Book Review

Banks, A Biography (Part 2.)

Grantlee Kieza OAM

ABC Books, Sydney 2020

RRP $39.99

This was to be the last great adventure for Banks, who “instead of going with Phipps towards the North Pole” as planned, instead botanized with friends in Wales. “Banks remained the most famous naturalist in Britain” while also considered a “Lothario”.  There was a scandal in the press concerning a supposed mistress and child, but Banks had “a hide as thick as the crocodiles’ he had seen in the Endeavour River”. 

To be continued next edition. 

Banks developed a close friendship with King George III, nicknamed “Farmer George”, only five years older than Banks.  At the age of 30, Banks was given “a kind of superintendence’ of the Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens.  

Steadily, Banks morphed from an adventurer into a “stay-put scientist and docile country squire” after his marriage to 20 year-old heiress Dorothea Hugessen, 15 years his junior, in 1788; the same year saw him elected President of the Royal Society, a position he held uninterrupted for over 40 years.  Banks, knighted 23 March 1781, was further awarded the Red Ribbon of the Order of the Bath by the King 1 July 1795. Sir Banks was active in many organizations:  “…the Royal Society Club, the Society of Arts, the Dilettante Society, the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Institution, the Engineers’ Society, the Literary Club, the Freemasons, the Horticultural Society, the Merino Society, the Lincolnshire Agricultural Society, the African Association, the Linnean Society, and all the associated dining clubs…trustee of the British Museum…the Board of Longitude, the Board of Agriculture, the Coin Committee and the Committee of Trade of the Privy Council.”  

Banks was generous and a major wool grower in Lincolnshire, “a benevolent landlord and employer for much of the village”.  He funded the annual fair, The Revesby Feast where “according to immemorial custom I am to feed and make drunk everyone who chooses to come, which will cost me in beef and ale near 20 pounds, and I am sure there is no quiet in the house all day.”  

“Even more popular…for the local gentry and clergymen were Banks’s fishing parties on the Witham…from a tented horse-drawn barge, sometimes with a band on board.”  Banks described one of these parties:  “We drew ten miles of fresh water, and in four days caught seventeen hundred-weight of fish; dining always from twenty to thirty masters and mistresses, with servants and attendants, on the fish we had caught, dressed at fires made on the bank:  and when we had done we had not ten pound of fish left.”  

Banks lived with both his tall and well-built sister and wife Dorothea. His sister, Sophia, was deeply religious like their mother, but Banks was “a nominal Christian…even though he saw intelligent design in the universe and nature, he was indifferent to theology.”   Banks and his wife never had children, “and while this was a disappointment to a man whose fortune had been based on generations of family inheritance, Banks considered his scientific friends around the world to be his family”.  Dorothea collected Chinese porcelain while Sophia, likewise barren, “built a priceless collection of coins, medals, visiting cards, satirical prints, advertisements, playbills and newspapers, including a detailed scrapbook on a serial killer known as the London Monster”.  After Sophia’s death, 21 months before his own, Banks donated to the British Museum his sister’s “19,000 items and nine volumes of broadsheets and newspaper cuttings”.  

“Exactly five years after Banks first saw the coast of New Holland”, the American War of Independence began 19th April, 1775.  On 30th July, 1775, Cook returned from his Second Voyage, having lost but one man out of 118.  Forster and his son came back with 260 new species of plants and two hundred undescribed animals.  Cook had earlier written to Banks 18th November 1772 from Cape of Good Hope, “Some cross circumstances which happened at the latter part of the equipment of the Resolution created…a coolness betwixt you and I, but I can by no means think it was sufficient to me to break of all correspondence with a man I am under many obligations too.”  Solander helped repair the relationship and assuage Banks’ bruised ego.  Cook went on to be “unanimously elected a fellow of the Royal Society” and was encouraged to author the account of his Second Voyage, enraging the elder Forster who “claimed (Lord) Sandwich had promised him the lucrative assignment”.  

Banks never let politics interfere with his scientific relationships and remained good friends with Benjamin Franklin, who helped frame the American constitution, even though the two countries were at war.  Franklin, in turn, used his influence to ensure French ships did not interfere with Cook’s Third Voyage which set sail 12 July 1776.  On 14th February 1779, Cook, surrounded by thousands of hostile Hawaiians, was fatally stabbed in the neck during a melee while taking a chief hostage for the return of a stolen longboat.   Receiving “disturbing reports” via European ships sailing from China, Banks successfully lobbied for an annual pension of 200 pounds for Cook’s widow, and organized a commemorative medal struck in Cook’s honour.

Although England was at war with France, Banks was elected as a foreign associate of Paris’s Institut National des Sciences et des Artes on 26 December 1801, and “wrote a letter of thanks to
France:  a ‘nation which, during the most frightful convulsions of the late most terrible revolution, never ceased to possess my esteem’”  Banks was attacked in “…Cobbett’s Political Register, a weekly London-based newspaper that expressed ‘disgust at this load of filthy adulation’ for ‘a novel association of revolutionary philosophers’ in a statement ‘replete with …servility, disloyalty and falsehood’.”   Banks, further to his credit, “oversaw the return of captured natural history collections to the French on ten occasions during their conflicts with the British.”   

With the French revolution looming and threat of British social unrest Banks observed “he was living in times ‘teeming with the monstrous Birth of Equality’.”  One of six prominent French scientists executed during the French Revolution, “Antoine Lavoisier, a fellow of the Royal Society often described as The Father of Chemistry, had been beheaded on the afternoon of his trial on 8 May 1794 along with 123 others.  A frequent correspondent with Banks, “one of the charges against him was that English letters had been found in his house.  It was said that it took just an instant to cut off his head, but that one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.”  Gieza note that “Banks’s friend Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond had shared hemp seeds from Kew with eleven fellow scientists in France; eight of them had been dragged to the guillotine during the uprising.”  

Gieza writes “Under what was called ‘The Bloody Code’, there were 222 crimes in Britain that carried the death penalty, most of them tied to poverty, such as the cutting down of a tree or even the theft of a rabbit. Transportation was seen as more humane than execution and England had been sending convicts and prisoners of ware to the British colonies in North America for almost two hundred years.”  

“In mid-1770’s London…the city had become intolerably overcrowded, and the thousands of prostitutes working in Convent Garden, Soho and Drury Lane indicated unprecedented levels of poverty, child labour and crime in England.”   Jails were packed and the overflow of  prisoners housed aboard ships.  

The loss of the American colonies led to the search for a new convict depository, and a parliamentary committee was established and chaired by Sir Charles Bunbury, which summoned expert witnesses before it in March 1779.  Banks was the first to propose and campaign for Botany Bay, leading to our First Fleet of convicts.  According to Bunbury, Banks had testified that there would be “little probability of any opposition from the natives, as during his stay there…in 1770…he saw very few, and did not think there were above fifty in all the neighbourhood, and had reason to believe the country was very thinly peopled; those he saw were naked, treacherous, and armed with lances, but extremely cowardly, and constantly retired from our people when they made the least appearance of resistance…The proportion of rich soil was small in comparison to the barren, but sufficient to support a very large number of people; there were no tame animals, and he saw no wild ones…there were no beasts of prey, and he did not doubt but our sheep and oxen…would thrive and increase; there was great quantities of fish…The grass was long and luxuriant…the country was well supplied with water; there was an abundance of timber and fuel, sufficient for any number of buildings which might be necessary.”  

Such a new colony held promise for self-sufficiency as well as abetting British trade and its economy.  It’s remote location, if successful, would allow Britain domination of the South Pacific.  

Philip was determined that “Rewarding and punishing the convicts must be left to the Governor…There are two crimes that would merit death –murder and sodomy.  For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal till an opportunity offered of delivering him as a prisoner to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him.  The dread of this will operate much stronger than the fear of death.”   

Kieza then provides an overview of Australia’s early colonial history from the first four naval Governors, Captains Phillip, Hunter, King and Bligh, through to Major-General Lachlan Macquarie.  Bligh receives a lot of attention, inclusive of the Mutiny on the Bounty and Australia’s only coup d’etat, the so-called “Rum Rebellion”.  Kieza is a researcher, a gatherer of facts and data, often too content with a conventional story line as with Bligh:  “Almost twenty years after the Bounty was taken from William Bligh, the revulsion the man could create around him had led to revolution…The troops would later claim that they found Bligh cowering under a bed, which he denied and Australia’s first political cartoon would depict him being dragged out of his hiding place.”  The author goes on to describe Major George Johnston as a “Rum Corps commander” in “a rum-based economy”.  Kieza states “Arthur Phillip had started the rot by granting the New South Wales Corps the right to buy rum at cost price, no more than 5 shillings a gallon, and the drink had gradually become the main currency in the sozzled colony.  John Macarthur oversaw a trade that involved soldiers of ‘the Rum Corps’ holding a monopoly on imported goods and the liquor to pay for them.  Much-needed wares were sometimes selling at a thousand per cent mark-up, while Macarthur and his confederates built huge landholdings by driving the Indigenous inhabitants away, and often killing them.”  

However, as Paul Brunton, Senior Curator at the Mitchell Library, noted:  

Bligh was a man of integrity and a man who thought for himself, the sort of man Banks wanted…I don’t think he (Macarthur) intended to overthrow Bligh but just destabilise him, as he’d done to his predecessors…the dispute between these two prickly characters simply got out of hand.  

Michael Duffy wrote (2008):  “The rebellion gave rise to two great pieces of spin.  One was the picture of Bligh being pulled from beneath the bed…part of a campaign to brand Bligh a coward, which would reduce support for him in the colony and in Britain…The other great piece of spin was the name Rum Rebellion…it had nothing to do with rum.  The label was invented by a teetotal writer, William Howitt, almost 50 years later.  Officers of the corps held a monopoly on rum importing in the 1790’s, but this had ended years before the rebellion…The name seems to have persisted partly due to the power of alliteration, and partly because it has allowed left-leaning writers to blame the event on Australia’s proto-capitalists.  

Paul Brunton observed that, following the deposing of Bligh, “the early capitalists of NSW were here to stay”.  

Kieza enumerates the contents of the Lady Barlow when it arrived in England on 19 June 1805, ”with the first cargo produced entirely by the colonists:  264 tons of elephant sea oil worth 52800 pounds, 13,730 sealskins worth 2746 pounds, and 3673 feet of bloodwood timber.”  The rape had begun. 

The first and early encounters between Europeans and the peoples of the South Pacific are recounted in detail and it’s these details which illuminate this sometimes dry and ponderous biography-history.  As history is written and distorted by the victors, we lack the views of the indigenous populations, relying on European descriptions.  Returning to Britain in May 1793 Phillip brought Bennelong and Yemmerrawane , although “dressed in the height of London fashion – coats, silk stockings, blue and buff striped waistcoasts, ruffled shirts and slate-coloured breeches – they were often sick and longed for home. ‘They seemed constantly dejected’, the London Observer noted, ‘and every effort to make them laugh has been for many months ineffectual.  Yemmerrawane, the ‘good tempered lively lad’, died after a long illness far from his home a year after arriving in England, on 18 May 1794.  

Banks’s renowned botanist Caley’ brought his “Aboriginal guide and friend Daniel Moowattin”, the third Aboriginal to visit Britain to London, in 1810.  Banks, as in the visits of Bennelong and Yemmerrawanne eighteen years prior, paid all the visitor’s expenses, attiring him “in the very ‘pink’ of fashion”.   Daniel was unimpressed by Britain:  “The magnificence of the finest buildings, or the dazzling lustre of the principal streets, but little attracted his notice; and when once asked how he liked the fine shops and houses he answered, that they were all very good, but not equal to the woods in his own Country…” Moowattin could never have imagined what the British would finally do to Australia’s magnificent forests.  Returning to Sydney four years later (1812), Moowattin “became the first Indigenous person to be legally executed when he was hanged for the rape of a settler’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Hannah Russell.”

The impact of diseases like smallpox is difficult to fathom, and too easily lost in the narrative.  A small group of Innuit had been brought to London by a friend of Banks, the trapper and fur trader George Cartwright, in 1773, and “at first enjoyed their visit”, but all but one, contracted smallpox and died.  The sole female survivor returned to Labrador only to transport the disease and wipe out her entire tribe.  The first Tahitian visitor, Ahutoru, brought to Paris by Bougainville, died of smallpox on his return home.  The second Tahitian to visit Europe, Mai (1774) “became a celebrity throughout England”, and was feted with style, “his exotic good looks and gentle manners winning everyone over.”  Instructed by the King to “look after Mai in style and send the Crown the bill” Banks did just that and ran up 229 pounds 4 s.    Wisely, Banks, while entertaining Mai, arranged his inoculation against the smallpox.  In September 1789, “while Phillip was under instructions from home to punish convicts for harming the Eora or stealing from them…Henry Hacking may have been the first colonist to kill a local when he fired into a group of Eora…while hunting on the north shore of the harbour…By then, the Aboriginal people around Port Jackson were also being devastated by smallpox.”  (Italics mine) 

Kieza doesn’t tell us the real story, that the first colonists to kill Aboriginals likely did so with a cough or a sneeze, or, just possibly it was the “variolas matter” (pus sealed in a glass container taken from a recovering smallpox victim used for inoculation) carried ashore by First Fleet surgeon, John White, for inoculating “any children born in the settlement” somehow mysteriously escaping.  If it had been deliberate, this would be called “biological warfare”; Europeans were unintentional vectors of a variety of genocidal diseases.  However, regardless of intentionality, it was a devastating biological war wiping out Aboriginals and their oral culture built over tens of thousands of years.  According to the National Museum of Australia, just 15 months after the arrival of the First Fleet (April, 1789) a major smallpox epidemic broke out, but not among the colonists and convicts who had already faced exposure to it:  “Without previous exposure to the smallpox virus, Aboriginal people had no resistance and up to 70% were killed by the disease…Smallpox spread across the country with the advance of European settlement, bringing with it shocking death rates.  The disease affected entire generations…and survivors were in many cases left without family or community leaders. The spread of smallpox was followed by influenza, measles, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases, all of which Australia’s Aboriginal people had no resistance to, and all of which brought widespread death.”    Without the onslaught of these diseases, Australian colonial history would have been very different indeed.  German-American bacteriologist Hans Zinsser (Rat’s Lice and History 1935) was the first to give due weight to the impact of infectious diseases in human history.  

But Kieza virtually ignores this catastrophic impact in his Australian history:  “Phillip kept Banks abreast of the situation with the Indigenous people and said he believed that they burnt grass all over the landscape.  Despite some early promise of friendship, there was not much of this between the locals and the invaders.  British diplomacy usually involved firearms and force, and Phillip complained that the Eora people attacked ‘any Straggler’ they meet:  ‘They have been robbed of their Lances etc and now taken their revenge.  I shall endeavor to secure a couple of them, in Order to get their Language, which I am anxious to obtain, for I am now satisfied that they will not be persuaded to live with us voluntarily’.”

Insights into Aboriginal views are scattered:  Shipwrecked on the Endeavour River while repairs were undertaken, Banks found the local tribe (Guugu Yimithirr) disinterested in the “clothes, beads and trinkets Cook and Banks gave them…and Banks later found the gifts left behind in a heap, not worth carrying.  Both Banks and Cook noted the happiness of the Aboriginal people, linking it to their “unfamiliarity with materialism”.  Cook wrote “they are far more happier than we Europeans…They live in a Tranquility which is not disturbed by the Inequality of Condition.  The earth and Sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for Life.”  

Matthew Flinders, one of many explorers and scientists backed by Banks, used the term “Australians” for Aboriginals, concluding “that while the customs and language of the Aboriginal people differed in various parts of the continent, they all belonged to one people.”  

Kieza notes that “While Banks revelled in the exotic flowers at Kew…economic botany was his passion.”  Banks was a humanist and utilitarian.  The concepts of nature, ecology, evolution and biogeography were yet to arrive.  The Industrial Revolution starting in his youth marked the start of a steep increase in human population.  The world’s population in 1750 was estimated at 790 million; by 1850 it was 1.26 billion.  We will reach 8 billion this year.  It would have seemed to people of those times that the earth’s resources were inexhaustible, a perception fuelling an unbridled avarice and rapacious exploitation of the natural world.  Banks hadn’t any framework for understanding what damage the introduction of exotic plants and animals could do.  

“Banks’s greatest legacy is in his laying of platforms on which others could shine.  He achieved this by supporting voyages of discovery and the management of institutions to facilitate scientific breakthroughs, while keeping the lines of communication and collaboration between scientists open even during warfare…Banks once said he believed ‘a man is never so well employed as when he is Laboring for the advantage of the Public; without the Expectation, the hope or Even a wish to Derive advantage of any kind.’  A philanthropist and mentor, he paid from his own deep pockets so that he could improve human knowledge.  He always saw the study of the natural world as the greatest endeavour.”  In spite of his generous philanthropy, at the end of his life Banks’ annual income had expanded to 30,000 pounds “from property and investments in the East India Company”.  

Kieza doesn’t inform us that Alexander von Humboldt travelled to England, meeting Banks in 1789; the start of a twodecade friendship between the two.  It was Humboldt who eclipsed Banks, becoming the Western world’s greatest naturalist celebrity, laying the foundation for our present understanding of nature and ecology, continental drift, biogeography and ushering in the next phase of European thought:  The Age of Reflection, where the whole was seen as of greater importance than the mere exploitable parts of it.  Humboldt never married and fathered no children offspring, and completely exhausted his family fortune on his scientific pursuits.  Humboldt’s proposed expedition to the Himalayas was thwarted by the East India Company.   

“On the morning of 19 June 1820, Sir Joseph Banks died aged seventy-seven at Spring Grove, unafraid of his imminent passing and ‘quite easy about the event, which he knew could not be far distant, considering the state of his stomach.’  The man who had been one of the leading lights in Britain for most of his life had asked to be buried in the church or churchyard nearest where he died, ‘in the most private manner’ and with no fuss and no monument; so it was that his grave in St Leonard’s Church in Heston remained unmarked for almost half a century.”  “Banks remained in an unmarked grave until 1867…by then the Australian continent Banks had nurtured had become an agricultural and mineral powerhouse producing riches in wool, wheat and gold.”  

Australia continues to be mined, cleared of its natural vegetation, exploited and ravaged by unsustainable numbers of humans and their introduced plants and animals as part of a global economy.  Gregory Andrews, Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner (ABC Fact Check 19 August 2015), stated that Australia has the highest loss of mammal species anywhere in the world:  “35 per cent of all global mammal extinctions since 1500 have been Australian (30 out of 84 world-wide extinctions).  Australia has lost 29 mammals since European colonisation, and feral predators are implicated in 28 of these extinctions. This compares to the loss of only one mammal in North America…”  The losses of mammals in Australia “are especially significant given our terrestrial mammal fauna is extremely unique”.

Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews said there were many reasons for Australia’s extinction rates.  When comparing places on the Red List, Australia is in the top five for extinction of animal and plant species, and the top 10 for endangered and threatened species.  

The Union Jack occupies the upper hoist quadrant of our flag for very good reason and should remain there as a reminder for future generations.   Kieza’s book is not an easy nor a comforting read.   There is an assumption that readers understand that, prior to Linnaeus, flora and fauna, in so far as they were recognized differentially, were known only by common names which varied from locale to locale as well as across language barriers.  Kieza also assumes his readership will have some background in both European and Australian colonial history. The copious details can be disorienting as the dates too often exclude the year.  Reading Banks is like pushing through dense undergrowth, difficult to see either ahead or where one has been.  In that way it peculiarly captures the essence of those perilous voyages of discovery into the unknown which forever changed our world.  Every Australian should know the contents of this monumental work, as so many of us are yet stuck, like Barry Jones, in The Age of Enlightenment, which ended with Humboldt and Goethe in the 19th century.  How backward can one be?      

Dr John Stockard OAM 

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