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London - One Complicated Life

 

A Heart-Rending Interview

On New Burlington Street, meanwhile, that wondrous summer was not happiness altogether unsullied. Banks did have a care or two. For one thing he was obliged to think about Miss. Harriet Blosset. He had sailed away on Endeavour with the vision of his Harriet bright before his eyes. Sick with love, he had given her his solemn pledge to marry her immediately on arriving back in London. She had spent the voyage years happily sewing for her wedding and waiting for her beloved. But after visiting Tahiti the vision he had on his return clearly was not of Harriet. He did not hurry to her side.

Of course, Joseph was a busy young man during those empyreal weeks. His servants were unpacking all the crates of plants and curiosities for him to sort out. His friends were coming to gape. He had his audience with the king to think about. He had the new voyage to think about, and he would have to consider what advice to give the Admiralty. Letters were beginning to arrive. One, in Latin and addressed to "the immortal Banks," was from Sweden from the great botanist Carolus Linnaeus himself.11 Of course, Miss. Blosset knew when Endeavour had landed. After all, she could read the papers. Being a discreet young lady, however, she remained in the country waiting for word which no doubt would come any day saying that she should hurry to London for her wedding.

The busy town house would never have room for Harriet. That much had become plain. What was poor Joseph to do? He did nothing. As July became August people gossiped. He should have paid off the Blosset girl at once, someone said. His mother, the lady Sarah, who had not approved the match in the first place, thought his behavior was shameful. Even if he signed over his whole estate to poor Harriet, said another, it could not repair the damage done to her. His friend Daines Barrington kept a mutual friend informed. The only consolation satisfactory to the Blossets, Barrington heard, was that their Harriet should not become the wife of one so infamous, and a deed to all his property would be nothing but an insult.

Finally Joseph wrote Harriet a letter declaring his eternal love, but adding that he was too volatile to marry just now. She did not break the engagement. Instead she took the stagecoach for London to see him, and the world traveller, who did not tremble before either viceroys or kings, had to face his Harriet. He said, all right, he would marry her at once. Harriet, who knew when to be discreet, knew also when to be cautious. She replied that if he were of the same mind after a fortnight she would go with him to church. After a few days he summoned the strength to write her again, this time asking to be let off, and the deed was done. Whereupon sometime late in August the heart-broken Harriet took the coach back to the country with, it is said, a settlement of £5,000.12

 

The Parkinson Family

The unhappy Parkinson family was another complication in Banks's life. Some years before the voyage, Mrs. Elizabeth Parkinson, following the death of her husband, a brewer in Edinburgh, had settled in London with her two sons, Stanfield and Sydney, and her daughter Britannia. They were a Quaker family, making their way as tradespeople of modest circumstances, and they lived on New Pulteney Street in a rather poor neighborhood of northeast London.

When Endeavour returned, Banks had the sad duty of explaining to the bereaved family how it was that their beloved son and brother, the talented Sydney whom he had hired as his draftsman, had perished at sea. Problems arose when Stanfield, who was illiterate and suspicious by nature, questioned Banks's honesty in settling Sydney's affairs. The misunderstandings that erupted distracted Banks for seven months. Although he was always sensitive to the feelings of the sorrowing Parkinsons, a family far beneath his station in life, he emerged this time with rather more credit to himself, yet as in the Blosset affair with considerable cost to his dignity and purse. Accustomed to having his own way all his life, the young man nevertheless was grateful to Sydney and generous to the family.

Banks saw no problem when he gave Stanfield his copy of Sydney's will, by the terms of which he purchased the valuable paintings. He gave him work around the house, and Stanfield in fact remained in his employ throughout the protracted trouble that followed. Within a few days the rumor of a journal kept by Sydney made Stanfield angry and upset. Yes, said Banks, he did recall talk of a journal, and although he could not find it, no doubt it would turn up as soon as all the crates arrived from the ship, whereupon he forgot the matter. To him the issue really was not important, he was fulfilling the terms of the will, and after all, his affairs were of greater moment than those of an illiterate tradesman.

Some weeks later Sydney complained about the journal. The two young men fell into a heated argument, each considering himself the injured party. During the altercation Stanfield noticed a small bundle of papers in Sydney's handwriting. It seems that a few pages of notes had surfaced. These multiplied at once in Stanfield's eyes - although no Parkinson journal was ever found. Stanfield stormed away to brood. The evil Banks was holding out on him, he told himself. Obsessed, Stanfield then importuned a fellow Quaker to get his brother's journal away from that Banks. This mediator was the much-esteemed Dr. John Fothergill, a friend of the American colonies and the successful physician who achieved prominence by his medical publications, among them his brilliant clinical description of what later was recognized as diphtheria.

Throughout the remainder of the year the good Fothergill did his best to unravel the tangled business and soothe the distraught Parkinson family. In the end Banks agreed that the only way to keep honor with the memory of Sydney would be to pay for those papers. "I always did and still do intend to shew to his relations the same gratitude for his good services as I should have done to himself, he wrote to Fothergill, who was negotiating a settlement. "I beg leave to hint," Banks continued, "that I do not at all mean to be sparing in my acknowledgement." At the end of January 1772, Fothergill brought Stanfield and Britannia to Banks, who handed over £500.13

The Parkinson episode reveals a new facet in the Banks personality: a struggle to impose decency on exasperation. During the next half century he wrote about fifty thousand letters that carried his forceful influence into the far corners of the globe. 14 Wherever ships sailed, science was promoted; the humblest seaman and day laborer sought his advice, and so did ministers of state of all Europe. He forged personal links with every social class by the same direct and courteous manner he exhibited to the Parkinsons.

The miserable affair seemed at an end - but not quite. Stanfield wanted to borrow that bundle of his brother's papers. When Fothergill pledged his word that they would not be misused, Banks reluctantly handed them over on loan. Those papers belonged to his family Stanfield told himself, and he had a perfect right to make a profit from them. He knew that anything in print on the voyage would fetch him a handsome return if only he could bring it to market ahead of Hawkesworth, who was still writing in 1772. Driven by the conviction that Banks had cheated him, he immediately hired a hack-writer to turn the papers into a narrative for publication. Later the same year Fothergill was chagrined to hear of what was happening, that his word was being broken by a fellow Quaker - whom he had befriended. In vain did he remonstrate. Only an injunction kept Journal of a Voyage out of the book stalls until shortly after the publication of the Hawkesworth, in 1773, and the preface of the Parkinson book carried a denunciation of Fothergill as vitriolic as that reserved on the same pages for Banks.

Yet the volume does tell of days when life was full. the splendid engraving of the New Zealand war canoe and the portraits of the Maori chieftains are among the best of the artistic legacy left by the talented and youthful brewer's son who sailed aboard Endeavour, whose own portrait gazes out from this work of unhappy auspices, the whole a loving tribute by the brother who could not understand. When the tormented Stanfield went to his grave three years later, having been preceded thither by his wife, Fothergill made arrangements for the care of the children by the Quaker community, and then he called at the book stalls to buy up the four hundred or so unsold copies. A new edition, carrying a compassionate explanation written by Fothergill before he died, came out in 1784.15 By then Banks had experienced fresh griefs.

 

The Banks Herbarium

Harassed and importuned in the fall of 1771, Banks wanted only to think of the new voyage. The daily papers were reminding him of where his real talents lay. Great things were at hand, and he must find time to prepare plans for the Admiralty. Destiny was calling. But the learned were growing impatient. When would he publish? His servants, Peter Briscoe and James Roberts, had finished unpacking the crates. The pressed insects, the bottles and jars, the preserved fish, the animal skins, the kangaroo skin, the curiosities, the hundreds of pages of descriptions in Latin; and the multitude of plant specimens in the drying books were all ready to be worked over. They could not sit there in the front hall.

Something had to be done about the mail. Early in May the naturalist John Ellis had written to Linnaeus as soon as he had heard that Banks and Solander were safe. In July he had written again that they were in London "laden with spoils, particularly of the vegetable world, sufficient for one thousand folio plates." Because they were so busy these days even to tell of their narrow escapes, Ellis went on, would Linnaeus kindly inform Solander's friends that he had come back "laden with the greatest treasure of Natural History that ever was brought into any country at one time by two persons," and Ellis would beg Solander to write him without delay. Linnaeus, ecstatic at the prospect of receiving plants from the South Seas, had written at once to Banks. Something in Latin about the "immortal Banks," the letter said, and that botanists everywhere ought to put up a statue to him that would outlast the Pyramids. Are those plants, he asked, "akin to the plants of America?" To Ellis, Linnaeus also wrote of his high regard for Banks: "Surely none but an Englishman would have the spirit to do what he has done," and surely any new land ought to be called "Banksia."16 As for Banks, before replying to Linnaeus, he really had to take time out to sit for the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds. The up-and-coming American Benjamin West, who had just finished painting a death of Major General James Wolf on the heights of Quebec, was also interested in doing his portrait.

Gradually a routine settled over the Banks house as his vision took shape. Three rooms were devoted to his collections: the curiosities, which no one yet described as ethnographic, were on display in one, the preserved fauna and the plant specimens available in the other two. For the next five years, until he moved to Number 32 Soho Square where the work continued, these rooms served as a window on the outer world of natural history, a working museum where the curious of the day came to digest the results of discovery, and where Banks's staff labored at his project of publishing those results in a manner befitting their global character. The smaller collections were disposed of. Some of the shells went to Fothergill in the settlement with Stanfield. The Linnaean student Johan Christian Fabricius was glad to take over the insects, mostly butterflies, and in 1775 he described about 600 of them among 1,500 new species in his Systema Entomologiae.17 Solander came over from the infant British Museum to supervise the major task, that of working on the heaped-up herbarium specimens - flowering plants, ferns, mosses, lichens, and seaweed. Banks had a grand publication in mind - complete Latin descriptions according to the new Linnaean system, illustrated by splendid engraved plates in color, enough materials eventually to fill eighteen folio volumes. To this end the resources and energies of the Banks estate were deployed.

The volume of botanical material brought back on Endeavour was staggering: 3,000 specimens and 955 drawings made by Parkinson, of which 260 were finished in color. During the voyage Solander had also prepared floral descriptions in Latin for all the landings. Nor was this all. Banks and Solander had identified some 1,300 new species among 110 new genera. The magnitude of their achievement can be gauged against Linnaeus's Species Plantarum, which in the year 1753 described 5,900 species among 1,098 genera for the total number of plants known at that time. With the Endeavour voyage botany had taken a gigantic leap forward.18 Banks had his work cut out for him. He would be too busy to gamble away his income at the Whist and Pharo tables.

Amanuenses were brought in to start copying for the printer. Five artists were also hired: Thomas Burgiss; John Cleveley, whose brother James, also a capable artist, would sail as a carpenter on the third voyage; the two brothers, James and John Frederick Miller; and Frederike Polydore Nodder. They began to prepare the Parkinson drawings for the engravers. The best of his finished pictures had to be selected; his unfinished sketches had to be completed, new drawings made from the herbarium specimens. As for paying the mounting bills - as usual with all the Banks projects, the tenant farmers on his 14,000-acre estate in Lincolnshire provided the wherewithal in his comfortable living. Even as he was becoming embroiled with Harriet and Stanfield, his home took on an atmosphere of pleasant confusion - artists and secretaries arguing, a welter of ink-stands, paint-pots, and botany books spilling about, the Systema Naturae and Species Plantarum hidden somewhere, the dust of South Seas islands rising from the crackling herbarium specimens and covering the lot. The colossal project began to inch forward.

By October the seventy year-old Linnaeus had become frantic. Not only had he not received so much as a scrap of a letter either from his student, no, not from that student who was introducing his system of classification into England, or from Banks, the immortal Banks who was surrounded by glories of botany, nor had he yet laid eyes on so much as a twig from the South Seas, but English newspapers were reaching Uppsala with reports that those two miscreants would soon be sailing off again. An unsettling thought took hold: the Banks project might never see the light of day. He wrote to Ellis in a high pitch of anxiety.19

 

I entreat you, who know so well the value of science, to do all that in you lives for the publication of these new acquisitions, that the learned world may not be deprived of them...Do but consider, my friend, if these treasures are kept back, what may happen to them. They may be devoured by vermin of all kinds. The house where they are lodged may be burnt. Those destined to describe them may die...I therefore once more beg, nay I earnestly beseech you, to urge the publication of these new discoveries. I confess it to be my most ardent wish to see this done before I die...Remember me to the immortal Banks and Solander.

Linnaeus sighed over those unseen South Seas plants: "I shall have seen them as Moses saw Canaan." His worries about treasures left unpublished could not have been allayed by Ellis's reply: "I assure you it greatly distresses me to think of losing Solander for ever, for I cannot expect to see him more; I fear he never will return alive." On December 20 Linnaeus wrote Ellis a plaintive request. Invoking Solander's attachment for Linnaeus and Solander's honor and botanical zeal, Linnaeus asked if Ellis would beg Solander to send him just a few plants from the South Seas.20

 

You may remind him that it was I who obtained his father's consent that he should study Botany; that I have cherished him as a son under my own roof; that I advised his visiting in England; that I introduced him to you...If he slights my request, I scarsely think he can answer it to himself. You are entitled to my best thanks for undertaking to persuade Solander to publish his first botanical discoveries, before he sets out on another expedition. Otherwise his collection may long remain in the British Museum, a prey to moths and other insects, and the fruit of so much care, labor, expense, and hazard, may share the lot of but too many human projects, to the grief of the whole world.

Preparing the drawings and paintings was slow work. Several years passed. Even before they were finished, Banks began hiring engravers until eighteen of the best in London were in his employ, among them G. Sibelius and D. MacKenzie, both highly skilled at working in copper with exquisite shading. More years passed while the costs continued to mount. Linnaeus died in January of 1778, never having turned a page of the long-for volumes, never having seen a plant from the South Seas, never having heard from his student or from the immortal Banks. In December of 1778 Banks wrote to Linnaeus's son to say that he had been working continuously on the project, but that the engravings were not half done. In May of 1782 Solander, at the height of his powers at the age of forty-six, died of a stroke. But his manuscripts were finished, all transcribed by the amanuenses, bound up and labelled, divided according to geographic region, ready to be set into type, the title pages engraved. His part was done. And some 550 engravings of plants were ready for the press. By 1785 a total of 742 of the beautiful copper etchings were complete. Engravings and manuscripts for six regions were all but finished: Madeira, Tierra del Fuego, the Society Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Java. Banks had spent at least £10,000. The same year he wrote to a correspondent in Sweden:21

 

The botanical work with which I am at present occupied is nearing its conclusion. Solander's name will appear next to mine on the title page because everything has been brought together through our common industry...Since all the descriptions were made while the plants were fresh there is nothing left to do beyond completing those drawings which are not yet finished, and entering the synonyms in the books which we did not have with us or have just come out. All that remains to do is so little that it can be completed in two months if only the engraver can be brought to putting the finishing touches to it.

In the eighteenth century it was still thought possible for one person to encompass knowledge on a global scale, and no one considered it strange that such a grandiose project as Banks had in mind should go forward under private hands in a quiet neighborhood of London. Banks was clearly of his age. His was the tradition of Linnaeus - the lone worker surmounting great obstacles. But he could not imagine that this time the obstacles were without precedent. Only a well-staffed public institution was suited to the task, a realization that in fact did not become clear until well into the nineteenth century. In this he was ahead of his age. Yet his plants did not fall prey to moths, as Linnaeus feared, nor did the fruit of his labor and expense come "to the grief of the whole world." Banks's home on New Burlington Street and later in Soho Square was open to all who wished to learn, and they came, and they did. Botanists consulted the herbarium and the descriptions, some voyaging afar to take up fresh labors, a few, to be sure, to snatch credit for what Banks and Solander had clearly done.

Although Linnaeus had sent students all over the world to collect plants, it was Banks who, by serving under Cook, dramatized the value of this tradition. Thus Joseph Hooker sailed with James Ross, Archibald Menzies with George Vancouver, Charles Darwin with Robert Fitzroy. From time to time duplicates from the herbarium were shared or traded abroad with other museums. On occasion some of the engravings have appeared in print.22 The vision that sought a clear focus on New Burlington Street has encompassed two centuries.

As Linnaeus warned, the engravings and manuscripts would "long remain at the British Museum." There they were to remain for two centuries, as fresh and vivid as the day Banks walked away from them in 1785.23 One engraver, said he, could have put the finishing touches on the whole thing in just two months. If this had been done the fruits of his labor would long have graced the libraries of the world. Banks could also have done what Linnaeus did - bring out a series of plain-looking volumes. In either case, the botany of the first voyage would not have been overshadowed by the great achievements of Cook in cartography and in the conquest of scurvy at sea.24 All this is true enough.

But it is hardly in order for us after two centuries to charge Banks with failure, or credible to say that, after all, he was only a well-to-do dilettante, essentially uninterested in the life of the mind. Although he had not yet found his home port - he would in due course - his was already a vision at once humane, single-minded, and of worldwide scope. We can perceive in these engravings and manuscripts, therefore, why his presence was so palpable on the second and third voyages, his influence so far-reaching in the years to come.

Banks established a unique position in London. It was an agreeable life, with his huge estate to look after, the operas and masquerade parties, dinners with men of consequence, the flattery of hangers-on, the oratorios at Hinchinbroke, a life so busy he had no time to look after his Endeavour journal, which lay unpublished until 1962.25 It was a life transformed and given shape by his Endeavour years. But neither wealth nor charm, which he certainly possessed, can alone account for the formidable influence that Banks would exercise in the decades that followed the Endeavour voyage; neither political office nor academic post, neither of which he ever held. A later age might have seen him as a consummate science adviser to Prime Ministers or Presidents, except that his talents were even more eclectic. Indeed all Europe and even Oceania came into his ken, his influence conceded even when gout set in. His influence waxed because it was earned. Many and various were his interests.

The great outward enterprises of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries eagerly sought his counsel and approval, which he gave with tact and discrimination: the development of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew; the founding of Australia in 1788; the voyage of Bounty in 1789 to secure breadfruit trees; the transportation of plants from one country to another, which was of special interest to him; the founding of the London Missionary Society in 1796; the sending of the first Protestant missionary to China in 1807;26 above all, the promotion and patronage of science; his forty-two year presidency of the Royal Society of London. His influence hulked large over the affairs of nations. Science and society today owe much to the vision of the youthful Banks.

It remains, perhaps, to consider the phenomenon of Banks: this driving enthusiasm and energy, this compulsive, even obstinate zeal for knowledge, this ability to conceive plans on the grand scale, fed by a willingness to put aside short-term goals and by a lavish dedication of private wealth to public causes, all invested in one person, all springing forth early in life. Of such was the voyage of Endeavour.

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