Joseph Banks: a life.  Patrick O‘Brian.  1987

Joseph Banks: a life. Patrick O‘Brian. 1987

O‘Brian, Patrick. 
Joseph Banks: a life
Harvill Press. 
ISBN 9781860464065.  

I thought I knew at least something about Joseph Banks, but when I read this book I learned that I hardly knew anything.  Over 328 pages Patrick O’Brian frames the thorough picture of a man who had more influence on the course of history and science than I was aware of. 


O’Brian brings this dazzling figure in all his facets to life.  He uses a vast spectrum of sources including thousands of Banks letters and, in the end, you feel a true affection for this archetype of an English gentleman.


Among the odd anecdotes mentioned in the book I really liked Banks’s plans to annex Iceland.  


Frequently, O’Brian mentions Banks’s increasing weight and advancing gout.  Banks sponsored many “friends”: “He had indeed what might be called a genius for friendship if it were not for the fact that on occasion his amiability outweighed his judgement”.  Without him, Bligh would not have been appointed captain of Bounty


Who wouldn’t have wanted to meet him: “He was surrounded by friends and his house in Soho Square was rapidly becoming the chief meeting place for scientific men in the capital.  He was a hospitable creature and he took great pleasure in inviting people to breakfast as well as other meals; and quite apart from receptions and set entertainment his vast and rapidly growing herbarium, library and natural history collections were open to all properly introduced naturalists, the properness of the introduction having to do with their scientific zeal and attainments; nationality, age, rank and wealth being of no consequence at all.” 


This book is a real pleasure to read (especially after finishing Gananath Obeyesekere’s one1), and I can heartily recommend it.



  1. Obeyesekere, Gananath.  The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton University Press.  1992.


Anke Oberlies

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 36, volume 35, number 4 (2012).

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