Master of the Enlightenment

Neil Chambers’ edition of The Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks leaves Andrea Wulf awed by the naturalists networking prowess.

From The Guardian:

Screenhunter_06_aug_29_1651In 1761, the 18-year-old Joseph Banks inherited several estates in Lincolnshire, providing him with a substantial income for the rest of his life. After he finished his studies at Oxford, he moved to London where he became a member of the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. He spent much of his time in the damp reading room of the new British Museum, where he studied the herbaria of Britain’s greatest plant collectors, utterly obsessed with botany and the workings of the natural world.

It was this preoccupation that distinguished Banks from other men of his class, prompting him to exchange his comfortable life for the hardship and danger of the most daring voyage that the British had ever undertaken. Unlike his peers who toured the ancient treasures of Europe, Banks reputedly said “every blockhead does that. My Grand Tour shall be one around the world”. And so, in August 1768, Banks boarded Captain Cook’s Endeavour. For the following three years, he lived in a windowless cabin that was no bigger than a modern king-size bed, with a diet of pickled cabbage, insect-infested biscuits and the occasional dog stew. During that time, he collected 3,600 species of plants in Tahiti, Australia and South America – 1,400 of which were new to English botanists.

When Banks returned to Britain, he had become the most famous man in the country – rich, dashingly handsome with an alluring aura of adventure. Within a few years he was the nominal director of the royal botanic garden at Kew and the president of the Royal Society (a position he held for more than 40 years – longer than anybody before or since). During his life he shaped colonial politics, was an intimate of King George III and served as an adviser to the government.

More here.