Born in 1743, Joseph Banks was an inattentive student at Harow and Eton until he discovered botany and became obsessed with it. At Oxford, where botany was not taught, Banks imported his own teacher from Cambridge. When his father died, Banks inherited a considerable fortune and vast estates. In 1766, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and went to Newfoundland and Labrador to collect plant specimens. On his return, he became a friend and collaborator of Dr. Daniel Solander, the star pupil of Linnaeus. At his own expense, Banks joined James Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific in the Endeavor. Between August, 1768, and June 1771, Banks botanized while Cook sailed to Tahiti, circumnavigated and mapped New Zealand, charted the east coast of Australia, naming Botany Bay for Banks’s scientific work there, and almost sank on the Great Barrier Reef.
Bank in England, Banks found himself lionized. He had indeed seen more botany and brought back more specimens than anyone in the world. Banks planned to accompany Cook on his second voyage but withdrew when he thought the ship could not accommodate him and his staff. Instead, he explored Iceland. Elected president of the Royal Society, he held that position until his death. He became chief botanical advisor to George III, for whom he developed Kew Gardens as a great botanical center, and was made a baronet, a knight of the Bath, and a member of the privy council. Despite his voyages and impressive collections, and though he wrote journals of his explorations and maintained a vast correspondence, Banks published comparatively little. A dedicated and generous patron of botanical research, he was the most adventurous and celebrated English botanist prior to Charles Darwin.
Patrick O’Brian, biographer of Picasso and author of an acclaimed series of novels about seafaring during the Napoleonic Wars, is particularly good on Banks’s nautical adventures, but he also creates a vivid portrait of an engaging man and his age. His research includes use of some previously unknown letters and journals of Banks. The only thing lacking in this admirable book is maps and a few more illustrations, such as a portrait of Captain Cook.