[Editor: This is an entry from The Illustrated Australian Encyclopaedia (1925).]
Banks, SIR JOSEPH (1743-1820), only son of William Banks of Revesby in Lincolnshire, was born in Argyle-street, London, on 13 February 1743, and educated at Harrow, Eton and Oxford. During his first year at the university (1761) his father died, leaving him Revesby with an ample fortune; and in December 1763 he left Oxford with an honorary degree (M.A.), determined to devote himself to the study of natural science. Even at Eton he had begun this, picking up botanical facts from ‘wise women’ in the villages round Windsor and from torn old books discovered at home; and at Oxford, finding that botany was not taught there, he imported a lecturer from Cambridge — Israel Lyons — whose fees were paid by Banks and his fellow-students directly. At Revesby, after forming a friendship with Lord Sandwich (a neighbouring landowner) which was to affect considerably his subsequent career, he devoted himself to botanical studies with such zeal that in 1766 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society — probably the youngest on record. In the same year he investigated the flora of Newfoundland, and in the following year made the acquaintance of Dr. Solander, a pupil of Linnaeus.
The transit of Venus due to occur in 1769, and the choice of James Cook (q.v.) to take charge of an expedition to the Pacific to observe it, gave Banks the chance of his life. Thanks to his friendship with Lord Sandwich — who was now first lord of the admiralty — he obtained permission to join Cook, and promptly got together a very full equipment for making collections in every branch of natural science, and a staff that included Dr. Solander and four artists. The story of the Endeavour’s voyage is told under COOK, JAMES and EXPLORATION BY SEA. The share of Banks in it was, as might be anticipated, mainly of scientific value, and its immediate result for him was that his university made him a D.C.L. But in the particular episode that is of most interest to Australians he played by far the most important part. Cook, a navigator by profession and instinct, was but slightly interested in the new lands he discovered except in so far as he considered them hindrances to navigation and fresh boundaries of the ocean which was his sphere. ‘The discoveries made in this voyage are not great,’ he told the admiralty. But Banks never forgot the new southern land. His first impressions, certainly, were unfavourable; ‘barren it may justly be called, and in a very high degree . . . . upon the whole the fertile soil bears no kind of proportion to that which seems by nature doomed to everlasting barrenness.’ But at that moment he had come from tropical islands, and was going back among tropical islands. Once back in England, the more his imagination dwelt on Botany Bay the better he thought it; and by 1779, when the house of commons was looking for a new location for a convict settlement, he had quite made up his mind that New Holland was worth occupying even in spite of its remoteness. By this time he was president of the Royal Society (elected on 30 November 1778), and a man of note and influence; when, therefore, he in 1779 advocated before a committee of the house of commons the establishment of a penal colony at Botany Bay, in 1783 warmly commended the proposal of James Mario Matra (q.v.) to colonize the country with loyalist Americans and Chinese, and in 1785 backed Sir George Young’s revival of the Matra proposal, the British government became slowly convinced that the far-off country must really be of some value; and in 1786 it was decided to send a batch of convicts out as an experiment. When once the settlement was made, Banks (who in 1797 was made a privy councillor) set himself to make it a success by every means in his power. He was constantly consulted by the British government on matters relating to the administration of affairs in the new colony. He had a hand in the appointment of governors; King was his protégé, Bligh his nominee. The arrangements connected with the despatch of Flinders’s expedition in the Investigator were left in his hands. No better illustration of the trust reposed in him can be exhibited than a slip of paper on which is written — ‘28th of April 1801 — Is my proposal for an alteration in the undertaking of the Investigator approved? J.B.’ ‘Any proposal you may make will be approved. The whole is left entirely to your decision.’ The last sentence is not signed, but was probably written by Evan Nepean, secretary to the admiralty. The governors almost invariably maintained a correspondence with Banks, giving him valuable information that was not contained in their official despatches. Hunter sent him specimens of the newly discovered coal. King, while still a minor official, brought him waratahs and Norfolk Island pines. Macarthur sent him fleeces — which he did not think much of. Kent took home for him emus and black swans. He provided the young colony with gardeners and explorers — though Mungo Park was not allowed to try his hand on the Blue Mountains. Robert Brown, George Suttor, George Caley, and Allan Cunningham all were friends and for a time employees of the great man. There is reason to believe that he actually refused high office on the ground that his services would be of more value to the colony if he kept aloof from ministerial responsibility. A memorandum in his own writing runs thus:— ‘I could not take office and do my duty to the colony. My successor would naturally oppose my wishes. I prefer, therefore, to be friendly with both sides.’
By the time he reached middle age, he occupied a unique position in the scientific and social world of England. He had achieved a reputation for universal wisdom, and was approached for information on subjects as various as hydraulics, tanning, the plucking of geese, coinage, earthquakes, and his pet subject botany. He was a diligent member of the Society of Arts, the Engineers’ Society, the Dilettante Society, and the Society of Antiquaries; a founder of the Royal Institution, and a member of the National Institute of France. His active connection with Australian affairs, however, diminished considerably when Macquarie, first of the soldier-governors, initiated the new regime, though he maintained his interest in the country through Allan Cunningham and others, and was entrusted with the superintendence of the draughtsmen and engravers who prepared Flinders’s charts, etc., for his Voyage to Terra Australis. It was probably a sign of failing energy and growing conservatism that he prevented Flinders from using in that book the name ‘Australia’ which the author so much favoured, and insisted on the retention of the cumbrous Latinism which disfigures the title. His interests, however, if narrowed in one direction, widened elsewhere, and he actively promoted explorations in China, Brazil, Sumatra, Egypt and the Congo valley. For at least 14 years before his death he had lost the use of his legs, but continued to preside actively over the Royal Society, and gathered round him such savants as Stamford Raffles, Barrow, Hooker, de Candolle, Humphry Davy and W. E. Parry. On 16 March 1820 he sat for the last time in the chair at a council meeting; on 18 May he offered to resign, but the council refused to let him; on 19 June, he died without issue. (Baronet, 1781; K.C.B., 1795.) See OBEREA.
Arthur Wilberforce Jose and Herbert James Carter (editors), The Illustrated Australian Encyclopaedia, vol. 1, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1925, pages 128-129