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Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820)


The Endeavour voyage would not have been possible without the wealth and influence of enthusiastic botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

Early life – born into wealth 

Joseph Banks was the only son of William Banks, a wealthy country squire and member of the House of Commons. 

He went to the prestigious Eton College school from 1756 and studied natural history at the University of Oxford, though he left without gaining a degree. 

He continued to nurture his interest in science and nature by attending the Chelsea Physic Garden of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and the British Museum.

It was at the museum he met Daniel Solander, Swedish naturalist and a fellow botanist on the Endeavour voyage.

Image of a portrait of Joseph Banks.
Joseph Banks, 1774. Sir Joshua Reynolds and William Dickinson (engraver). Mezzotint on paper, 1774. Source: National Portrait Gallery of Australia

 

His time on the Endeavour
A patron of science

Banks supported the scientific goals of the voyage by paying for a team of eight staff, equipment and a library to join him on the HMB Endeavour.

His previous experience sailing on the HMS Niger to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766 gave Banks experience in transporting delicate specimens.

To keep specimens safe, he paid for ‘…all sorts of machines for catching and preserving insects; all kinds of nets, trawls, drags and hooks for coral fishing …a curious contrivance of a telescope, by which, put into the water, you can see the bottom to a great depth, where it is clear …many cases of bottles with ground stoppers, of several sizes, to preserve animals in spirits …several sorts of salts to surround the seeds; and wax, both beeswax and that of Myrica.' (Natural historian, John Ellis, to Carl Linnaeus, 19 August 1768).

Banks’ team collected specimens at sea and in Rio de Janeiro, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti and New Zealand. In Australia, they made two major collections, one at Botany Bay and the other at Endeavour River in far north Queensland. 

Based on the specimens Banks and his team collected on the voyage, he created the book Florilegium. He also compiled one of the earliest Aboriginal Australian word lists.

Life after the Endeavour — a man of power 

After the Endeavour's return to England in 1771, Banks was presented to King George III and given the degree of Doctor of Civil Law. 

Banks continued his quest for science throughout his life, funding botanists to travel the world to provide him with further specimens for both his personal collections and the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Banks will forever remain a part of Australia’s history, with the banksia genus of Australian plants named after him, as well as the suburb of Bankstown in Sydney.

Image of a second portrait of Joseph Banks.
Sir Joseph Banks, c. 1788. Benjamin West and John Raphael Smith (engraver). Mezzotint on paper, 1774. Source: National Portrait Gallery of Australia

 

Profound supporter and influencer of white settlement in the ‘Great Southern Land’

Banks was a major supporter of settlement in Australia and proposed Botany Bay as the location for the first penal colony. He was known as an expert on New South Wales, influenced the appointment of the first New South Wales governors and organised Matthew Flinders' voyage on the Investigator. He also influenced land grants, agriculture, trade, and free settlement. 

Banks’ decisions have had lasting impacts on the relationship between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous people. 

According to David Hunt, author of Girt, Banks directed that terra nullius be applied to Australia. This meant Australia was deemed to be unoccupied, which justified the British taking possession of Australia and the later displacement and genocide of the First Australians.