M. Joseph Banks' herbarium sheet

Plant collected by pioneer scientist Joseph Banks on Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia, Metrosideros excelsa,1770s.

Fruits of endeavour

Joseph Banks

Joseph Banks (1743–1820) by Joshua Reynolds, 1771–1773.

This plant was collected by the young scientist Joseph Banks on Endeavour, Captain Cook’s first voyage to Australia in 1770. The incredible numbers of species they discovered fuelled Banks’ ambition to revolutionise global trade and scientific exploration.

Cook’s first voyage

HMS Endeavour.

HMS Endeavour.

Captain James Cook (1728–1779) set sail aboard Endeavour in 1768 to travel around the world.
It was one of the first scientific voyages funded by the state.

But Banks was rich, and so bought places on board for himself, seven assistants and two dogs. He wanted to go further than anyone before, collecting and classifying the world’s plants.

Hidden agenda

Photograph of the transit of Venus across the sun, 2012.

The transit of Venus across the sun, 2012.

Cook’s firt mission was to Tahiti, to chart Venus as it crossed over the sun.

Astronomers hoped this rare chance to watch its celestial movements between Earth and the sun would shed light on the distances between them and the size of the solar system.

This done he revealed a second secret mission: to discover the mysterious Southern Continent.

Discovering Australia

Cape Solander, Botany Bay National Park, Australia.

Cape Solander, Botany Bay National Park, Australia.

After weeks of searching, they instead found Australia. The first Europeans to chart the eastern coast, they marvelled at the extraordinary wildlife.

Banks and his assistant Daniel Solander collected so many plants at their first landing site near what would become Sydney, Cook named it Botany Bay. By the end of the voyage, they collected more than 30,000 plants and 1,000 animals.

Fame and glory

Sir Joseph Banks as president of the Royal Society, 1809.

Sir Joseph Banks as president of the Royal Society, 1809.

Cook and Banks returned heroes. They had staked England’s claim on a new territory and discovered a colourful world of plant and animal life.

Banks used his fame to ascend scientific ranks.In 1778 he was elected president of the Royal Society, England’s leading scientific body. The longest standing president, he held great political sway for 42 years.

Money from plants

Tea plantation, India.

Tea plantation, India.

Banks effectively became chief scientific advisor to the government. He persuaded them to regularly include scientists on naval voyages. Finding out what natural resources could be exploited proved as valuable to the British Empire’s economy as claiming new military territories.

One of the most enduring legacies may be from taking the commercially valuable crop tea from China and growing it in India, enabling mass British consumption.

Banks’ herbarium

Sir Joseph Banks’ herbarium and part library, by Francis Boott, 1820.

Sir Joseph Banks’ herbarium and part library, by Francis Boott, 1820.

Banks’ global interests were reflected in the enormous natural history, ethnography and literature collections he amassed.

He gave away many of his Endeavour specimens but kept his beloved plants until his death in 1820.

His librarian, Robert Brown, transferred them to the British Museum, from which the Natural History Museum was born.

Late publications

Red beech tree (Dillenia alata) engraving.

Red beech tree (Dillenia alata) engraving.

Banks became distracted by other commitments and never published his Australian botanical discoveries. He had more than 750 illustrations engraved onto copper plates ready to be printed from, but that didn’t happen until more than 200 years later, in the 1980s.

Banks’ botanical collections are a precious record of Australia’s indigenous flora and the importance of science in the history of Empire.

Around the Museum

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