The Multifarious Mr. Banks: From Botany Bay to Kew, The Natural Historian Who Shaped the World.
Yale University Press.
This book has been published on the 200th anniversary of Joseph Banks’s death in 1820. Its release coincides with the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage. Apart from these circumstances, it is time for a new biography of Banks, since there has not been one since Patrick O’Brian’s in 1987,1 and H.B. Carter’s in 1988.2 Whilst Musgrave gratefully acknowledges both of these authors, much valuable research has been done since by many people including Neil Chambers of The Sir Joseph Banks Archive Project, who has published much of Banks’s correspondence,3 and Anna Agnarsdóttir on Banks and Iceland.4 The bibliography of the new book contains a comprehensive list of references of books, articles and items found on the internet, implying this biography has been well researched and is up to date.
In the Introduction, Musgrave has written an excellent two-page summary of the subject’s life and achievements, and points out that Banks, once heralded as the most famous man in Britain, faded into obscurity in the century after his death. “It is time we take a new look at this compelling gentleman, who, through his multifarious achievements, shaped the world”, the book’s premise succinctly states.
The author has divided the book up into nine chapters, four of which are divided further into sub-chapters. Chapter 3, entitled “H.M.S. Endeavour”, occupies about a third of the book. It has six parts: “Planning”, “To Tahiti”, “Tahiti At Last”, “New Zealand”, “Botany Bay and Endeavour River” and “Batavia, Home and Outcomes”. There are further divisions of the sub-chapters under main headings, a structure that facilitates reading of the book.
Chapter 8, about Banks’s involvement with the sciences and The Royal Society, is the next largest chapter. Followed by chapter 6, “The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew”, with its three sub-chapters of “The Enlightened Botanist”, “A New Acquisition Paradigm”, and “Botany, Economics and Empire”.
Despite the length of chapter 3, the book is not top heavy with Endeavour voyage/Botany material. On the contrary, the author has succeeded in writing a very clear, succinct account of the voyage, with all the salient facts. There are several references to Captain Cook including a biography, an appraisal of the Cook/Banks relationship, and Cook’s Admiralty orders in full. The chapter ends with an excellent summary of the voyage from Banks’s viewpoint. Not only in this chapter, but throughout the whole book, appropriate and referenced quotes from contemporaneous sources are included.
Until the end of Chapter 5, which is about Banks’s voyage to Iceland, the book is written chronologically. Afterwards, it is written thematically, with cross references to pages already passed or to come. This approach might be an irritation, but the device makes it easier to use as a reference. As is to be expected of this author, he has given plants and animals their common names and Latin names.
In chapter 8, “The Scientist Enabler”, Musgrave writes a lucid, concise account of the difficulties Banks faced early on in his presidency of the Royal Society. At the end of the chapter the author writes about Banks’s understanding of his world and Banks’s character, dubbing him “The Clubbist”. In doing so, the author explains Banks’s achievements as President.
The book is no hagiography. There is criticism of Banks. His comment about keeping the Polynesian Tupaia as “a curiosity” is described as “crass”. On the same page the author goes on to recognise “the long overdue re-evaluation” of 18th century voyagers’ views about indigenous peoples and their cultures that is taking place. He refers to two modern day authoritative authors on this complex subject. Under the heading “The Returning Hero Is A Cad” Banks’s love life is dissected. Later on Banks’s mistresses are discussed. A verse from an affectionate poem that Banks wrote for his wife is included. There are many insights into Banks’s personality throughout the book.
Musgrave writes Banks behaved immaturely when he reacted to Stanfield Parkinson borrowing from Banks the journal of Sydney Parkinson (the Endeavour artist who died during the voyage), and then publishing it. “Success and media exposure, it seems, had gone to his head: in modern parlance, the twenty-eight-year-old had begun to believe his own publicity” and behaved “like a prig”. However, on the subject of the suicide of a young marine during the Endeavour voyage, the author invites the reader to see the sensitive side to Banks’s nature. Banks’s reaction to the Resolution debacle (the removal of the extra space added to the ship for his expanded entourage for the next Pacific voyage) is given full coverage under the heading “Banks The Egotist”.
There is a very modern, eye-catching dust jacket. The book contains many illustrations, all of which are relevant to the story. There are one or two typographical errors and some sloppy editing. For example, in one place it is stated Endeavour was built by Fishburn of Whitby and, in other that Endeavour was built by William Hammond of Hull. The former is true.
The above remarks aside, this is a very good book. The stages of Banks’s life are examined perceptively, and in the context of the times. The author describes Banks’s actions, and discusses the consequences. In doing so, he justifies the adjective “multifarious” in the title of the book. He invites the reader to reflect on ideas, such as the psychological impact of the Endeavour voyage. It is evident the author knows a great deal about all aspects of Banks’s life, and about contemporaneous affairs. He has written about him in a very interesting and entertaining way. One is left with a clear, rounded picture of Banks as a person. With its academic credentials this book should appeal to both generalist and scholar. I have no doubt the author will achieve his aim to return Banks to his rightful place in our history.
- O’Brian, Patrick. Joseph Banks: A Life. Collins Harvill. 1987
- Carter, H.B. Sir Joseph Banks, 1743–1820. British Museum (Natural History). 1988.
- Chambers, Neil. (ed.) The Letters of Sir Joseph Banks: A Selection, 1768–1820. The Natural History Museum, London. 2000.
Chambers, Neil. (ed.). The Scientific Letters of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765–1820. Pickering & Chatto. 2007. 6 volumes
Chambers, Neil. (ed.). The Indian and Pacific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1768–1820. Pickering & Chatto. 2008-2013. 8 volumes.
- Agnarsdóttir, Anna. Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820: Journals, letters and documents. Hakluyt Society. 2016.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 27, volume 43, number 3 (2020).