- BANKS, Sir Joseph (1744-1820)
- president of the Royal Society, "the father of Australia"was born in Argyle-street, London, on 4 January 1743-4. (Parish register quoted in Sir Joseph Banks and the Royal Society, p. 61, 13 February is usually given as the date of his birth.) He was the son of William Banks, a prosperous country squire and member of the house of commons, and his wife Sarah, daughter of William Bate. Banks was sent first to Harrow and then to Eton, but was not distinguished as a scholar, though he early developed a taste for botany and natural history. Proceeding to Oxford he again showed little disposition to study except in his favourite subjects. He left Oxford in December 1763, and inherited a large estate from his father who had died in 1761. He kept up his interest in science and began to make friends among the scientific men of his day. In 1766 he was elected to the Royal Society, and in the same year made a trip to Newfoundland and Labrador with a view of studying their natural history. In August 1768 he sailed with James Cook (q.v.) on the Endeavour and was away nearly three years. The first object of the expedition was to observe the transit of Venus, but the Endeavour also sailed round the world touching at many places, including New Zealand 8 October 1769, and Australia 28 April 1770. This was the beginning of Banks's interest in Australia; he was to do much for it in later years. He arrived back in England on 12 July 1771 and immediately became famous. He intended to go with Cook on his second voyage which began on 13 May 1772, but difficulties arose about the accommodation for Banks and his assistants, and he decided not to go. In July of the same year he visited Iceland and returned with many botanical specimens. He kept in touch with most of the scientists of his time, and added a fresh interest when elected to the Dilettante Society in 1774. He was afterwards secretary of this society from 1778 to 1797. On 30 November 1778 he was elected president of the Royal Society, a position he was to hold with great distinction for over 41 years. He married in March 1779, Dorothea. daughter of W. W. Hugesson, and settled in a large house in Soho-square, which continued to be his London residence for the remainder of his life. There he welcomed the scientists, students and authors of his period, and many distinguished foreign visitors. He had as librarian and curator of his collections, Dr Solander (q.v.), Dr Jonas Dryander, and Robert Brown (q.v.) in succession. In 1781 Banks was made a baronet. Towards the end of 1783 he came into conflict with the secretaries of the Royal Society and a section of the members, who considered that the president was taking too much power to himself. The position really was that Banks was not content to be a mere figure-head, and among other things had come to the conclusion that some members were being admitted to the society without proper qualifications. There were several stormy meetings but on each occasion a large majority of the members supported the president. A new chief secretary, Dr Blagden, who had Banks's support, was elected in May 1784, and after that there was no further trouble.Banks's right to the title "the father of Australia" has been questioned with some ability by Captain .1. H. Watson who holds that James Mario Matra (q.v.) really deserved it (see Jnl. and Proc. R.A.H.S., vol. 10, p. 152). Matra's proposal was made in 1783, but four years earlier Banks, giving evidence before a committee of the house of commons, had stated that in his opinion the place most eligible for the reception of convicts "was Botany Bay, on the coast of New Holland". His interest did not stop there, for when the settlement was made, and for 20 years afterwards, his fostering care and influence was always being exercised. He was in fact the general adviser to the government on all Australian matters. He arranged that a large number of useful trees and plants should be sent out in the supply ship Guardian which, however, was unfortunately wrecked, and every vessel that came from New South Wales brought plants or animals or geological and other specimens to Banks. He was continually called on for help in developing the agriculture and trade of the colony, and his influence was used in connexion with the sending out of early free settlers one of whom, a young gardener George Suttor (q.v.), afterwards wrote a memoir of Banks. The three early governors, Phillip (q.v.), Hunter (q.v.), and King (q.v.), were continually in correspondence with him, and his influence was frequently used to clear up difficulties or to bring some good to the colony. He was interested in the explorations of Flinders (q.v.), Bass (q.v.), and Lieutenant Grant (q.v.), and among his paid helpers were George Caley (q.v.), Robert Brown (q.v.), and Allan Cunningham (q.v.). Something may be suggested of the important position of Banks in the community by the fact that it was he who wrote to Bligh (q.v.) offering him the position of governor of New South Wales. He had been the patron who had obtained for Bligh the command of the Bounty, and the unfortunate termination of its voyage had not injured Banks's belief in his protégé. He believed in discipline, and the letters he had received from Hunter and King had convinced him that a strong man would be required to deal with the evils of the spirit traffic in the young colony. Banks supported Bligh in his differences with Captain Short on the voyage out, and was in constant correspondence with him. After his deposition he did all he could to allay the anxieties of Mrs Bligh who had immediately turned to him for help. During the court-martial of Johnston (q v.) he was in constant touch with Bligh, and was a true friend to him during that trying time.Banks's health began to fail early in the nineteenth century and he suffered much from gout every winter. After 1805 he practically lost the use of his legs, and had to be wheeled to his meetings in a chair. His mind remained as vigorous as ever. He had been a member of the Society of Antiquaries nearly all his life, and he developed very much his interest in archaeology in his later years. Kew Gardens had always been a special interest, and his collectors had contributed much to its development. Generally he had done most valuable work for both horticulture and agriculture. In May 1820 he forwarded his resignation as president of the Royal Society but withdrew it at the request of the council. On 19 June he died. Lady Banks survived him but there were no children.Banks was a tall, well proportioned man, courtly in manner, yet unaffected and kindly in his relations with everyone. He had a large income and was able to employ able helpers to collect for him and look after his collections. He published little himself. A pamphlet on The Propriety of allowing a Qualified Exportation of Wool appeared in 1782 and another, A Short Account of the cause of the Disease in Corn, called by farmers the blight, the mildew and the rust, in 1805. A shortened version of the journal kept by Banks during Cook's first voyage was edited by Sir Joseph D. Hooker and published in 1896. The original journal, with a large mass of Banks's papers and correspondence, are now in the Mitchell library, Sydney. His portrait was painted several times by the leading artists of his period, including West, Reynolds, Dance, Lawrence and Phillips.Banks's influence in the early days of Australia has already been suggested, and his advice was always wise and disinterested. He has been criticized on the ground that he used his influence against John Macarthur (q.v.) when he was doing so much to develop the wool industry in Australia. It should, however, be remembered that Banks knew the whole story of Macarthur's relations with the various governors, and he may well be forgiven if he showed some mistrust of him. Apart from Australia, Banks had a great position in scientific circles, and the extent and value of his labours can hardly be overstated.Edward Smith, The Life of Sir Joseph Banks; G. Mackaness, Sir Joseph. Banks, His Relations with Australia; J. H. Maiden, Sir Joseph Banks the "Father of Australia"; Sir Joseph Banks and the Royal Society, London, 1844; Sir J. D. Hooper, Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks; Historical Records of New South Wales, vols. I to VI; G. B. Barton, History of New South Wales from the Records; Introductory Sketch, vol. I. Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. II to IV.
Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. Angus and Robertson. 1949.
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