Joseph Banks

Patrick O'Brian

Harvill Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
The life of Joseph Banks has obvious interest for historians of science, exploration, and Australia (to list a few). But O'Brian has written a biography that will have much wider appeal, that fans of his novels should find just as compelling. Some of it is on a par with anything in fiction for excitement: Banks' voyage with Cook in the Endeavour was, after all, one of the great voyages of exploration, and who better than O'Brian to narrate dramas with the locals on Tahiti or a shipwreck on the Great Barrier Reef? Other episodes include travels to Newfoundland and Iceland and the saga of "the King's sheep" (obtaining and breeding merino sheep from Spain, which was of great economic importance for Britain and Australia).

Banks, a wealthy landowner turned botanist and natural historian, had influence and connections around the world. He was president of the Royal Society for more than forty years, a driving force behind the establishment of the gardens at Kew and the development of economic botany, an influence in the founding and administration of the New South Wales colony, and a patron of science and exploration. His circle of friends stretched from working class amateur botanists to King George III himself. Enjoying the scope this affords him, O'Brian digresses quite freely, whether to follow some of the explorers and naturalists in whose careers Banks played a role, such as Matthew Flinders, William Bligh, or Robert Brown, or to recount a brief episode in the history of Iceland in which he was peripherally involved.

As in his fiction, O'Brian does a good job of making the differences of a past era seem natural, providing explanation where necessary but without ever being intrusive. Liberal selections from Banks' journals and letters and those of his acquaintances give us a direct connection with him, and at the end one is left feeling almost like an intimate.

October 1999

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%T Joseph Banks
%A O'Brian, Patrick
%I Harvill Press
%D 1997 [1987]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860464068
%P 328pp