Sir Joseph Banks

Joseph Banks was a man of science, international affairs and letters. How did his pioneering work in botany change the face of our planet?

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820).

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820).

Joseph Banks was a British explorer and naturalist, and one of the great men of his age. As long-time President of the Royal Society he steered the course of British science for the first part of the 19th century. 

His home, with its unrivalled collection of plants and books, became one of the scientific and social centres of Georgian London.

Video

Watch this video to get an insight into Banks and his motivation for collecting plants. For him it was more than a way of understanding the natural world.

Banks saw slavery and the movement of plants as economics. Find out why his collections are not only useful to science but also invaluable for learning about our colonial past.

For a more detailed look at Banks’s life read the Work and Timeline sections, and discover why he was one of the most influential men of his time.

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Work

Globe-trotting

Born in 1743 to a wealthy family, Joseph Banks possessed a passion for botany that became apparent at a young age and lasted his entire life. After studying at Oxford University, Banks inherited his father's fortune and made his first voyage of discovery aged just 23. He travelled to Newfoundland and Labrador to collect plants, animals and rocks.

Two weeks after his return, Banks was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1768 he joined the Society's expedition, led by James Cook, to discover the uncharted lands of the South Pacific. They circumnavigated the globe, on board the HMS Endeavour, visiting South America, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Java. En route, Banks accumulated a huge treasure trove of plant and animal specimens.

Returning home in 1771, the adventurers were hailed as heroes - especially Banks, with his exciting accounts of Maori warriors and exotic animals. The following year he led Britain's first scientific expedition to Iceland, but this was the last of his voyages.

Conditions on board were not always luxurious;

'Our bread indeed is but indifferent, occasioned by the quantity of Vermin that are in it, I have seen hundreds nay thousands shaken out of a single bisket.'

'[the] collection of plants was…grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil…'

A man of letters

Banks settled in London, and assembled an enormous library and herbarium at his home in Soho Square. His unique collections, energy and knowledge put him at the heart of Georgian scientific and social life for over five decades. His house was open to anyone, on introduction, who wished to examine his plants and books. Banks also maintained a network of correspondence with friends and associates all over the world. Through his letters he helped to further knowledge, and ultimately to shape the advancement of the British Empire.

A man of influence

In 1778 Banks was elected President of the Royal Society. He held this position for the remainder of his life - a record 41 years. As President, Banks fostered good relations between scientists across Europe and America, despite this being a time of political turmoil and conflict between nations. Banks was a founder member of numerous other important societies, many of which survive today. These include the Linnean Society, the Royal Institution and the Horticultural Society.

Banks was also unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, which flourished under his care to become one of the best botanical gardens in the world. He dispatched explorers and botanists around the globe, looking for economically useful species that could be grown on British lands. One voyage he helped arrange was William Bligh's infamous trip on HMS Bounty, now better known for its mutiny. Bligh's mission had been to collect breadfruit from Tahiti for cultivation as a food source in the West Indies. By transplanting species between countries and continents, Banks changed entire landscapes.

Banks also influenced affairs of state, acting as adviser to successive governments and King George III. During the Napoleonic Wars he acted on behalf of the people of Iceland when they were deprived of trading rights by the British. He also championed the British colonisation of Australia. Somewhat less admirably he advocated making Botany Bay - one of his most fruitful finds in the Antipodes - a penal settlement. His vision never materialised because the officers in charge of the First Fleet, which transported the first batch of convicts, decided the location was unsuitable and settled further up the coast.

Banks's legacy

The specimens Banks collected accounted for approximately 110 new genera and 1,300 new species. Some 75 different species bear his name, as do a group of islands near Vanuatu in the Pacific and a peninsula in New Zealand. A suggestion was made to name Australia 'Banksia', but was not adopted.

Banks's famous plant collection is now held at the Museum, along with insects and shells that he acquired throughout his life. These are all still valued research tools, as well as important historical artefacts.

However, perhaps the most important legacy left by Banks is the many plants that he discovered and exchanged between the Old World and the New.

Timeline

1743Born 13 February, London, England.
1750Start of the Industrial Revolution.
1760George III becomes King of England.
1760-63Studies at Oxford, where he further develops the passion for botany that first became apparent while he was a schoolboy at Eton.
1761Banks's father dies and he inherits a considerable fortune.
1766Travels to Newfoundland and Labrador on the HMS Niger.
1766Elected Fellow of the Royal Society.
1768-71Voyage around the world on the HMS Endeavour with James Cook.
1772Leads the first British scientific expedition to Iceland.
1772Sets up home at 32 Soho Square, London.
1773Becomes unofficial director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
1775-83American War of Independence.
1778Elected President of the Royal Society.
1781Receives a baronetage.
1787-89William Bligh sails on HMS Bounty, a voyage Banks helps to organise.
1788Becomes a founder member of the Linnean Society.
1793-1815French and Napoleonic Wars.
1797Appointed to the Privy Council, and is now an official adviser on matters of state.
1797Becomes official director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
1799Involved in the establishment of the Royal Institution.
1800-05Banks supervises the first circumnavigation of Australia, by Matthew Flinders.
1804Inaugural member of the Horticultural Society.
1820Dies 19 June, Heston, England.