It’s 12pm on a Wednesday, and I am sitting at my usual desk, reading Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder looking to glean more information about botanist, gentleman explorer, and world traveler Joseph Banks. As I am immersed in the tale of Bank’s stay in Tahiti, and the sheer peculiarity of how a young man from Oxford found himself dancing naked by firelight with Tahitians in 1768, my phone buzzes. Normally, I don’t take calls when I am reading or writing (this is a historical academic internship after all) but this friend never calls me, and that alone set off alarm bells in my head.
So, I answer.
It’s final examinations at most schools, and I assumed that this friend—let’s call her Kay—was simply calling to rant, or scream, about how stressful it is to be simultaneously: a pre-med student, president of the PanHellenic council, and a Resident Advisor. I hear her voice over the phone, in many ways she sounds as weary as I imagined the travelers to be on Banks’ voyage to Tahiti. Her stress, her strain, all comes through the phone’s speaker as she exhales her worries about not being the smartest in her Chemistry class, and how sometimes she feels that she cannot compete with the academic prowess of others in her program.
Kay would never call herself book smart, and though she is incredibly intelligent, she is someone who pursues a life of science and medicine for the broader reason of exploration and discovery—not for the paycheck. I would never describe her as someone who just wants to clock-in-and-out as a doctor; she is someone you could find the in jungles of South America working to advance foreign aid. She is, by all measures, far too unique to simply graduate medical school in a normal way, and find herself in a sterile, white, hospital room looking at run of the mill patients.
Yet, here is she is on the phone with me wondering what is the point of this all? Stressed. Tired. Downtrodden. Mentally and physically exhausted. I doubt she knows exactly of who it is that she reminds me of at this moment. So, I tell her about Holmes’ book sitting in front of me and that I thought she could glean a lesson from the person I am studying. Kay laughs, possibly for the first time in this whole conversation, and exhales. I can tell she is readying herself to take in yet another “boring” history lesson from her best friend. Without hesitation, I begin to tell her a little about Joseph Banks.
Joseph Banks, considered a key player in the second age of scientific enlightenment, was not an ordinary naturalist. Though many remember him as the man who managed to steal cochineal (a unique red dye that that Spanish had a production monopoly on) and bring it to England, he was so much more. Born into privilege that could have afforded him a life of never having to work, he found himself fascinated by botany and went on to study it at Oxford. He went on to travel the world, accompanying the famous Captain Cook on his first circumnavigation of the globe, and used the trip to document the flora and fauna that he found there. Though his discoveries are what gave him great merit as a naturalist, it is not what makes him memorable in the eyes of history. At a time when European explorers sought to distance themselves from natives and subject an air of cultural, and ethnic superiority, Banks stands out as a man who truly integrated himself into the culture and lives of the indigenous people of Tahiti, and sought to write down vocabulary words, and even attempt to learn the language. He did not seek to put himself at the top of the pedestal, but rather tried to gain an understanding. He facilitated the exchange of science and technology during a period of immense upheaval during both the French Revolution and the American Revolution.
My friend Kay, like Banks, is someone who has chosen an unconventional path in her field. Rather than simply being stuck in a lab, she has traveled all over the globe, studying anthropology and science in places as diverse as Scotland, New Zealand, and Nicaragua. Her pursuit of science and her passion for life has led her to undertake these journeys with the same amount of gusto and fearlessness that I imagined Banks must have had. As I read about Banks climbing up the cliffs of Tahiti in sweltering heat in order to study the plant life of the island, I recalled Kay’s story of when she ate a fish heart with her host family on the cliffs of the remote Polynesian island of Rapa Nui. Banks did and Kay does possess that extraordinary sense of adventure that seems to drive humanity’s greatest game changers.
What stands as the most extraordinary coincidence of this impromptu history lesson is that both Joseph Banks and my friend Kay got their start in Tahiti. Tahiti was Bank’s first tropical exploration. It’s what put him on the map as one of the great adventurer naturalists. Two hundred and fifty-six years later, Kay too would take her first trip abroad following in Banks footsteps to Tahiti, as a part of environmental and social studies group. I remember when she came home from that trip, looking tired and a tad sunburnt, with fire in her eyes as she told me: “I am going to see the world.” As a historian, I can only imagine this is exactly how Joseph Banks looked when, he too, returned from Tahiti. I was astounded. These two people, hundreds of years apart, seemed to be so incredibly alike.
So, I laughed when Kay told me that she was worried about competing with her classmates. She worried she simply couldn’t measure up to the academic perfection of those around her, which I found simply hilarious.
As a fledging historian, I know a little about who history tends to remember, and how they “measure up.” I know the individuals that stand the test of time, stand out in ways that they themselves cannot even see at the moment. Banks was, of course, a great naturalist, but that is not why he, above all the other naturalists at the time is so well remembered. It is his choices to stand out and pursue a different path that makes him memorable. It is what makes him a unique historical figure.
I found myself telling Kay, that it is these very same differences that will make her stand out as well. It is her sense of adventure, her unique path, that separates her from her classmates. Anyone, including Kay herself, can get straight As and have a picture-perfect GPA. It takes someone different—someone extraordinary to sail to Tahiti—and I can just imagine Kay’s boat is about to leave harbor.
Find out more about Banks and his incredible life by coming to the Sutro Library Archives and reading his actual letters and journals! They are truly fascinating! If you have any interest in what I wrote about in this post, please go ahead and contact the Sutro Library.
Blog Post by Akiko Bates, USF Public History Intern