The Conjuror's Bird. Davies, Martin. 2005

The Conjuror's Bird. Davies, Martin. 2005

Davies, Martin. 
The Conjuror's Bird.
Hodder and Stoughton.
ISBN 0-340-92053-X.

Joseph Banks does not appear in many works of fiction, but he is the main historical character in this book. His botanic and zoological exploits on the Endeavour are not the focus of attention, nor are his later scientific, business and diplomatic work, for which he is most well known. No, it is his private life, indeed his love life, that is developed here.

However, this book is not a work historical fiction but of modern academics and collectors searching for "the Mysterious Bird of Ulietea". Not so much a detective story, but of detection. What happened to the specimen brought back? Who passed it to whom? Does it still exist? If so, who has it now, and who will be the first to find it?

All interwoven with Banks's love live at Revesby in Lincolnshire and at London from 1768 to 1774.

James Cook hardly gets a mention. Johann and George Forster get a bit. There are no quotes from the journals. It is an enjoyable, fascinating and, at times, thrilling work of fiction, with twists and turns and unexpected plot development. Davies has based the book on actual events, and researched them well, as can be seen by his list of acknowledgements that includes Averil Lysaght, who studied many bird paintings owned by Banks1, and Mark Seaward "for his wonderful knowledge of Lincolnshire lichens".

The book is aimed at the general public, but some knowledge of the 18th century figures may help you enjoy it more. Though at the same time it might find you reaching for another book to check the events actually took place. Did Cook, for example, really persuade "Joseph Banks to return to Revesby before they sailed" in 1768? Or was he, as Carter puts it "resolving the problems of estate management with Benjamin Stephenson that would arise in his absence"2?
I found I wanted to know more about some of the events and people too briefly mentioned. Neither Johann nor George Forster mentioned the discovery of the bird on the island of Raiatea in June 1774. Given the name Turdus badius by them the bird was first described by Johann in his unpublished work "Desciptiones animalium". John Latham (1740-1837), an English physician and naturalist described the bird in "A General Synopsis of Birds", three volumes published 1781-1801, giving it the name of Bay Thrush. Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748-1804) a German naturalist, botanist and entomologist listed it in his 1789 edition of Linnaeus's "Systema Naturae" with the binomial name of Aplonis ulietensis.

Davies has the main character in the book use "an ageing biography of Banks by a man called Havelock". I've been unable to find this book. It is not mentioned in Carter's definitive bibliography3. He also refers to a painting at the National Portrait Gallery, London of Banks "as a young man recently returned from his great voyage. He is seated in his study and there are papers on his desk", but fails to identify the painter. It is Joshua Reynolds, for whom Banks sat from 1771-1773.

There are no illustrations in the book, not even of the bird in question. So for everyone one who, like me, wonders what George Forster's painting looks like and doesn't want to go to the Natural History Museum in London, I'm pleased to publish a copy here, possibly the first time it has appeared in print.

Ian Boreham


  1. Lysaght, Averil, "Some Eighteenth Century Bird Paintings in the Library of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820)". British Museum, 1959.
  2. Carter, Harold B., "Sir Joseph Banks, 1743 - 1820". British Museum (Natural History), 1988.
  3. Carter, Harold B., "Sir Joseph Banks, 1743 - 1820: A guide to biographical and bibliographical sources". St Paul's Bibliographies, 1987.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 42, volume 29, number 4 (2006).

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