This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Sir Joseph Banks. The event is being commemorated throughout the world and a website hosted by the Sir Joseph Banks Society has links to the various institutions involved. The California State Library – Sutro Library holds one of the world’s largest collections of Sir Joseph Banks’ letters, original maps, and ephemera. While the name Captain Cook is widely known, that of Joseph Banks is not, even though his contributions to science and exploration are legendary. Banks was the longest-running president of the Royal Society, facilitated the exchange of science and information between experts all over the world, and was the leading founder of the African Association.
The Royal Society plays a central role in Banks’ story. It is the United Kingdom’s scientific academy, its scientific arm. It describes itself as a fellowship of eminent scientists from around the globe with its motto “’nullius in verba’ taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of the Royal Society Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment. The society’s origins lie in the 1660s when several natural philosophers and physicians met establishing the first “learned society” following a lecture by Sir Christopher Wren.
In the beginning the society oversaw advancements in science. One member published the first issue of Philosophical Transactions in 1665, which set out to establish the concepts of scientific priority and peer review. This journal is now the oldest continuously published science journal in the world. And just to give some idea of its endeavors, the Royal Society published Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment documentation demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning, and funded Captain Cook’s journey to Tahiti. It was on this journey that Cook was to observe the Transit of Venus and explore and map regions in the South Seas.
For Joseph Banks, it was joining Captain Cook on this first voyage of discovery that his life’s journey also began. In 1768, the 26-year-old Banks, having secured a position as Royal Botanist on the HMS Endeavour voyage, set sail. The voyage took the HMS Endeavor to Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. From 1768 through 1771, the crew managed to find over 3,000 plants, observe the transit of Venus, and map the coastline of Australia.
Following his voyage with Captain Cook in 1771, Banks soon became president of the Royal Society and so began his lifelong involvement in exploration, science, and discovery. Not only was he involved in the formation of economic policies for Australia, but also India, and the West Indies. He believed in the possibilities of exploration and overseas trade to improve British markets. He did so in many ways, not the least by leading projects in experimenting with crops and botanicals from across the world. To that end, Banks established several botanical gardens including Kew, in London, which cultivated plants that were thought to provide valuable income to England’s economy.
Sir Joseph Banks was also involved in other activities, like the search for Timbuktu (“the lost city of gold”) through the African Association. The African Association, or the Association for Promoting the Discovery of the Interior Parts of Africa, was formed in London on June 9th, 1788 by Banks. The creation of this group, which included many prominent explorers, was the beginning of what has been called “the age of African exploration” for Europeans, since the interior of Africa remained almost completely uncharted. And while some members of the African Association were abolitionists, Banks’ interest in sending individuals to explore the interior of Africa was motivated by the desire for scientific, commercial, and strategic gain, not the abolition of the slave trade. Many explorers who were sent by Banks never returned home, dying from starvation, disease, or from conflicts with indigenous populations.
Banks’ had his hands in many trades including coffee, tea, – an important and lucrative industry—and wine. London would have not have been so famous for their tea parties if it wasn’t for Banks believing that transferring tea plants and acquiring the skills of growing and drying tea would give Britain economic gain through trade. In late 1819, the London Genuine Tea Company produced, with Banks help, an illustrated account of tea cultivation in China and on the tea crops of Southern France and Corsica. How we drink tea today would not have happened without the efforts that Sir Joseph Banks took in establishing the tea trade, and its cultivation, and preparation.
 Baldwin, R. C. D. 1993. “2. Sir Joseph Banks and the Cultivation of Tea.” RSA Journal 141 (5444): 813–17.
Joseph Banks, like many other historical figures, made decisions based on biases and expediency. His interest in the colonization of Australia as well as other areas of the world very often ignored indigenous peoples’ claims to land. Additionally, relationships with native peoples were often highly exploitative. It’s important to acknowledge that history is complicated, and through the contents of the Sir Joseph Banks papers we see this historic tension played out. Aside from Banks deep interest in Botany and Natural History, there is entitlement, and political gain, as well as a belief by a Colonial power that they could ]make the world a better place through science and technology.
[This blog post was written by Dylainie Nathlich, Graduate student in the SFSU Museum Studies program, Spring 2020.]