentials it was not difficult to persuade the Royal Society to appoint him as naturalist on Cook’s Endeavour voyage bound for the Pacific, especially as he was prepared to pay his way. For an account of this voyage see Cook & the Endeavour.

All European society was aware of this voyage, the safe return of Cook and Banks heralding a whirl of social engagements that included audiences with: the President of the Royal Society; America’s Enlightenment advocate Benjamin Franklin; King George III (seeds from the voyage collections were presented to the king when Banks and Solander met with him at Kew); a sitting for what is now his most famous portrait as a young man in his prime, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds as a rich, dashingly handsome adventurer.

Iceland (1772)

In 1772 aged 29 Banks was invited to join Cook’s second circumnavigation of the globe in Resolution and Endeavour. This expedition was commissioned by the British government (advised by the Royal Society) to investigate the possible southern landmass Terra Australis. Banks fell out with the Admiralty over his requirements (generally considered unreasonable, even dangerous) and set of in the Sir Lawrence with Solander on his own expedition to Iceland. In the party was Uno von Troil a Swedish friend of Solander’s who joined the party directly from Paris where he had spent time with French Enlightenment figureheads Rousseau, D’Alembert and Diderot. There was botanising, fishing and examination of the geology of the volcanic Mount Hekla and socializing with the governor and eminent Icelanders. ‘Banks made a point of entertaining all the leading men of Iceland to exquisite meals prepared by his French chef Antoine Douez. The Icelandic guests were amazed by the music of the French horns which accompanied these dinners.’[3] The stay lasted for 6 weeks.

Banks had recommended Francis Masson (Kew’s first official plant collector) take his place on the Resolution. Masson duly joined the ship to embark at the Cape where he worked diligently for three years.

It was late in the season for plant collecting and the natural history had been recently studied and already published in some depth by Danish scientists. However, Von Troil published a highly popular account of Iceland in 1777 and Solander completed an unpublished list of the plants, animals and minerals. As usual it was Banks’s social influence that carried most weight as he became the British authority on Icelandic affairs, acting as a supportive advocate of Icelanders through the Napoleonic wars.[4]

Banks donated lava rocks used as ballast for the Sir Lawrence as the basis of one of Britain’s first rock gardens (now ‘listed’) which was built at the Chelsea Physic Garden in the summer of 1773.[5]

Honorary Director, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (1773)

By the time he was 30 Banks was formulating a grand vision founded on the botany he so loved – but this was not to be a quaint academic diversion based on the curiosities of natural history: Britain was to be the economic centre of a vast botanical and horticultural network. But to make the idea reality he needed somewhere that would encourage botanical scholars and safely house their herbarium specimens and somewhere that could store and cultivate live plants in vast numbers from all over the world. In the Age of Discovery spices and tulips had demonstrated how plants could dominate the European economy and the commercial potential of the plant kingdom was an opportunity that Banks and Britain were not going to miss.

Since the time of the ancients plants had been treated as the trophies of conquest, brought back to homelands where they provided ornamental diversions as well as delicacies and treats for the dining tables of the wealthy. Banks believed that Kew could become the hub of ‘a great botanical exchange house’[6]. Plants of economic value from Britain’s colonies, including garden gems, could be stored here, propagated and distributed throughout the empire. And, as Wulf points out, the idea was hardly new even in Banks’s time: Miller had proposed growing cocoa in the West Indies and sending West Indian cotton seed to American Georgia where it could be grown on an industrial scale and Linnaeus had indicated the economic merits of a plant exchange with distant lands, attempting to emphasise his point by trying, unsuccessfully, to grow tea in Sweden.[7] Banks had the tenacity and influence to make the vision reality. The story of how he achieved his goal is told in see Imperial botany.

Banks presented his ideas to George III on their regular Saturday walk through the gardens and glasshouses of Kew. Without much persuading the king placed the royal garden at Kew at his disposal.[8] Now, as honorary Director, Banks could mobilize his contacts and plants poured into Kew from round the globe.

Among his impressive scientific correspondents were von Humboldt, who maintained contact with Banks during his long exploration of Spanish America accompanied by botanist Aimé Bonpland in 1799-1804. This trip returned about 5,800 species of plants, most new to science, seed being sent to Banks at Kew.[9] Bonpland, who had first visited England in 1890, was in 1809 employed by Joséphine from 1809-1814, communicating with Banks and asking for an introduction to Lee and Kennedy at the Vineyard, visiting London with Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle. Banks was now aging when Bonpland visited Banks’s herbarium in 1816. Banks had earlier dined with him at Kew and it is clear that Banks made an important contribution to the plant collections at Malmaison.[10]

Home at 32 Soho Square

In 1777 Banks had leased rooms at 32 Soho Square in London later facetiously dubbed the ‘Academy of Natural History’. Here he lived with his sister Sarah Sophia and his assistant Daniel Solander. His sister helped run the household and Solander managed his library and herbarium. Soho Square was to remain his London residence for the rest of his life but in 1779 he acquired a 34 acre estate, Spring Grove, near London at Isleworth, converting the grounds into a display of exotic plants, many collected on his own travels.

Soho Square was an open house, proudly displaying and promoting his botanical treasures from the Endeavour Voyage of 1768 to 1771 to eager visitors who included nurseryman James Lee, Kew Head Gardener William Aiton, and Philip Miller’s successor at the Chelsea Physic Garden, William Forsyth (1737-1804).[12] His herbarium specimens were made freely available to the many visiting botanists who sometimes stayed at Soho Square for several weeks.[32] To act as secretary, herbarium curator, and librarian he employed first his old friend and former pupil of Linnaeus, Daniel Solander, who died in the house of a stroke in 1782 while recounting a tale of their South Sea voyage. Solander was replaced by Jonas Dryander, another Swede and former Linnaean student who also became librarian of the Royal Society and Vice-President of the Linnean Society of London, followed finally by Scotsman Robert Brown in 1810 who remained in the position until Banks’ death in 1820 briefly assisted by John Lindley later, in 1822, an influential secretary of the (Royal) Horticultural Society, being appointed to the chair of botany at University College, London from 1829 to 1860 assisting Loudon in the his massive Encyclopaedia of Plants and known to Australian botanists through his description of West Australian plants collected by James Drummond and Georgiana Molloy.

Brown was bequeathed both the library and herbarium (described by historian William Stearn as the ‘ … richest botanical library and herbarium in Britain‘) which were transferred to the British Museum in 1827 and Brown appointed Keeper of the Banksian Botanical Collection. Banks had a keen respect for the many Scots who figure in the horticultural and botanical history of the 18th century, describing them as having ‘the habits of industry, attention and frugality’.[13]

Specimens were stored in Chippendale mahogany cupboards and included those he had purchased from other botanists including Philip Miller’s massive collection from the Chelsea Physic Garden; the collections of wealthy Dutch banker George Clifford in whose garden and glasshouses Linnaeus had honed his plant skills.[14]

His library was looked after by Solander, Dryander and then Robert Brown. Herbarium collections, manuscripts and drawings passing at Brown’s death to the British Museum forming what was known as the Banksian Department.

His house became an international port of call for scientists, renowned for its breakfasts and dinners. Andrea Wulf describes life at the Soho house as follows: ‘Every Sunday evening Banks opened his house for informal meetings of thirty or so friends and acquaintances; on Thursday mornings, at ten o’clock, he hosted breakfasts in his library – a tradition that he later extended to every day of the week … Presided over by the portrait of Captain Cook that hung above the fireplace, Banks assembled the greatest minds of his age, providing a platform for natural history that was quite unlike the Royal Society in being, as one visitor described it, ‘perfectly free from … ceremony of any sort’. The house was always filled with people, talk and laughter and well known for its ‘breakfasts’ and ‘dinners’.’

(However, because of his request for 12 assistants and his concerns about the seaworthiness of the vessel, Banks did not join the second voyage.)


Banks was a co-founder, with William Forsyth and others, of the Horticultural Society of London which later became the Royal Horticultural Society.

The 19th century saw start of plant breeding, pest control, greenhouse cultivation, acclimatization, plant pathology, in all of which Banks’s presence was felt. ‘Although it was Lindley’s generation [including the legacy of Knight] that made horticultural knowledge systematic, and communicated it systematically, their work was based on foundations laid by Banks and his associates’.[15] Victorians would probably have named among their eminent forbears John Claudius Loudon, Thomas Knight and John Lindley, forgetting that Knight was essentially a Banks protégé and ?Lindley an assistant in his library. Loudon’s connection is more obscure but he did use Banks’s herbarium and acknowledged a debt to Knight.[16] He did publish in the Society’s Transactions, his last paper attempting to trace the arrival and spread of Aphis lanigera in England: which ‘effectively initiated modern plant epidemiology’.[17]

Much of his influence was as a British and international ‘facilitator’. For example, he obtained the services of John Graefer as Head gardener for the King of Naples at Caserta at a time when Italian botanic gardens were in severe decline. The story of John Graefer is characteristic of the movement of high-flying favoured 18th century gardeners under the recommendations of influential men like Banks. John Graefer (1746-1802), a German gardener-botanist nurseryman born in Helmstedt, was trained by Philip Miller at the Giardino Inglese, and published a catalogue of plants at the palace of Caserta, Synopsis plantarum regii viridarii Caserti (Naples 1803). Among Graeffer’s introductions to British horticulture was Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’ in 1783 which he recommended as a greenhouse plant. In 1799 he became bailiff of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s estate on Bronte, Sicily, where he was murdered in 1802.[36]

Under Banks’s influence during the reign of George III about 7,000 species were introduced to cultivation from around the world.[33] He was associated with the establishment of a famous rockery at Chelsea Physic Garden, supposedly contributing lava rock from his Iceland collection to encourage the growth of plants that enjoyed such soils.[34] Perhaps this rockery is the forgotten source of inspiration for unsightly but carefully maintained 19th century heritage rockeries protected in the botanic gardens of Melbourne and around Melbourne and the inner city and known as grottos or ‘grotesque rockeries’.

His own garden at Spring Grove contained in its early days a collection of rarities cared for by his gardeners John Smith and Isaac Oldacre but was concerned more with food production, and cranberries in particular.

Scientific description and publication, as well as exposure in the popular press, magazines etc. was, for close to the first 100 years of the colony carried out in Europe. The consequence of this was that the literature and specimens were and still, to some extent, remained the possessions of European countries and it took a formidable personality like Ferdinand Mueller to establish a truly Australian tradition of scientific authorship.

The man

In his early years Banks certainly displayed a youthful aristocratic eccentricity. Among his entourage for the Endeavour in addition to Scandinavian botanists, the Swede Daniel Solander, a former student of the renowned Carl Linnaeus, and the Fin Herman Spöring were four servants (two from Revesby and two negroes), a secretary, two artists and two greyhounds. He had a personal cabin stocked with the latest scientific equipment and an extensive library,[37] all at his own expense to the princely sum of about £10,000 which was considerably more than the official £4,000 allocated by the Admiralty for the entire voyage. Of this personal group only he, Solander, and the two Revesby servants survived the voyage.

A few accounts have described Banks as imperious and autocratic.[18] It can be imagined that a man of his background and obvious determination to get his own way could become overbearing. However, in spite of his education and background as a ‘gentleman’ Banks appears to have mixed well with everyone, getting along well, for example, with someone of the humble-background of Cook on the Endeavour. Perhaps one reason that he was so widely respected throughout society was because ‘throughout his life he was known to express himself in non-refined, country ways. One objection to his election to the Presidency of the Royal Society stated Banks was ‘too common, too ignorant and too vain for the chair of Newton’.[35] He appears to have been equally at home with seamen, nurserymen, his botanical collectors and the rising class of botanical academics.

Respected by all, the great Linnaeus himself suggested that New Holland be re-named Banksia in recognition of Banks’s scientific work.[11] When Matthew Flinders was suspected of spying and incarcerated on Mauritius by the French, Banks worked tirelessly for his release.

For the proposed second voyage, which never took place, he was planning to pay for a party of 16 people including four artists and two musicians (‘French Horn Men’ – perhaps reminiscent of the horns that would accompany Linnaeus on his natural history excursions) with the Great Cabin of HMS Resolution converted into a botanical laboratory and Cooks quarters now reconstructed above. After the alterations were made Cook took the vessel for a test run in May 1772 finding it barely seaworthy. This time practicality won out over style and comfort, the Navy Board ordering the ship returned to its original state. Banks did not receive the news well: a midshipman reported that ‘He swore and stamped upon the Wharfe, like a Mad Man’.[19] Banks withdrew from the voyage and peevishly set off with Solander in HMS Sir Lawrence on his own collecting expedition to the Isle of Wight, the west coast of Scotland and Iceland then, in the following year, headed off to Holland with friend Charles Greville (co-founder of the (Royal) Horticultural Society and after whom the genus Grevillea was named) and then touring South Wales with Solander and landscape painter Paul Sandby.

In her prize-winning book The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession horticultural historian Andrea Wulf provides many insights into Banks the man.

Gradually the impetuousness of his youth mellowed. James Boswell suggested that he was like ‘an elephant, quite placid and gentle, allowing you to get upon his back or play with his proboscis’.

In spite of being in some ways an outsider he remained open minded and accessible, always keen to hear of new theories and possibilities. Like many botanists to this day his passion for plants at times put him on the fringes of society, one day being arrested while suspiciously gathering plants on a common, later protesting that he was ‘carried before a justice as a highwayman’.[22] He was always appreciated for his modesty, Wulf noting that one friend that in spite of his Order of the Bath he had every reason to maintain his dignity and yet he still ‘sprawls upon the Grass kisses Toads and is just as good-humoured a nondescript Otatheitan (Tahitian) as ever!” [23]

During his life he published comparatively little, perhaps the one major flaw in his ambition being the failure to complete the account of the voyage of the Endeavour, some people suggestinguncharitably that he was just a ‘dabbler’, others that his preoccupation with botany was to the detriment of other subjects and more important matters. He had not graduated from Oxford. He was occasionally lampooned in the press. With his grand vision and wide connections he did not have the luxury of time that is so critical for detailed academic work and publication – though he undoubtedly had the intellectual ability to have published more. Achieving his goals was more about connections and networking (see table).

Banks was sometimes criticized for not being more generous in sharing the plants at Kew which he certainly guarded ferociously, keen that Kew’s collections should maintain their competitive edge on the rest of the world.

Though generally enjoying good health from the early 19th century in his forties he suffered from gout, at first just in winter but by 1805 he could hardly walk although remaining mentally alert, having to attend meetings in a wheelchair. He died on 19 June 1820 in Spring Grove House and was buried at St Leonard’s Church, Heston, Hounslow, being survived by his wife: there were no children.


One of the most astute and popular judgments made by Banks was when, at his inaugural speech as President of the Royal Society, he announced himself ‘free from the Shackles of Politicks’.[24] This he realized would preserve his friendships and give him more persuasive influence over government decisions. In this way he maintained contact with Benjamin Franklin through the American War of Independence and, when France declared war on Britain in 1793 he famously declared that ‘the science of the two nations may be at peace while their Politics are at war’. I have never Enterd the doors of the house of Commons, he wrote to Benjamin Franklin, and so I have escapd a million of unpleasant hours & preservd no small proportion of Friends of both Parties.[38]

When the Royal Navy captured a French ship carrying the Pacific collections of botanist Labillardiere on the D’Entrecasteaux voyage Labillardiere’s specimens were delivered to Banks who, at Labillardiere’s request, left the specimens untouched while using his influence to ensure they were returned to the French botanist along with the request that he (Labillardiere) would one day visit Banks at Soho Square.

One unfortunate lapse, it appears, was for Solander to ignore his former teacher Linnaeus in Uppsala. Solander had promised Linnaeus specimens from the Endeavour voyage but on their return Solander had failed to do this or, indeed, to contact Linnaeus at all. It seems that Banks did not want any of his specimens appearing in Linnaeus’s publications and, sadly, publication of his own illustrated botanical account of the voyage, the Endeavour Florilegium, was a long way off. Linnaeus died in 1778 without ever seeing any of the Endeavour collections. Solander did not attend Linnaeus’s funeral and Linnaeus’s son Carl jr inherited the Linnaean herbarium. Hoping to bring his father’s list of plant species, Species Plantarum, up to date he requested seeing the Endeavour specimens but Banks refused saying he wished to publish the names himself. Carl travelled to work at Soho but was not given access to the Endeavour specimens. When Linnaeus died Banks had offered to purchase the Linnaean herbarium which he desperately wanted, but Carl jr had refused. This too may have influenced his behaviour.[25] Ironically it was Carl jr who, in 1781, named the genus Banksia in his honour. Banks’s much awaited account of the Endeavour voyage was never completed the species he and Solander had collected being described either by other botanists or from later collections by other people.Clearly Banks commanded respect in all circles as people did not appear to resent his wealth, position, or influence. Linnaeus had recommended that New South Wales be named Banksia in honour of its discoverer. His social skills served him well as, on returning from New Holland, it was Banks much more than Cook or Solander, who was feted by London’s intelligentsia and society, addressing gatherings where he would recount tales of the fabulous exotic plants and animals they had encountered, the narrow escapes, the tropical allure and promiscuity of beautiful Tahitian women who did not know about kissing but ‘they lik’d it when they were taught it’ … etc.[26]

Once at Plymouth Cook had sent an express letter to Banks and Solander in London letting them know that the ship was ready to sail. The letter was received as the two men were heading to the opera with Harriet Blosset (a botanical enthusiast under the guardianship of nurseryman James Lee) and her family. It was understood that Banks would return to marry Harriet although there was no official engagement. While Harriet was desperately in love, Banks had confided in a friend that he doubted if matrimony would lead to lasting happiness. Banks, apparently, found it too painful to tell Harriet that he was leaving and consumed rather a lot of alcohol.[27] During Banks’s absence Harriet had withdrawn from London society expecting Banks to contact her on his return, which he neglected to do at first, eventually sending her a note putting off any possibility of marriage. Andrea Wulf points out that ‘London’s high society gorged on the story’ a magazine mocking ‘… Banks’s ungallant behaviour, portraying him as a scientific libertine who explored not only exotic flowers but also the women of every country’. Harriet’s friends insisted that some compensation was required for his cavalier jilting and Banks paid up.[28]

Banks later took up a mistress, Sandra Wells, but in 1779 at age 35 he was prepared for marriage to rich heiress Dorothea Hugesson who was twenty years old and brought with her £14,000. Sandra Wells departed quietly from the scene and Dorothea, according to Solander, proved pleasant company and ‘happily participated in the library breakfasts whenever she was in town’.[29] It was probably best to give the man his space. Andrea Wulf relates how Banks dotingly gave his wife what he regarded as a gorgeous piece of moss to wear as a brooch but she refused to wear it saying that it was boring and unsightly, Banks calling her a ‘Fool that She Likes diamonds better, & Cannot be persuaded to wear it as a botanists wife Certainly ought to do‘.[39]

He clearly had boundless energy and enthusiasm remembered not so much for his detailed science but his broad command of the field and incredible powers of human organization. The Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as being usually ‘good-humoured and generous, a fluent conversationalist, and selfless in the promotion of science’.[30]

It is clear that Banks and Linnaeus had an ambivalent relationship. Banks had effectively poached Linnaeus’s best student Solander who did not correspond with his old master for many years. Linnaeus had been promised duplicate specimens from the voyage of the Endeavour and Solander had also promised to return to Uppsala and visit Linnaeus after the expedition. No specimens were sent to Linnaeus by either Banks or Solander, probably for fear of Linnaeus publishing names before themselves – a matter of professional pride. In desperation, after his father’s death, Carl (jr) had travelled to London in April 1781 to work at Soho Square hoping to see the Endeavour collections but although he was treated with great respect (he stayed in London for about a year, mostly at Soho Square, enjoying the breakfasts and Solander’s company) the Endeavour collections remained firmly under lock and key. This treatment was perhaps also meted out because Carl (jr) had just refused the highest British scientific honour, an invitation from Banks to become a member of the Royal Society, ostensibly because he could not afford the fees although Banks was perhaps still smarting after Carl (jr), who clearly had none of his father’s botanical genius had, upon his father’s death, refused to sell the natural history collection to Banks.[31]

Strangely, the early lives of the two great men of the expedition, Cook and Banks, epitomise the two major aspects of our human relationship with plants, the commercial and the academic: Cook was raised on a farms in Yorkshire, starting out life as a grocer’s lad, while Banks became fascinated by the wildflowers growing around his school at Eton. By an unusual coincidence, while Cook was establishing his navigational skills charting the coast of Newfoundland Banks was, at the same time, collecting specimens of the island’s natural history.

It is Banks’s name that is generally associated with the botany of exploration in Australia as, with his assistant Solander, he amassed a large collection of natural history specimens.


After a brief youthful period of global scientific exploration Banks became more settled in a role as a supreme administrator and entrepreneur. As an orchestrator of Enlightenment science he was not so much a practitioner, more a catalyst, inspiring and encouraging the new Enlightenment community not only in Britain but throughout the British Empire, Europe, the Americas and Australia.
The Endeavour

The Endeavour off the coast of New Holland

Painted by Samuel Atkins c. 1794
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Social networking

His personal cultivation of friendships from people of vastly different interests and social positions earned him respect and popularity that would translate into a facilitation of his broad plan for plants in Britain. His home in Soho had been a favourite point of hospitality, connecting British and European scientists, maintaining cordial relations with the French through the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. On the one hand Banks enjoyed the company of royalty (apart from the friendship of George III he was, for example, also in correspondence with Empress Josephine of France and Empress Catherine the Great of Russia), politicians, and scientific dilettantes. He indulged the fashionable interests of the wealthy elite while presiding over prestigious institutions like Kew Gardens, The Royal Society, the Linnean Society, and the (Royal) Horticultural Society of London, even serving as advisor on colonies and plantations to the parliamentary Privy Council. He clearly thrived on what many today might regard as the burden of office. Publishing little himself he was fully aware of the enormous benefits that flowed from contacts and communication, the epitome of the saying ‘Its not what you know but who you know that matters’.

Renowned for his political impartiality he was determined that science should remain above political partisanship and he maintained scientific communication with Americans through the American War of Independence. He also continued to correspond with French scientists during the Napoleonic wars, in one memorable occasion ensuring that a consignment of botanical specimens collected by French botanist Labillardère during the d’Entrecasteaux expedition and captured by an English vessel, were returned unopened to Paris.

The following is a list of some of his offices and contacts since it gives some idea of his remarkable social reach and the close-knit community of which he was a part.


The following are just a sample of Banks’s contacts to provide some idea of the range of his interests and networking. Banks was influential as a Patron to the more lowly of society, especially the gardeners and explorers that helped expand Kew’s plant collections. Like other scientists of his day, he maintained a vast correspondence.

Gardeners – Miller (Chelsea Physic Garden) He was supervisor and mentor to many gardener-botanists sent out on plant collecting expeditions for Kew the first of these being Francis Masson (South Africa)
Nurserymen – Lee & Kennedy of The Vineyard in Kensington, Colvill
Botanical illustrators – employed Franz Bauer the first botanical illustrator at Kew
Botanic garden directors – Sponsored William Hooker as Kew’s first official director
Politicians – Friend of Charles Greville (Privy Council & House of Commons), Clerke & Salisbury
Botanists – Linnaeus (who he never met but employed two of his students as personal assistants: Daniel Solander and Joseph Dryander, followed by Scotsman Robert Brown; J.E. Smith (President of the Linnean Society)
Scientists – members of the Royal Society of which he was President (included Hans Sloane)
French scientists – Dumont de Courset, Labillardiere, Aime Bonpland
Explorers – Humboldt & Bonpland
Royalty – Personal friend of George III, in contact with Empress Josephine (France), Catherine the Great (Russia), Frederick the Great at the Palace of Schonbrunn Vienna

Honours and affiliations

The following list gives some idea of Banks’s many honours, interests, and commitments:

1766 – Member of the Royal Society; Trustee of the British Museum for 42 years; Lifelong member of the Society of Antiquaries
1771 – Doctor of Civil Law, Oxford
1773 – Foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
1774Society of Dilettanti (Secretary 1778-1797), instrumental in establishing the Royal Academy
1778 – President of the Royal Society, remaining in the position for over 41 years; founder of the African Association, a society dedicated to African exploration c. 1788–1828 One of the first Vice-Presidents of the Linnean Society
1781 – Created a baronet
1788 – Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
1794 – High Sheriff of Lincolnshire
1795 – Order of the Bath (knighthood, K.C.B.)
1797 – Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; member of the Privy Council (a formal body of advisors to the Sovereign to which he was appointed ‘for the Consideration of all Matters relating to Trade and Foreign Plantations’ (see Wulf p.220)
1800 – Instrumental in founding of the Royal Institution
1804 – Founding member of the Horticultural Society of London (Later the Royal Horticultural Society)
1808 – Honorary founding member of the Wernerian Natural History society of Edinburgh

To this list can be added his connections to the Royal Institution, Engineers Society, Literary Club, Institut de France, Board of Longitude, Royal Observatory, Board of agriculture, Coin Committee, Society of Arts, Soho Square Residents’ Garden Committee, and many more associations including several London dining clubs and influence on The Board of Trade, Admiralty, and Home Office.

Enlightenment science

As a patron of science his substantial wealth was generously distributed among countless explorers, botanists and botanical collectors and other scientific causes, he was especially a champion of scientific exploration. His interests and influence extended well beyond the realm of plants. He supported, for example, William Smith in the production of the first national geological map of Britain.

He was one of the 400 richest men in England, effectively sponsoring the establishment of the Department of Botany at London’s Natural History Museum.[1] As a member of the Africa Association he initiated exploration on that continent while organizing Bligh’s voyages to transfer breadfruit from the Pacific to the West Indies, sending George Vancouver to the Pacific Northwest, and setting a scientific standard on these expeditions that was emulated by the great French expeditions. With Daniel Solander he introduced many new plants to western horticulture including, from New Holland, the genera Eucalyptus, Acacia, and the eponymous Banksia. It was his own voyage with Cook in the Endeavour with his assistant Daniel Solander, perhaps more than any other voyage of scientific exploration, which marked an era of scientific enterprise, empire, and plant globalization.

His insistence on naturalists, and botanists in particular, on voyages of exploration was to have major consequences both economically and scientifically through the transference of crops to the Neo-Europes and by establishing a tradition that, through the voyage of the Beagle, provided Charles Darwin with the stimulus needed to publish his Origin of Species.

When Linnaeus died his natural history specimens, including an extensive herbarium, had passed to his son Carl (jr) who had not shared his father’s botanical genius. Banks, wishing to keep the collections in competent hands, had offered to buy the collection but Carl (jr) had refused, the specimens passing to him. In 1783 Banks was notified that Carl had died unexpectedly and that the entire collection was available for 1,000 guineas. As Linnaeus had used these collections for the reclassification of the natural world they were of inestimable value as ‘type’ specimens and in much demand from, amongst others, Catherine the Great of Russia, botanists in Denmark, Holland, France, Switzerland, and Sweden itself where, among others, King Gustav, had expressed an interest.

As luck would have it the letter from Linnaeus’s executors arrived on Banks’s doorstep on a morning when he was at breakfast entertaining the young James Smith who had just finished studying medicine and natural history at the University of Edinburgh. Fortuitously Smith’s father was a wealthy wool merchant. It was one of the few occasions when Banks himself was in a difficult financial position, as wool was no longer being exported to America. Following Banks’s recommendation Smith took up the offer, leasing an apartment at Paradise Row near the Chelsea Physic Garden as a place to house the specimens. These arrived 10 months later in 26 chests with Banks and ?Solander soon arriving to eagerly help Smith unpack.[9]

Horticultural historian Andrea Wulf[9] observes astutely that:

‘With Linnaeus’s collection in Chelsea, Banks’s collection at Soho Square, Sloane’s bequest at the British Museum and the living plant entrepôt at Kew, London had become the botanic centre of the world. Nowhere else was there such an accumulation of foreign plants – dried and living – as well as of botanical knowledge. The purchase of Linnaeus’s collection, one of Smith’s friends wrote, ‘most decidedly sets Britain above all other nations in the Botanical Empire’

Linnaeus’s natural history collection consisted of about 20,000 herbarium specimens, about 3,000 insects, 1,500 shells, myriad mineral specimens, 2,500–3,000 books and all of Linnaeus’s correspondence and manuscripts.[11] It was four years after this acquisition that the Linnean Society was formed with Smith as President. The society’s publication Transactions, which was first published in 1791, provided a valuable voice for natural history, with an emphasis on botany. In France a Linnean Society had been founded a year before the one in Britain but it was strongly discouraged by influential Academicians who had always preferred the French system of plant classification and jealously guarded their control over scientific affairs, recognizing only the Royal Society of Sciences in Montpelier (est. 1706) among the provincial societies.[8]

Th name Banks is commemorated in at least 80 botanical epithets. Although naturalists were often included in exploration teams, probably more than any other person he especially emphasized the role of the botanist who remained an integral part of such teams long after his death. A larger than life figure he is even credited with the rediscovery in 1772 of Fingals Cave, known to the Celts on the uninhabited Scottish island of Scaffe it was named after a piopular Celtic saga of the day Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books translated from an ancient Gaelic epic by Irish poet James Macpherson, the cave made famous through a symphony of German composer Felix Mendelssohn.[8]

Always a supporter of the arts and artists he commissioned the work of botanical artists of the highest caliber including Sydney Parkinson, John Miller, Georg Ehret and the famous Bauer brothers who, together, produced some of the most accomplished botanical art the world has seen.

Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

During George III reign it is estimated that some 7,000 new exotic plants were introduced to Britain under his Banks’s influence. Though plant introduction from distant parts was not new, it was in the 18th century that its scale was vastly increased and Banks was at the centre. At Kew he built up the world’s most impressive plant collection, built up links with people and institutions across the world, made Kew the also the hub for economic botany, though opening up the collections to study by all, his acquisitive passion meant that he he held back from readily exchanging the plants themselves, a trait that he shared with Linnaeus.

Under Banks’s guiding hand the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew became the model of what means to be a botanic garden. From the 18th century Kew has set the standard for botanical institutions and although challenged scientifically by such institutions as the Missouri Botanical Garden it is generally to Kew that similar institutions look to for leadership and inspiration. Certainly there is an element of colonial noblesse oblige – as educational courses are offered to people from less privileged countries so that their new knowledge and experience can be passed back to their homelands, but horticultural and botanical standards are high and there is demonstration to the public of genuine environmental concern. There is still the challenge and adventure of overseas work for Kew botanists but of a slightly different form from the economic botany and old-style plant hunters of Banks’s day. Banks’s legacy to economic botany is commemorated at Kew through the Sir Joseph Banks Centre for Economic Botany: built in 1985 it houses the 83,000 artefacts that make up Kew’s Economic Botany Collection: it is not open to the public.


Following up on his initial recommendation to the British Privy Council that Botany Bay on the east coast of New Holland was a suitable site for British settlement Banks remained general advisor to the British government on Australian matters including: agriculture, trade, the exploratory and navigational voyages of Flinders, Bass and Grant; the course of future settlement; and the collection of botanical specimens. He was closely associated with numerous appointments including Governors King, Hunter, Bligh and Macquarie and Major Paterson who all maintained a correspondence with him.[ Morley & Tolkien p. 14] [Mabberley1985 p.66] and, as owner of a large country estate, he was instrumental in introducing the Spanish Merino sheep to England whose breeding with English sheep led to the lucrative fine wool of the Australian Merino which was passed on to Australia within a couple of decades of settlement.

To swell the botanical collections at Kew Banks appointed gardener-botanist collectors who included David Nelson, David Burton, George Suttor, Robert Brown, Allan Cunningham (also to Brazil), and George Caley. His support for botanists was always strong and it is little surprise that so many plants found their way back to him from these men and that, later, the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney Botanic Gardens, Joseph Maiden, even flattering him with the title Father of Australia,[10] a sobriquet that is usually reserved for Macquarie.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

The Banksian era can, all too easily, be seen from a merely British perspective as one element of imperial Britain’s Golden Age – a period of unprecedented adventure and heroism, of global discovery and scientific exploration when a new humanism was freeing the human mind from religious dogma while revealing the secrets of the natural world on a global scale.

To fuel this optimism the acquisition of colonies had, through a triumph of enterprise, led to prosperity and technological innovation that had never been experienced before by the British and, further, it was being enjoyed by a much broader segment of British society than the social elite that had dominated British society for so long.

It is now possible to revisit these years with the benefit of hindsight and a global perspective of historical events.

The writing of eminent Europeans of this period, viewed from today, shocks with its arrogance, patronizing attitude, and tone of moral superiority to other peoples and cultures. Indigenous peoples in colonies across the world were conventionally referred to as ‘savages’ and treated with disdain. In principle, the relationship was one of mutual benefit: in practice indigenous people were swept aside, at best ignored and, at worst, slaughtered or committed to slavery in droves – but universally decimated by white-man’s diseases as the resources of their lands passed to Europe. Europeans considered it beyond question that they were a morally and intellectually superior race carrying the torch of civilization to the primitive and ignorant. In the early 19th century, tattooed, decapitated, and dried Māori heads – known as mokomokai, or Toi moko – became a coveted collector’s item across Britain in a trade whose beginnings were associated with Banks.

Though the religious fervor of previous centuries was no longer present, it was still an era of colonial missions transmitting the one true religion, Christianity, albeit combined with education and medicine.

Indisputable benefits that flowed to Britons and Europeans from colonial conquest must be measured against the misery imposed on their colonial subjects.

In the world of plants we see, in Banks’s times, the emergence of a new era of human impact on the environment characterized by resource transfer as trade in both ornamental garden plants and crops. It was a period that, more than any other, laid the foundations of a universal ‘Western’ (Neo-European) agriculture and horticulture:

Escalation in numbers of plant nurseries to meet the demands of an increasingly affluent middle class trying to emulate the lifestyles of their social superiors by growing new and exotic plants on larger garden plots

Large-scale transference of plants from one continent to another. No longer a few plants and packets of seed to collectors and specialist institutions but large commercial shipments, as from America (Some trade was passing in the other direction but, as yet, on a much smaller scale) to nurseries. Ornamental plants were were brought into Britain from Africa (especially South Africa), Australia and Oceania, China, the Americas (especially North America) and the Far East: it was, in effect, the opening up of global trade. Once in Britain the new plants could be quickly ‘bulked up’ in the new nurseries. Some 7000 new species were introduced to Britain during GeorgeIII’s reign as a consequence of Banks’s influence

Introduction of new garden technologies that streamlined Neo-European horticulture: conservatory-like greenhouses often adjacent to or attached to the house that greatly extended the range of warm climate plants that could be grown; introduction of plant breeding; pest control; serious study of plant acclimatization

Banks was well aware of the economic advantages of introducing plants of economic value to Britain and of distributing them through the colonies. Precedents of fortunes made and lost through the spice trade that dated back to classical times and the more recent tulipomania would have been fresh in their minds. Accounts of Bligh’s hunt for breadfruit with David Burton and other stories relating to quinine, rubber, coffee, tea, cocoa, new spices and other plants are part of fascinating 18th century economic botany.

But trade needed to be two-way. Settlers in the various new colonies needed food and as they were mostly in climatically similar temperate fertile regions of the globe to Europe, it seemed obvious to export the traditional cereals of wheat, barley and rye along with fruit trees, root vegetables and the like. The story of crop transfer from Europe around the world has been told by Alfred Crosby in his epic Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 in which he describes the distribution and use of similar plants in the ‘Neo-Europes’ (see Crosby 2009).

Socially the distribution of ornamental and crop plants through the British Empire in the 18th century appears a necessary (and possibly inevitable) progression of events, but it marked a transition from minor and innocuous trade to a globalization of plants that would have far-reaching and unforeseen environmental consequences – consequences that we are now still digesting.

1. Spread of agriculture and pastoralism, perhaps the single greatest devourer of land and Ecosystem Services. With increased food supply comes increased population and increased food demand in a spiral that is generally only broken when resource depletion applies the brakes or results in population breaks the growth cycle or

2. Associated with the establishment of agricultural and pastoral systems was the infrastructure, population and heavy consumption of resources, most notably water

As major environmental side-effects to agriculture there is:

3. Extinction of species

4. Displacement of indigenous people

5. Spread of invasive organisms – the first stage in the homogenization of the world climatic zones

Insofar as humanity was ever engaged with nature in a battle for supremacy, to control nature for its own ends, it was in the 18th century that they discovered the means to gain the upper hand as environmental issues which would soon become global were set in train. Banks, well-meaning and in complete ignorance of the consequences of his actions (what would he think if he were placed in the centre of Sydney today?) is a part of this less inspiring narrative. Humans have won (for now).

In Banks we see the close connection between botany and horticulture, nurseries and botanic gardens, even the Royal Society, the English House of Parliament and British high society all linked by the exchange of living and dried plants.

After his death in 1822 Brown leased part of Soho Square home to the Linnean Society, and on Brown’s death the herbarium collections were moved to the British Museum in 1858 and the house demolished in 1937.

Banks is commemorated in numerous geographic names and in many other ways. About 80 species now carry his name. Rosa banksiae was introduced by the Marquis of Lothian, Scottish Plant hunter William Kerr (d. 1814) and it was named in 1811 by head gardener at Kew William Aiton (Hortus Kewensis; a Catalogue of the Plants Cultivated in the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. London (2nd ed.) 3: 258) to commemorate Dorothea Lady Banks, the wife of Sir Joseph Banks. William Kerr was a gardener at Kew sent on a collecting expedition by Banks in 1805. He sent 238 plants back to Britain that were new to Europe and science mainly from the trading hubs in Canton, Macao and Manila. .had been sent on a plant-hunting expedition by Banks to China, Java, Luzon and the Philippines and had bought the first Lady Banks’ Rose, subsequently named White Lady Banks Rose (R. banksiae var. banksiae) from the famous Fa Tee nursery in 1807. A number of other forms were subsequently discovered growing in China, including R. banksiae var. normalis (see above), and R. banksiae ‘Lutea’, the now more commonly cultivated yellow Lady Banks’ rose was brought to Europe in 1824 by J. D. Parks and in 1993 this cultivar earned the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

Banks is credited with the introduction to Europe of the First Australian live plants and seed for cultivation [ ?eucalypt, and wattle and the genus that now bears his name Banksia, named by Linnaeus’s son who had studied the plants in Banks’s home in Soho Square in London where Banks also housed an outstanding botanical library.[2]

Following this expedition he was made a baronet (knighted) in 1781 and was effectively placed in charge of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – a position that was formalized in 1797.

Banks’s was a major supporter of the internationalist nature of science, being actively involved both 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 associated with the revelation of the South Pacific to Europe, his name dots the map of the region: Banks Peninsula on South Island, New Zealand; the Banks Islands in modern-day Vanuatu; and Banks Island in the Northwest Territories, Canada. Linnaeus was so impressed with the natural history collections made on the first voyage (although he did not see any of them) that he thought the new continent should be named Banksia in his honour.[3] He was patron to many gardener-botanists sent out from Kew including those sent to Australia such as Peter Good etc. and on the voyage of the Endeavour his experience of living plant care, herbarium specimen collection, and ways of preserving seed viability was passed on to his charges.

Banks’s insistence on scientific representation on major voyages and teams setting off on land exploration no doubt influenced a tradition that would include Menzies on the Discovery, Labillardière on the Recherche, Brown on the Investigator, Darwin on the Beagle, Hooker on the Erebus and many more.
Banks enjoyed dining and was well aware of the economic and culinary benefits that had flower from the spice trade, potatoes and, in more recent times, coffee, cotton and tobacco. We now see in his enterprise the beginnings of globalisation as he persuaded the British government to allocate resources to botanical projects and distribute economically important plants around the world within similar climatic zones not only into Britain but from one to another if Britain’s colonies: exchange between East and West Indies. Botanical curiosity was transformed into global economics.

Politics of the day was disposed in his favour. The American War of Independence left Britain without the important American raw materials needed for its manufacturing industries and America was no longer an export market for British goods. Government desperately needed to develop trade policies and the bureaucracy to manage them. Banks was now ideally situated, acting as key advisor to the Privy Council Committee for Trade and Plantations and on familiar terms with the stakeholders: merchants, industrialists and colonial landowners. Directors of the East India Company asked him to provide both advice and gardeners to assist the cultivation of hemp in England while plantation owners in the West Indies maintained contact believing him to have ‘Knowledge, Philanthropy, Patriotism, & Influence’ that was ‘superior to all others’. When the government planned an expedition to Africa to locate a suitable site for a penal colony he was asked to provide a botanist. [4]

By slightly devious methods he imported cotton from India with details of its cultivation in the hope that Britain could compensate for the loss of trade with America by developing its own supply. A botanic garden was established in Calcutta for the purpose of trading in Asian plants of general public utility, as a testing ground for new plants of economic value for both India and Britain especially the nutmeg and cloves, trade in which was dominated by the Dutch.

Before Phillip left for Australia with the First Fleet he was a regular guest at Soho Square where he received instructions on the plants to take, received seed from Banks and notes on which plants to pick up at Rio and the Cape. Banks’s botanical collector Masson met the Fleet at the Cape, later writing to Banks informing him that the captain’s cabin in the Sirius had been packed with pots of cocoa, coffee, oranges, figs and vines.[5]

Key points

Horticultural historian Andrea Wulf summarizes Banks’s legacy as follows:

One of the most influential men of the Enlightenment . . . who was the engine of scientific progress for more than four decades and who believed that science was the future of both Britain and humankind . . . Banks was generous because he believed that the sharing of knowledge would bring progress . . . one of the most fascinating men of Georgian England.[7]

‘. . . he consolidated practical horticulture, systematic botany and imperial expansion into a coherent enterprise. As President of the Royal society, Member of the Privy Council, confidant of King George III and founder of the Horticultural Society, he, more than anyone before or after him, saw how the three elements could bring pleasure and prosperity to a nation.’

‘Agreeing with Adam Smith’s tenet that ‘commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them, the liberty and security of individuals, among the inhabitants of the country’, Banks had steered – stoically and with perseverance – the country in a direction that would shape Britain’s empire, economy and society for the next century. Plants not only changed the English landscape but the very fabric of the nation, contributing to the country’s global dominance and imperial strength.[6]

It can be added that Banks’s legacy was not just to Britain. The consequences of his interests in ornamental and economic botany were passed on to Europe’s Neo-European colonial empires and then the world.

Media gallery



… early years 1743-1765

… Newf'dland-Labrador 1766

… on Endeavour 1768-1771

… Iceland 1772

Kew 1773-1820

... Soho Square


The man

… politics


Social networking

... honours-affiliations

... contacts

Enlightenment science

... Kew

… Australia




REFERENCES (the man)

REFERENCES (the legacy)

Rethinking Joseph Banks

The Royal Society – 2020 – 5:50

David Attenborough – Sir Joseph Banks Endeavour

Banks Endeavour – 2014 – 12:17

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 27 April 2021


Dr Daniel Solander, Sir Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook, Dr John Hawkesworth and Lord Sandwich.
Painted by John Hamilton Mortimer in 1771.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Cook, Banks, Solander
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