Banks abroad: the botany of the voyages of Joseph Banks | Botany collections

In a recent blog post we looked at the contribution of the eminent eighteenth-century naturalist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks to the herbarium at the Natural History Museum. Banks died in 1820 – 200 years ago this year – at the age of 77. His private herbarium subsequently became one of the founding collections of the Natural History Museum’s General Herbarium of over 5 million specimens.

As a young man, Joseph Banks was a traveller. For seven years, from the age of 23, his travels took him across the globe, to all continents except Antarctica, and they established his reputation as a leading natural historian of the day. Collecting specimens was at the very core of what he was doing during those voyages undertaken during the late 1760s and early 1770s. Botanical specimens that he collected are today in the herbarium at the Natural History Museum .

In this post, we look at Banks’s botanizing during the voyages he made overseas – to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766, on James Cook’s first Circumnavigation from 1768–71 and to Iceland in 1772 – and we consider the scientific significance today of the collections that he made.

To North America on the Niger

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Banks’s specimen of Clintonia borealis, collected at Croque, Newfoundland in 1766 during the Niger voyage.

Banks made his first voyage in 1766. It took him to Canada, and specifically to Newfoundland and Labrador aboard H.M.S. Niger. He accompanied his school friend, the naval officer Constantine John Phipps, a keen naturalist in his own right and the author of the first scientific description of the polar bear (Thelarctos maritimus).

The Niger departed England on 22nd April 1766. Its main objective was to transport a party tasked with to building a fort at Chateau Bay, but it was also charged with strengthening relations with the indigenous people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and with surveying the coast. By early May, Banks was collecting his first North American plant specimens. He would remain in Newfoundland and Labrador until October. He suffered frequently from bad bouts of sea sickness and a fever kept him from his collecting for much of July but he nevertheless managed to gather a collection of more than 340 species of plant, many of them previously unknown to European scientists.

The Niger set sail from St John’s for the return voyage on October 28th. Just a day earlier, H.M. Brig Grenville captained by James Cook – then a Royal Navy Master – had arrived in port. There is no evidence that Cook and Banks met at that time but naval etiquette would have required Cook to have called upon Sir Thomas Adams, captain of the Niger. As Banks’s biographer Patrick O’Brian suggested, ‘it is scarcely possible that he [Cook] and Banks should not at least have exchanged a how to do’. Two years later, Banks would sail with the newly commissioned Lieutenant Cook on his first circumnavigation aboard the Endeavour.

The Niger’s return crossing to Europe was not without incident. In early November, Banks wrote in his diary of a storm off the Azores that ‘almost Filld the Cabbin with water in an instant’ He reported that ‘among other things that Suffered my Poor Box of Seeds was one which was intirely demolish’d as was my Box of Earth with Plants in which Stood upon deck’.

Remarkably, whilst his living collections were destroyed, his pressed plant specimens remained largely intact and they would form the nucleus of his great herbarium.

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George Ehret’s illustration of Clintonia borealis reproduced in William Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis in 1789. After returning from Newfoundland and Labrador, Banks commissioned Ehret to illustrate his discoveries. Ehret’s illustrations were based on Banks’s herbarium specimens.

Sailing with Cook: the Endeavour circumnavigation

In August 1768, Banks embarked on his second voyage – a three-year circumnavigation of the globe on HM Bark Endeavour captained by Cook. The voyage was commissioned by the King and it was jointly sponsored by the Royal Navy and the Royal Society, of which Banks had been elected a Fellow while in Newfoundland and Labrador. The primary aim of the Endeavour voyage was to observe the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti in the Pacific, generating data that would help establish the distance of the earth from the sun.

Banks was one of a number of supernumeraries accommodated on board the Endeavour and he was a relatively late addition to the ship’s company. It was quite possibly the plan to visit Tahiti that piqued his interest and it was in June 1768 – shortly before the departure of the Endeavour in August – that the Royal Society requested of the Admiralty that Banks ‘be received on board of the ship under command of Captain Cook’.

Banks assembled an impressive team to accompany him on the voyage. The Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, Assistant and subsequently Assistant Keeper of Natural History at the British Museum since 1763, was given leave of absence to travel as Banks’s companion and co-scholar. There were two artists, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan. Parkinson was responsible for botanical and natural history illustrations with Buchan focussing on landscapes and figures. The Finn Herman Spöring, was Banks’s assistant, secretary and reserve artist and there were four servants: Thomas Richmond and George Dorlton, both likely freed slaves, and Peter Briscoe and James Roberts from Banks’s Revesby estate in Lincolnshire. Banks, Solander, Briscoe and Roberts were the only members of the team to survive the voyage: Richmond and Dorlton died of hypothermia in a blizzard in Tierra del Fuego; Buchan died in Tahiti and Parkinson and Spöring died after leaving Indonesia.

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Banks and Solander collected wherever they made landfall. This specimen was collected on the island of Panaitan, Indonesia in January 1771. The Endeavour called at the island, (referred to by Banks as ‘Princes Island’) on the return voyage to England. This specimen was thought to be a new species and was named Sarcolobus banksii in Banks’s honour. It is now considered to be Sarcolobus globosus. Banks fell ill during his stay on Panaitan. He survived but many died, including Sporing and Parkinson who both died after leaving Indonesia.

The voyage left Plymouth in August 1768. It called at the island of Madeira and at Rio de Janeiro before rounding Cape Horn into the Pacific and arriving in Tahiti in April 1769. After observing the transit of Venus, they crossed the Pacific, arriving in New Zealand in September 1769. They circumnavigated and charted New Zealand before sailing to  Australia where they made the first documented European exploration of its east Coast. On their return, they botanised in Indonesia, calling at Batavia (now Jakarta), before returning home via Cape Town and St Helena and finally arriving back in England in July 1771.

It was an epic voyage; one that had profound consequences for the people of the lands they visited and one that helped to shape European knowledge of the world.

Plant collecting on the Endeavour

Banks’s team was extremely well equipped for collecting and documenting the plants and animals they encountered. It is estimated that Banks spent ten thousand pounds on equipment – equivalent to one and a half million pounds today. In a letter to Carl Linneaus, the naturalist John Ellis suggested that ‘No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History, nor more elegantly’.

When the Endeavour arrived back in England, it was carrying 24 wooden chests and several kegs filled with specimens. In total, they had spent around 300 days ashore collecting during which time they amassed around 30,000 botanical specimens alone – an average of around 100 specimens per collecting day.

As with botanical collecting today, each of those plant specimens needed to be dried as quickly as possible and then kept dry to prevent their deterioration – a huge undertaking in the cramped conditions onboard.

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‘Madeira III’, a loosely bound book made up of uncut pages of ‘Notes upon the twelve books of Paradise Lost’ that was used by Banks and Solander to dry and store plants collected in Madeira, the first port of call for the Endeavour voyage.

In the Museum’s botany special collections room, we have a loosely bound ‘book’ labelled ‘Madeira III’. The ‘book’ is one of the bundles of paper they used on the Endeavour to dry and store plant specimens. It provides a rare, tangible reminder of the botanical collecting practices on the voyage. The bundle is made up of uncut sheets of pages from Notes upon the twelve books of Paradise Lost that had been published by Joseph Addison decades before the voyage. Paper was a scarce and expensive commodity in the 18th century and Banks needed lots of it for plant drying so printers’ waste was purchased for this.

Inside the bundle are some of the specimens that Banks and Solander collected in Madeira, each labelled with small paper tags as the header image shows. It is remarkable how little collecting practices have changed in the intervening 250 years: botanists still label specimens with paper tags and place them between paper to absorb moisture, changing those papers repeated until the plants are dry.

Banks’s diary gives some idea of the challenges posed in drying specimens. His entry for 3rd May 1770, soon after they arrived in Botany Bay, Australia, explains:

Our collection of Plants was now grown so immensly [sic] large that it was necessary that some extrordinary [sic] care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to that business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 Quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner exposd the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the Quires in which were plants inside out.’

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A page from a manuscript that lists the contents of drying books of specimens from Madeira. ‘No. of Book’ indicates the bundle in which specimens of that collection were stored; ‘No of Specimens’ indicates the number of duplicate specimens made for each. Photo: Arnoldo Santos-Guerra

A manuscript held in the Museum’s library gives further insights into the scale of the botanical collecting on the Endeavour. It documents the species contained in each drying book and the number of duplicates for each species.

Banks and his team often collected duplicate specimens – multiple specimens from the same individual or from the same population – that could then be exchanged with his network of correspondents. Botanists today often do the same, allowing herbaria to exchange specimens. Duplicates from Banks’s Endeavour collections can today be found in herbaria in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America.

The collections were identified on board the ship and manuscript floras produced for the places where they called, with descriptions of species previously unknown to European scientists.

The team that Banks assembled for the Endeavour and the approach that they employed to collecting and documenting specimens meant that the botanical collections they amassed far eclipsed those resulting from the Niger voyage. For many places visited, the earliest herbarium specimens were those collected by Banks and Solander. It has been estimated that Banks and his team collected more than 110 genera and 1400 species that were previously unknown to European scientists.

To Mount Hekla in Iceland

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Banks and Solander’s botanical interests were not restricted to seed plants. Their collections also encompassed ferns, bryophytes, lichens and algae, including this specimen of Halidrys siliquosa, a brown seaweed, collected by Banks and Solander during their Iceland voyage in 1772.

Banks and Solander, enjoyed great celebrity following their return from the Endeavour voyage. Banks planned to sail with Cook again on a second voyage that aimed search for the mythical Terra Australis Incognita, a great habitable southern landmass that many scholars thought existed at the southern extremes of the globe. Extensive modifications were made to the H.M.S. Resolution to accommodate Banks and his entourage for the voyage, but these made the ship unseaworthy. They needed to be undone and after visiting the remodelled ship in late May, Banks angrily withdrew leaving the voyage without its famous naturalist just weeks before departure.

Banks almost immediately settled on a new destination for his own voyage – Iceland. The passport issued to Banks by the Danish envoy in London revealed that the main focus was not botany but geology and specifically ‘observing Mount Hekla’, an active stratovolcano in the south of Iceland. Banks’s chartered a ship, the Sir Lawrence, for the voyage and he again assembled a large team to accompany him that included Solander (an essential member of the team given both his natural history expertise and familiarity with Nordic languages) and three artists. In Iceland, they ascended Mt. Hekla and visited the Great Geyser. On route, they made a study the remarkable basalt columns at Staffa in the Inner Hebrides.

It was a relatively short voyage. The Sir Lawrence departed from Gravesend on 12 July 1772 which happened to be the same day that Cook started on his second voyage. Banks returned six weeks later, at the end of August. Whilst botany was not the main focus, plant specimens were collected and the same approach to collecting, drying and documenting those specimens was used as that they had deployed so successfully on the Endeavour voyage .

Banks’s Iceland voyage was to be his last. He travelled to Holland in 1773 but after Iceland, his field botany was confined to Great Britain.

The specimens from Banks’s voyages today

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A specimen of Acacia spirorbis subsp. solandri collected by Banks and Solander in Australia in 1769. The specimens collected on Banks’s three voyages included many species previously unknown in Europe. In some cases, however, it was many years before those new discoveries were published. This plant was first recognised as new in a publication by George Bentham in 1864, nearly a century after it was collected. He named it in honour of Solander.

The specimens made by Banks on his three voyages are today being used to address questions in ways that he could never have envisaged. A recent study used a specimen  collected by Banks in New Zealand to examine changes in the density of stomata (or pores) on the leaves of plants over the last 250 years in response to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide. His sweet potato specimen from Tahiti has provided insights into the history of cultivation of the sweet potato in the Pacific.

However, it is in taxonomy – the science of describing and naming species – that Banks’s specimens have been most extensively used. A study published in 2012 examined a sample of 100,000 type specimens from the Natural History Museum and a number of other herbaria. It found that more than half of all type specimens were collected by just 2% of collectors whereas around half of collectors contributed only to a single type. The top two percent of collectors were referred to as ‘Big Hitters’ and Joseph Banks was one of them.

Whilst Banks was a prolific ‘Big Hitting’ collector, responsible for collecting many type specimens, he published the scientific names and descriptions for just a handful of species. It was left to other scientists to use his collections to formally publish those discoveries made during his voyages. Sometimes, that happened decades after the specimens were collected.

Some authors have questioned whether Banks was really a scientist. What is indisputable is that the specimens and knowledge that Banks assembled from his voyages as a young man provided a remarkable resource that allowed other scientists to document and describe plant diversity from across the globe .

Mark Carine is Principal Curator for the Botanical Collections at the Natural History Museum