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BANKS, Sir Joseph
Co-explorer with James Cook.
Joseph Banks was born in London on 13 February 1743, the son of William Banks, of Revesby Hall, Lincolnshire, England, and his wife Sarah, née Bate. Banks was at Harrow from 1752 to 1756, and at Eton from that year until 1760, when he entered Christ Church, Oxford, remaining there until 1764. As a youth Banks acquired a passion for botanical study. In his first year at Oxford his father died. On coming of age in 1764 he inherited his father's estates and considerable wealth. In 1766 Banks went as naturalist in the Niger to Labrador, Newfoundland, and Lisbon, and in the same year was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1767 he toured the west of England, collecting plats and examining local antiquities.
The Royal Society in 1768 arranged with the Admiralty for Banks, D. C. Solander, a Swedish botanist, and others to embark with James Cook in the Endeavour on his forthcoming voyage to the Pacific for the purpose of observing the transit of Venus, followed by exploration. After the transit had been observed at Tahiti, the Endeavour sailed south. Banks was sponsor for a Tahitian, Tupaiea, who accompanied him on board, and who died later on the voyage.
On 7 October 1769 the Endeavour came in sight of the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Some six months later the ship left New Zealand after circumnavigating first the North Island, and then the South Island and Stewart Island without settling beyond doubt the insularity of the latter island. Banks, in his Journal, left a memorable account of this exploration of New Zealand's coasts.
At Poverty Bay, Banks participated in the first landings of Europeans on New Zealand soil, where it was found that Tupaiea could converse with the Maoris. Banks, because of his close association with Tupaiea, was greatly aided in his talks with the Maoris during his time in New Zealand. While at Poverty Bay, Banks was involved in some skirmishes in which some Maoris were killed. He referred to the occasion as “the most disagreeable Day my life has yet seen”. Banks wrote a detailed description of the appearance, clothing, and boats of the local Maoris.
From Poverty Bay the ship sailed south to Cape Turnagain, and then north again, meeting numbers of Maoris in canoes. Off Mahia Peninsula two Maoris came aboard and spent the night. At Anaura Bay, on 20 and 21 October, Banks participated in further landings, noting that the food at that time of the year was fish and fernroot, that there were cultivations of sweet potato, taro, and gourds in plots enclosed with reeds, that the young women were “as skittish as unbroke fillies”, and that there were organised sanitary arrangements and refuse heaps, which kept the neighbourhood clean. Here Banks and Solander, as always when they had the opportunity during landings, made collections of plants and other specimens.
At Tolaga Bay, on 23 October, an old man gave a demonstration of the use of the spear and hand club against a simulated enemy. The Maoris confirmed that they ate the bodies of their enemies killed in war. They also entertained the visitors by a war song and dance. A huge canoe, 68½ ft long and 5 ft in breadth, with carved head and gunwales, was noted by Banks, as well as a house with impressive spiral carvings. After rounding East Cape the visitors had encounters with a large double canoe, decked and with sail. In the Bay of Plenty many large fortified villages were seen on shore.
The Endeavour stayed at Mercury Bay from 3 to 15 November to observe the transit of Mercury. The visitors established friendly relations with the local chief and his people. Here Banks watched a mourning woman cutting herself with shells. He inspected a picturesque pa on a rock by the shore, and another on a hill jutting into the sea, describing the latter in detail. After entering Hauraki Gulf, where some fine tall trees were seen, the Endeavour continued north to Cape Brett, and on 29 November anchored near the island of Motu Arohia in the Bay of Islands. At first the Maoris disputed their landing, but later the people were friendly. Here the Tahitian cloth offered as presents to the local inhabitants was not so esteemed as by those to the south. The plant (Broussonetia papyrifera), from which similar local cloth was made, was shown to the Europeans as a rarity. The Bay of Islands, recorded Banks, was the most populous area the explorers had yet seen.
From the Bay of Islands the voyagers proceeded round the northern extremity of the country and down the west coast of the North Island without making any landings, seeing Mount Egmont on the way. On 15 January 1770 they anchored in Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, on the south side of Cook Strait. During a stay of three weeks at Ship Cove, Banks gleaned further information concerning the Maoris, including the fact that they had a tradition of origin from “Heawije” (Hawaiki). There was proof of cannibalism in the form of human bones remaining from a meal.
On 6 February the Endeavour left Queen Charlotte Sound and sailed north along the east coast of the North Island as far as Cape Turnagain, thereby completing the circumnavigation of that island. Cook then sailed round the South Island as far as Admiralty Bay, where landings in which Banks participated were made. “Banks Island” on the east coast of the South Island–later established to be a peninsula, now known as Banks Peninsula–commemorated Banks by name. On the eve of leaving New Zealand Banks penned a general account of the country, including valuable notes on its plants, birds, and people.
Quitting New Zealand as April 1770 began, Cook and his associates continued on to their historic discovery of the east coast of Australia. In 1772 Banks had the opportunity of accompanying Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific, but declined owing to the poor accommodation available for him and his suite.
Banks was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778 and, until his death 42 years later, continued in that office as the doyen of British science.
In 1779 Banks married Dorothea Hugesson. No children were born of the marriage. Banks, his wife, and sister, Sarah Sophia, resided happily together at Revesby and Soho Square, London. Banks died at Spring Grove on 19 June 1820.
Banks played a prominent part in influencing the British Government to make New South Wales a penal colony. After the decision to do so was put into effect, Banks was an adviser of various governors, politicians, and explorers connected with Australia.
Sir Joseph Banks's main significance in New Zealand's history attaches to his participation in the circumnavigation of the main islands of New Zealand by Cook in the Endeavour. Banks's account of the Maoris at the time of European contact, and of the natural features of New Zealand's coasts, is one of the most important records of New Zealand's early history. Banks's advocacy of British colonisation in Australia also had an influence in preparing the way for the extension of British sovereignty in due course to New Zealand.
by Charles Andrew Sharp, B.A.(OXON.), M.A.(N.Z.), Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768–1771, Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.) (1962)
- The Banks Letters, (ed.) Dawson, W. R. (1958)
- Sir Joseph Banks, Cameron, H. C. (1952).