Endeavouring Banks: Exploring collections from the Endeavour voyage 1768-1771.  Neil Chambers. 2016

Endeavouring Banks: Exploring collections from the Endeavour voyage 1768-1771. Neil Chambers. 2016

Chambers, Neil.  

Endeavouring Banks: Exploring collections from the Endeavour voyage 1768-1771

Paul Holberton Publishing, University of Washington Press, and New South Publishing.  


ISBN 978-1-907372-90-2. 

304 pages.


In the foreword to this book, David Attenborough describes how Joseph Banks joined the Endeavour voyage, his entourage, how they gathered plants, made drawings, and brought home “30,000 pressed and dried botanical specimens, including 1,400 species that were new to science.  And a great range of islanders’ artefacts, ‘natural curiosities’ as they were termed, comprising implements, weapons and costumes”.  He goes on to say how Banks gave many away, and bequeathed others, leading to them being widely dispersed today.  An exhibition of many objects from the Endeavour collections was held in 2014, in Lincoln, Banks’s home city.  “And here is its richly illustrated catalogue”, explains Attenborough of this book.


This book comprises reproductions of 143 objects relating to Banks and the Endeavour collections, with lengthy explanations of how they were obtained, and their significance.  In all, the book has over 170 illustrations.  The book is divided into six sections: the Atlantic, the Society Islands, New Zealand, the east coast of Australia, homeward bound, and aftermath. 


In addition, the book has five essays by leading experts that appear between the sections.  However, the subject of each essay is not relevant to the section it precedes, so they could have appeared together, and I recommend reading them that way. 


In the first essay, John Gascoigne gives the background to the Endeavour Voyage.  A huge amount of information is covered in the six pages, giving one of the best explanations I have come across of the reasons for the voyage, the previous voyages of Byron and Wallis, tensions with the French, astronomical advances, improvements in instruments, and the instructions given to Cook (both public and secret). 


In the second essay, again of six pages, Jeremy Coote considers the ethnographic “things Banks had in his collection, what he did with them and where they are – or might be – now”.  In November, 1772, a visitor to Banks’s house in London found his collection spread out over “three large rooms”.  Coote describes some of the correspondence that shows Banks gave away items or, rather, that many people wrote of items they had obtained from his collection.  Unfortunately, the present-day whereabouts of many items is unknown.  Coote makes the point that “we do not know where and when the individual artefacts in the collection were obtained.  Banks regularly recorded in his journal the taking of zoological specimens and, less frequently, the collecting of botanical specimens.  The few references to the acquisition of ‘artificial curiosities’, however, are tantalizingly brief”. 


The third six-page essay is by Philip Hatfield.  He writes about the “enduring impact of Banks and the effects of his activities on how we see our scientific history” using material held at the British Library.  Banks gave his main library to the British Museum at his death in 1820, and had given items to it during his life.  Some of the books he took in Endeavour had been with him on his earlier expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766.  When he crossed the equator in Endeavour, he noted “all the books in my Library became mouldy so that they were obliged to be wiped to preserve them”.


The fourth essay is the longest at 19 pages.  It is not divided into parts with breaks, so looks a daunting read.  However, the discussion by Neil Chambers of many aspects of the Endeavour collection is well worth the effort.  He reviews the artwork of Sydney Parkinson, Alexander Buchan, Herman Spöring and Tupaia.  He explains where many of the drawings, watercolours, etc., have ended up.  He says “modern estimates suggest that Banks returned from the Pacific with 5 mammals; 107+ birds; 248+ fishes; 370+ arthropods; 206  molluscs; 6 echinoderms; 9 salps; 30 medusae and some other animals”.  And then he looks at where many of them are now.  Finally, he covers the ethnographic items, and their current locations.


The fifth and final essay is back to six pages.  Anna Agnarsdóttir relates what happened to Banks after the Endeavour voyage.  She covers the preparation for his second voyage to the Pacific, his withdrawal from it and the ship, Resolution, and his taking to Iceland of the scientific party he had assembled.  Iceland was chosen as it had the “advantage of being relatively near and unexplored”, as well as being the “site of many active volcanoes”.  Overall, it had “much to interest a naturalist” like Banks. 


The 143 objects in the book, and their descriptions, can be read in the order printed, or you can dip into them as your fancy takes you.  I expect readers with a particular interest in a place, such as Tahiti, will look at the objects from there first, and then move around.  I sometimes felt that one was meant to begin with the first object and read sequentially, as some of the information presented relies on you having read earlier pieces.  There is no index, a serious omission, so you cannot navigate the book easily.


The book’s frontispiece is a detail from the portrait of Banks in 1771-2, when he was about 29 years old.  Oddly, the full portrait appears as the last object in the book—the first object is a portrait of Banks in 1813-4, when he was about 71. 


The second object takes us back to Banks’s boyhood, as it is the book The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, published in 1597.  We are told that when Banks read it in 1757, it stimulated his interest in plants and the natural world.


Objects three and four are portrait medallions of Banks and Daniel Solander.  The description of them is a good example of the approach taken throughout the book.  An explanation is given as to why medallions were made in the 18th century, to whom they were sold, and the subjects they tended to depict.  We then get specific details of the sculptor of these two medallions, and their manufacturer (Joseph Wedgwood).  A biography of Solander is given, which is longer and more useful than many descriptions of him that I have come across in most other books.  The lack of an index means finding this biography again is difficult. 


The secret instructions from the Admiralty to Cook appear as item 10 in the book.  The reproduction of the handwriting is large enough  that one can read it, though a transcript has also been provided.  It is wonderful to see the actual words used, including their spelling and capitalisation, and to read Endeavour being referred to as “the said Bark”. 


Three of the navigating instruments taken on the voyage appear as items 12-14.  One of them is the quadrant by John Bird.  The text explains what it was used for, and how, at Tahiti, it was stolen and retrieved.  Oddly, it is only when you read about object 73 that you learn Spöring repaired it so it could be used again, just ahead of the Transit of Venus.  An index might have helped. 


Object 20 is one the great joys of the book.  It is a beautiful watercolour of a crab painted by Buchan at Madeira.  It was caught off the coast of Spain, probably by Banks.  Banks, we are told “was well equipped with nets, fishing tackle, preservatives and containers for collecting from the ocean.  Some 500 fish preserved in alcohol were brought back from the voyage, although few specimens now survive”.  One of the fish caught at Madeira was painted by Parkinson, and appears in the book as the next object. 


Buchan and Parkinson rarely painted the same things, so it is good to compare and contrast their paintings of some people of Tierra del Fuego in a hut, which appear as objects 30 and 31.  The descriptions of these two works, one a gouache painting, and the other a pen and wash drawing, are fascinating.  Buchan “appears to have struggled with the figures, but he fared rather better with the hut”.  Parkinson makes alterations to the scene “in keeping with a picturesque sense of design apparent in much of Parkinson’s landscape work”.  An engraving of the scene appeared in the official account of the voyage, published in 1773, and as the next object in this book.  The engraving was made by Francesco Bartolozzi from yet another version of the scene.  This one was a watercolour and wash picture by Giovanni Battista Cipriani.  The text accompanying the illustration explains how and why John Hawkesworth was chosen to edit the journals of Banks and Cook to produce the official account, and how the engravings in it were often not authentic reproductions of the original paintings, but depicted the classical idyll.


Object 47 caught my eye as it is a photograph of a noseflute now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.  On the opposite page is an engraving of Taiato playing a noseflute.  He was the boy servant of Tupaia, both of whom joined Banks in Endeavour at Tahiti.  Curiously, the text in the catalogue does not say the engraving depicts a noseflute, leaving it to the reader to make the visual connection.  Or, rather, that information is provided within the description of the next but one object, a pencil and watercolour drawing by Tupaia of a group of musicians at Tahiti.  Tupaia’s artistry is to be admired, and I am really pleased that all five pieces of his known work are included in the book.  My favourite one is probably that of three fishermen in two canoes that appears as object 109.  It was painted, probably, at Botany Bay.  The accompanying description says it “shows Tupaia’s interest in the detail of two Aboriginal bark canoes, vessels naturally of concern to him as an expert navigator, but different in design to those that he knew in the Society Islands”.


In skipping from object 50 to 109 in this review, I have passed over many beautiful items from the rest of the Society Islands, from New Zealand, and from Australia.  You will just have to get the book to see what they are.  


The assumption that the reader is an academic is shown by the use of the Latin words recto and verso for the front and back of documents and pictures, and some confusing headings for the objects, such as the use of Latin word aet to mean about the age of.  Object 40 is headed “Artocarpus altilis (Parkinson) Fosberg, J. Wash. Acad. Sci. 31:95 (1941)”.  The accompanying text explains the picture is of breadfruit and is by Parkinson, but there is no explanation of the rest of the heading.  A search of the internet revealed that J. Wash. Acad. Sci. means Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences.  The Bibliography at the end of the book does not mention it, and the Notes that precede it refer only to the five essays. 


If, like me, you wished there was an index to tell you which objects were of shells, or by certain artists, then the following might be of some use:

Shells – objects 26 and 35

Birds – objects 36, 127 and 128

Florilegium – objects 19, 29 and 113

Spöring – objects 68, 88, 94, 111 and 112

Tupaia – objects 50, 58, 67, 69 and 109


Published two years after the exhibition, this catalogue has been worth the wait.  It will be of great value as we approach the 250th anniversary of the beginning of the Endeavour voyage, and of the formation by Joseph Banks of the Endeavour collection.


Ian Boreham

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 47, volume 39, number 3 (2016).

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