Although Dampier’s accounts included astute observations of New Holland biota it was undoubtedly Cook and Banks who captured the imagination of public and scientists alike and stimulating the French to mount similar expeditions. Above all it was Banks’s ability to coordinate a vast international network of scientists, politicians and royalty that provided some unity of purpose to this enterprise. He was known and respected by not only the English scientists (from members of the Royal Society to his familiarity and patronage of the gardener-botanists that travelled on the expeditions, but internationally by French, German and Russian royalty, French scientists including botanist Labillardière and the socially influential Empress Josephine). In England even parliament and the King George III would defer to his authority. He was the unspoken fatherly coordinator of a global scientific Renaissance that for over 100 years centred on maritime exploration.
Dampier was the first person to circumnavigate the world three times, visiting the Australia-to-be twice in the process. He made the first fully authenticated plant collections in New Holland, and was the first to give a wide-ranging account of the country’s natural history and people although his overall impressions were inagreement with the sentiments of the Dutch mariners that had preceded him. His escapades were the source of inspiration for Danial Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner. His accounts were to be standard reading for all the subsequent voyages of scientific exploration.
When Britain’s political fortunes changed there was the opportunity to learn from the colonial experiences of Spain, Portugal, and Holland. Cook and Banks, when sailing on HMS Endeavour, had called in for provisions at the Dutch port at Cape Town, which impressed the 28-year-old Banks.
Cook had shown that New Zealand consisted of two fertile islands suitable for colonization; that New Guinea was separate from the mainland, as was Espiritu Santo (the largest island of present-day Vanuatu); that the east coast of New Holland was more verdant that the other coasts that had been so repellant to the Dutch. He had also shown that there was a large area of the Southern Ocean that was not occupied by a Terra Australis Incognita.
In the course of the voyage Banks and his naturalists had accumulated 30,382 natural history specimens representing 900 Australian species, of which 331 were plants. Parkinson managed to draw or paint more than 1300 works, mostly while the Endeavour steadily charted the east coast.
Banks had intended to put together an extensive account of the natural history of the voyage and naturalists world-wide eagerly awaited the publication of what would be a glorious celebration of the most successful scientific voyage of exploration so far in the Age of the Enlightenment. Banks had employed an impressive team of draughtsmen, under Solander’s supervision, to work up Parkinson’s 950 plant sketches ready for copper plate engraving. Unfortunately it was to be a long wait.
Sadly, descriptions of the new plants were to appear bit by bit often in horticultural periodicals, many of them actually described from collections made by other botanists at a later date. It was only with the much later work of Robert Brown that some of the backlog was to be completed. First plant descriptions from the voyage appeared in Smith & Sowerby’s A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland (1793-95).
Banks did not return to New Holland but was an influential government advisor on political and scientific appointments and general matters concerning the new colony while at the same time retaining a keen botanical interest, receiving specimens from ships surgeons, governors, and residents while also financing botanical and horticultural collectors.
Fortunately Banks’s herbarium was not split up and in 1827, after Banks’s death in 1820, Brown transferred these to the British Natural History Museum: they number about 23,400 specimens.
Although Cook no doubt enjoyed the exuberance of the botanists during the voyage he wryly admitted that prospecting for plants of economic importance had proved a disappointment:
The Land naturly [sic] produces hardly any thing fit for man to eat and the Natives know nothing of Cultivation.
A product of the Enlightenment, Cook’s life spanned the death of Newton and the birth of Darwin at a time when the Royal Society was gaining political influence. The three voyages had earned him international respect for his navigation and cartography. To the existing knowledge of the Pacific he had added the outline of the east coast of New Holland and New Zealand, discovered New Caledonia, accurately placed a number of island groups and established the limits of any possible southern continent(s). He had contributed to nautical medicine through his treatment of the scurvy that had plagued mariners for centuries, returning from his first voyage without losing a single man to this particular curse; he had applied a long-awaited short-hand way of calculating longitude, testing out John Harrison’s revolutionary marine chronometer on his second voyage, revolutionising the calculation of longitude by calculating a ship’s distance to the east or west of a prime meridian more accurately than ever before; he had travelled further south than any other explorer; pioneered the ‘Great Circle’ route to be followed by so many mariners in the years to come; and, finally, on the second voyage, he had put the myth of the Great Southern Land to rest once-and-for-all. Natural history specimens had been brought back by the thousand giving biology, geology, and anthropology a global dimension. It had been a scientific triumph.
As a commercial venture little was gained. Nothing had been found to rival the sugar plantations of the West indies, the tobacco plantations of Virginia, or the spices of the East Indies – although it was hoped that something could be made of the flax and pines which had unrealized economic potential. Could they feed the hungry textile mills of Yorkshire and Lancaster, and supplement the flagging supplies of timber needed to keep a modern navy afloat?
From all three of Cooks voyages plants were returned to England and introduced into cultivation (see page) his peregrinations leading to the English-speaking occupation of Australia and New Zealand and the acquisition of islands of later strategic importance.
Thwarted on his first expedition William Bligh was, following Banks’s recommendation to the Admiralty, directed for a second time to transplant bread-fruit from Tahiti to the West Indies. He set out in Nov. 1791 in command of HMS Providence with a small brig HMS Assistant commanded by Lt Nathaniel Portlock – and this time he was successful, faring better with the crew but he managed to fall out with midshipman Matthew Flinders, one of Cooks former crews.
Joseph Hooker could not praise Brown’s voyage enough saying that it was ‘ … the most important in its results ever undertaken’ and stating in 1859 of Brown’s Prodromus … that it ‘… has for half a century maintained its reputation unimpugned, of being the greatest botanical work that has ever appeared’.
Botanically, Brown’s Prodromus … of 1810, though imcomplete, was an outstanding work preceded in publication by Labillardiere’s Novae Hollandiae Species Plantarum … of 1804-1807. Some 30 years after the collections of Banks and Solander, those of Robert Brown constitute the largest collection of plants from Australian shores during this period and the first recorded collections from the southern coast. His Prodromus was a true botanical exploration of relationships as well as a listing of taxa, it remained the major source on Australian plants until the monumental six volume Flora Australiensis of Bentham and Mueller (1863-1878).
Flinders’s charts completed the continental coastline while also confirming that New Holland and New South Wales was a single landmass; they were used for many years after his death although, because of the time spent in detention in Mauritius, it was the French who, in 1807, were the first to produce a detailed map of the Australian continental coast. Flinders’s completed work was back in England by 1805 finally published as A Voyage to Terra Australis in Jan. 1814 the day before Flinders died: it contains 16 maps, landscape paintings and sketches by William Westall, and 10 botanical paintings by Ferdinand Bauer. In the Introduction Flinders notes his preference for the name Australia ‘… when speaking of New Holland and New South Wales, in a collective sense’.
English names steadily replaced French names except for those parts that Baudin had surveyed and Flinders had not seen, as on the west coast.
With the voyage of the Investigator we see the end of European maritime exploration in Australia: further voyages, like that of Darwin in the Beagle were made essentially as visiting observers. Charting would continue following the release of men and ships after the Napoleonic wars, starting with Philip Parker King’s coastal survey in 1820 – but this was now essentially the work of Australian residents.
Inland exploration continued the maritime tradition of prioritizing plant collection.