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David Nelson (?-1789)


James Cook was not keen to carry naturalists on his third voyage to the Pacific. William Anderson, surgeon’s mate on the Second Voyage, was therefore engaged as surgeon in Resolution in the knowledge he could undertake many of the tasks required of a naturalist. However, Cook agreed that someone could sail in Discovery, the companion vessel, to collect specimens on behalf of Joseph Banks.

Banks needed to find a suitable person. He made inquiries of James Lee, of the Vineyard Nursery at Hammersmith. Lee wrote the following letter, and David Nelson, the man described in the letter, delivered it to Banks in person.

25 April 1776

Honoured Sir,
I have sent you the bearer, David Nelson, as a proper person for the purpose you told me of; he knows the general runn of our collections and plants about London, understands something of botany, but does not pretend to have much knowledge in it. I have inquired personally into his character and find him exactly suited for the purpose of a collector.
I have injoined him to secrecy whither you make a bargain with him or not. One thing he desires me to mention, which is he will want a little advance money to rigg him out. I am dear Sir with the greatest regard your obedient, humble servant,

James Lee1

Banks obviously approved, and employed Nelson immediately. Banks, though, was careful not to repeat the situation that occurred after the Endeavour voyage, when Stanfield Parkinson, brother of Sydney Parkinson, challenged ownership of the journals that Sydney had produced. Banks, had Nelson sign a contract, part of which read,
that I will sail with Capt. Clerke on board his Majesties ship Discovery & that I will under Capt. Clerkes orders collect & preserve all such plants & Seeds of plants as I shall be able to find in all such places as the ship may touch at also that I will take & preserve as many insects as I shall be able & that I will send back or on my return give to Jos. Banks Esq’re my employer all & every one of such plants seeds & insects as I shall collect not retaining to my self or disposing of to any other person any of the Same.2

In return, Banks immediately made Nelson an advance of £12-12s-0d, paid on 26 April, 1776.3 His annual wage would be £35 per annum. Banks also began instructing Nelson in the rudiments of plant and seed collection, preservation, and methods of safely transporting them, together with procedures for record keeping.


Virtually nothing is known about Nelson prior to his sailing with Cook. It has been speculated that he was born in the 1740s, in London, based on his age while serving in HMS Bounty, where he was described as being older than most of the other members of the crew. The exact date and place where David Nelson joined Discovery are also not recorded. But it was probably 6 June, 1776, at Galleon’s Reach, the same time as William Bayly, the ship’s astronomer, joined. Nelson was classed as a supernumerary.4 He finally appeared on the ship’s muster on 5 February, when Discovery was crossing the Tasman Sea en route for New Zealand. Later, on 29 October, 1778, Nelson was remustered as an able seaman (AB),5 as the ships left Unalaska for Hawai`i. Early in the voyage, he was described by Charles Clerke to Joseph Banks:
Your Man Nelson is one of the quietest fellows in Nature, he seems very attentive and I hope will answer your purpose very well ... he has made a trip up the Country here with Gore who is very well.6

William Anderson, surgeon in Resolution, also wrote favourably to Joseph Banks.
I am happy to find there is a person in her [Discovery] who understands botany, as he will be able to procure you every new article in that branch, a task which I have not vanity enough to suppose myself equal to: but shall nevertheless continue to collect whatever presents itself, lest any accident should happen either to him or the ship. We carried him with us to the country but unluckily at this time few plants are in flower: yet when such things offer I think his diligence will let few escape.7

Nelson methodically collected botanical material at every opportunity ashore that Discovery offered. For example, his specimen of Eucalyptus obliqua, collected at Tasmania in January 1777, was the holotype for the genus.8 The island of Hawai`i provided Nelson with his greatest opportunity, given that no Europeans had collected on that island before him. On 26 January, 1779, a shore excursion was allowed, and Nelson, accompanied by a small group of shipmates, climbed Mauna Loa, collecting along the way. Lieutenant James King recorded,
A free leave was given to trade at our desire, & the bay in a short time became crouded with Canoes, leave was ask'd & granted for a party to go into the country & to attempt reaching the Snowy Mountain;
This Party consisted of the Resolutions Gunner [Robert Anderson], Mr Vancover, a young gentleman of the Discovery, Mr Nelson sent out by Mr Banks to botanize; the Corporal we had on Shore, & three other men, they carried no arms of any kind, & set out at ½ past 3 this Afternoon with 4 of the Natives. 9

King also gives an account of another expedition to Mauna Loa, in February, that lasted four days.10 Whilst not reaching the volcano’s summit, the men did go beyond the tree line.

Altogether, Nelson collected at least 136 species of plants on the island of Hawai`i during his time ashore. Nelson continued collecting during the remainder of the voyage, including the Chinese sumac (Rhus chinensis), a tree, which he obtained at Macau.11 He also fulfilled his obligations to collect insects, which were later described by JC Fabricius.12

After the voyage, Banks employed Nelson as a gardener at Kew Gardens. In 1783, another plant collecting expedition was proposed, this time to the west coast of Africa, and Nelson was chosen by Banks to participate. He joined HMS Swift, which left the Thames on 23 December, but remained at Plymouth until March 1784, when the expedition was cancelled.

Nelson resumed his duties at Kew for another three years until 1787. Breadfruit was seen as a potential food for slaves on the plantations in the West Indies, and it was decided to transport some plants there from the South Pacific, where it was used as a staple food. Bethia, a merchant ship, was purchased by the Navy Board for the breadfruit expedition, and renamed HMS Bounty. Joseph Banks was once again at the heart of the project, and recommended William Bligh to lead the voyage. Bligh was given command of Bounty, which sailed on 23 December, 1787.

Banks was also to select the person who would look after the breadfruit plants. On 1 March, 1787, he appointed David Nelson to the position, with William Brown as his assistant. Nelson and Bligh had both been on Cook’s Third Voyage, though on different ships. Nelson oversaw the construction of frames to house the plants during their shipping to the West Indies. On 30 March, Banks wrote to the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty,
The name of the person intended to take charge of the plants is David Nelson... He had been regularly educated as a gardener and learned there the art of taking care of plants at sea and guarding against the many accidents to which they are liable which few people but himself have had the opportunity to know practically.13

Nelson's salary was now £50 annually, with a £25 kit allowance, and free messing in Bounty. Shortly before sailing, Bligh wrote to Banks, “The conduct of Nelson and the garden is satisfactory and we all seemed embarked heartily in our cause”.14

Bounty left Spithead on 23 December, 1787, and reached Tahiti on 26 October, 1788. Nelson had been able to collect plant specimens during stopovers at Tenerife, Cape Town and Tasmania. Bligh and Nelson had to wait at Tahiti while the breadfruit trees were seeded, and grown into saplings large enough for transport, a process taking at least six months.15 Bligh opted to remain at the island and use the time for exploring. Doing so allowed his men time to form strong relationships with the islanders, so they were most reluctant to leave when the time came.

On 28 April, 1789, three weeks after leaving Tahiti with 1005 plants, a mutiny led by Fletcher Christian took place aboard Bounty, off Tofua, in Tonga. Bligh and 18 other crew members loyal to him were set adrift in an open longboat. Nelson was one of those who stayed with Bligh. He had to watch as the mutineers threw the plants overboard in a further gesture of defiance. Bligh’s navigational skills enabled those in the longboat to reach Kupang, Timor, in Indonesia, on 14 June. They had survived a journey of 6,000 km, over 47 days, in an open boat. The ordeal severely weakened Nelson, and a few days before reaching Timor, he was taken quite ill. Bligh recorded, “His complaint was a violent heat in his bowels, a loss of sight, much drought, and an inability to walk”. 16

The vulnerable Nelson died at Kupang on 20 July, 1789, possibly from an inflammatory disease. He was buried the next day. Bligh wrote,
On the 20th of July I had the misfortune to lose Mr. David Nelson: he died of an inflammatory fever. The loss of this honest man I very much lamented: he had with great care and diligence attended to the object for which he was sent, and had always been ready to forward every plan that was proposed, for the good of the service in which we were engaged. He was not less useful in our voyage hither, in the course of which he gave me great satisfaction, by the patience and fortitude with which he conducted himself. 17

When Bligh sailed to Tasmania in 1792, he named Nelson’s Hill out of great respect for the botanist. It is called Mount Nelson, nowadays. The botanist Robert Brown dedicated the genus Nelsonia of Acanthaceae to Nelson’s memory, citing Hortulanus meritissimus qui in ultimo itinere Cookii plurimas novas species plantarum ldetexit.18

The quiet, unassuming David Nelson had admirably fulfilled his duties as a naturalist, serving, and earning the respect of three of the most prominent figures in British maritime history: James Cook, Joseph Banks and William Bligh.

John Robson


  1. St. John, Harold. “Biography of David Nelson and An Account of His Botanizing in Hawaii” in Pacific Science. 1976. Vol. 30, no. 1. Pages 1-5.
  2. Cook’s Log, page 1844, vol. 24, no. 2 (2001).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Was number S3 on the ship’s muster roll.
  5. Becoming number N81on the ship’s muster roll.
  6. Charles Clerke to Joseph Banks, 29 November, 1776. Held at the State Library, NSW. View at www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/banks/series_11/11_03.cfm
  7. Beaglehole, J. C. The Journals of Captain James Cook: Vol. III: The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780. Hakluyt Society. 1967. Part 2. Pages 1519-1520. The letter is dated 24 November, 1776.
  8. Britten, J. “William Anderson and the Plants of Cook’s Third Voyage” in Journal of Botany, British and Foreign. 1916. Vol. 54. Pages 345-352.
  9. Beaglehole. Op. cit. Part 1. Pages 513-514.
  10. Ibid. Part 1. Pages 521-524.
  11. Britten. Op. cit.
  12. Fabricus, Johan Christian. Species Insectorum. Hamburg. 1781; and other volumes.
  13. Letter dated 30 March, 1787. Banks Correspondence. Natural History Museum. Published in Chambers, Neil (ed). The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks: A Selection, 1768–1820. Imperial College Press. 2000. Page 25
  14. Smith, Edward. Life of Sir Joseph Banks: With Some Notices of his Friends and Contemporaries. 1911. Page 130.
  15. Cook’s Log, page 22, vol. 29, no. 3 (2006).
  16. Bligh, William. A Voyage to the South Seas... London. 1792. Page 212.
  17. Bligh. Op. cit. Page 240.
  18. Britten. Op. cit. A rough translation of the Latin is A most worthy gardener, who on Cook’s last voyage collected many more new species of plants.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 44, volume 40, number 1 (2017).

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