Planting the World: Joseph Banks and his Collectors. An Adventurous History of Botany.
At the start of this book, Jordan Goodman states that his aim was to focus on Joseph Banks’s love of plants, and on where this love led him. This has resulted in a book relating to Banks with an unusual starting point. There are 22 chapters, chronologically ordered, divided into five parts. Each part is prefaced by a page and a half or so of relevant information to set the context of what follows. During his long life, Banks had many interests and projects springing from botany, resulting in several threads. These the author interweaves very skilfully, and this format of the book is a great help in keeping the reader grounded in the narrative.
At the beginning of the book there are seven maps with a key indicating the chapters to which each map relates. The list of illustrations is divided into categories: People, Things and Places. The book does not include an image of Captain James Cook. The final list, before embarking on the subject matter, is headed “Dramatis Personae”. It is a very welcome addition as there are 175 names here, with short descriptions of each person.
Goodman makes a very interesting observation in the Prologue about his own thoughts on Banks, developed through writing this book. Whilst the book is not a biography, there is a brief but comprehensive one in the Introduction, which is sub-titled “Joseph Banks and Kew”. This part contains an account of the Endeavour voyage, mainly from Banks’s viewpoint, but it includes a brief biography of Captain Cook. References to the Endeavour voyage recur throughout the book, since that event in Banks’s life was the base for much of what followed.
Goodman writes, “Building chronologically and across the world layer by layer, each chapter reveals how and when Banks became involved”. The author does so very assiduously. Also, he gives voice to the other leading characters, with space for their side of the story. As an example, in Part II, the two breadfruit voyages of Captain William Bligh are recounted in a way that incorporates the inevitable stresses of the voyages, the technologies, the characters involved and the widespread political aspects.
Part IV sees the introduction of George Caley, the lowly farrier’s son from Manchester. Goodman writes very engagingly about the relationship that developed over nearly 25 years between Caley and Banks, who was by now the president of the Royal Society. This episode is just one where there is much enlightening detail about the social mores of the time.
Goodman cites instances where things did not go according to plan. David Burton was commissioned by Banks to collect seeds in New South Wales, but death intervened. Burton accidentally shot himself whilst duck shooting, and died of infection a week later. On more than one occasion Banks’s plans were scuppered, or nearly so, when romance intervened, as was the case with Mungo Park and Matthew Flinders. Banks was quite tetchy on this subject—an irony when his activities as a young man are remembered.
Banks never went to sea after 1773; but for 47 more years he remained involved with “ships and their captains, the oceans they crossed, the ports they visited”, because the transplantation of plants was at the heart of Banks’s interests. The author is very adept in deflecting any criticism by modern environmentalists. Banks was not concerned with any potentially adverse effect of his projects on local ecologies, even though he could be considered an ecologist, such as in his Endeavour journal. Banks felt a successful transplantation was “an achievement to be celebrated”.
In the Epilogue, Goodman comes to Banks’s last years. The author claims Banks was not personally ambitious with his “extensive botanical projects”, a quote that links very well with a quote by Banks on the first page of the Introduction. Banks was motivated by his veneration for George III, and the desire to promote the wealth, power and prestige of the British Empire. To this end Banks “acted more as a Georgian gentleman of science than as a Victorian imperialist”.
The final section is the Postscript, which is a brief summary of the history of Kew Gardens that went into a decline after Banks’s death. Kew soon recovered and prospered due to the efforts of John Lindley and William Jackson Hooker, the latter following Banks’s stratagems.
The book’s title “Planting The World” is very apposite, the book dealing as it does with worldwide projects and adventures. This is reflected in the dust cover’s very clever design, a ship riding a leaf depicted as a wave. It resonates with many diverse and interesting characters. There are 1,642 footnotes listed, and 731 titles in the bibliography, both figures a measure of the author’s extensive scholarship. There is plenty of scope here for the academic researcher, whilst it is an excellent read for the generalist.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 43, number 4 (2020).