Cultural history & introduction to exploration
his article gives and outline of botanical history dealt with in more detail in linked articles (see hyperlinks).
The most comprehensive history of botanical science in general is that published by Englishman Alan Morton in 1981. A thorough introductory account to Australia’s taxonomic botany is given in the second edition of Volume 1 of the Flora of Australia (1999). Philip Short has assembled papers in History of Systematic Botany in Australasia (1990) while a brief informal summary, including consideration of sustainability, has been given by Stephen Hopper, Australia’s former Director of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (2013).
European plant science was an integral part of the ethos of British colonial settlement of Australia as the culmination of Europe’s Age of Discovery and scientific exploration that was such an important part of the European Scientific Revolution. Settlement occurred during the European Age of Enlightenment when botany verged on being an obsession (called botanophilia) among European intellectuals, royalty and wealthy elite. It was Britain that had finally grasped the European torch of empire as, during the Age of Discovery, it had passed from Portugal and Spain to Holland in a Dutch Golden Age that lasted through the 17th century before the ascendancy of France and Britain and their science.
Britain’s interest in Australian plants was overseen by the internationally renowned Joseph Banks. He had sailed as botanist with Daniel Solander in HMS Endeavour on Cook’s first voyage of scientific exploration to the Pacific, a voyage that captured the imagination of European society. Days were spent eagerly collecting plants at what was called Botany Bay and on returning to London he became de facto Director of Kew Gardens. Banks had a plant vision that included not only the ornamental plant trophies so desired by Europe’s elite but also the national benefits that could accrue from the maximum exploitation of global economic botany. Out of his scientific curiosity and passion for ornamental plants, coupled with his ability to coordinate and administer this world of plants, Banks converted Kew into ‘a great botanical exchange house for the Empire’.
The towering figure of Ferdinand Mueller dominates the story of Australian botany. Though plants for the provision of food was always of first importance for the settlers and economic botany was never far from Mueller‘s attention, it was the exploratory collection, naming and classification of the native flora that occupied most of the time of th ecolonial botanists.
Much of Australia’s botanical history is locked up in the collections of dried specimens housed in its state herbaria. The general significance of these collection is similar for every herbarium and is summarized in a ‘significance assessment’ of the collections in the National Herbarium of Victoria, known as the State Botanical Collection (SBC):
. . . Material in the SBC illustrates many important stories central to global exploration and the discovery of Australia, as well as to Australian inland expeditions in the 19th century, which helped to shape settlement of the continent. It comprises information about the growth of botany as a scientific discipline in Australia, increased botanical knowledge of Australia’s flora (both in Australia and globally), and our understanding of the country’s diverse and changing plant life … The foreign collection includes examples of extinct, rare and endangered material, enables comparative research on the distribution of plants throughout the world, and provides essential risk mitigation against potential losses at herbaria in other countries … The archive comprises comprehensive material on the history and development of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, while the botanical art collection includes artworks from Australia’s finest botanical artists from the 19th to the 21st centuries.
Australia was quickly versed in the new theory of evolution but slow in institutional recognition. In England biologist and palaeontologist Richard Owen had taken a special interest in Australia and the Pacific while bitterly attacking the new Darwinian ideas and he had considerable support from creationists in Australia including people like McCoy, Macleay and Mueller (who always rejected evolution). Change came only with a new breed like Baldwin Spencer and Edward Stirling.