Captain Moonlight's Notebook: The man who put the botany in Botany Bay

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The Independent Online
I AM REMINDED by the Chelsea Flower Show this week of one of my heroes, a great man of the 18th cen tury, botanist, explorer, adventurer, agriculturalist, fixer, and letter writer whose 250th anniversary of his birth passed in February. He is Sir Joseph Banks, who joined Captain Cook on the Endeavour at the age of 25 as the representative of the Royal Society for Cook's first voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Cook discovered there was no great continent of the South Seas, just a handful of islands, New Zealand, Botany Bay and the Great Barrier Reef.

It has always seemed a scandal to me that Banks, president of the Royal Society for 43 years, a man responsible for turning Kew Gardens into an international centre for botanical record and experimentation, a founder of the Horticultural Society which later became 'Royal' and puts on tomorrow's flower show, and a founder of the Geographical Society, is hardly recognised here. This, I have learnt, is because he was a practical man rather than a theorist, leaving thousands of letters, samples, shells, artefacts and notes, but no philosophical or scientific treatise; this, despite the fact that a whole genus of plants is named after him. There is not even a blue plaque on any of his London residences.

In Australia they build statues to the man. Not only did he name half the country's plant life, propose Botany Bay for settlement - admittedly as a penal colony - but at Kew Gardens he bred merino sheep for King George III and gave Australia its first genuine prosperity. He was a Lincolnshire man, a bit of a jack-the-lad in contrast to Captain Cook, a dour and cautious Yorkshireman. Banks had an eye for Tahitian girls, he liked a good tipple, was rich, got things done and was enormously sociable.

In Britain we have let his anniversary pass unnoticed, except for a brief one-day display of some manuscripts at the Royal Society rooms at Carlton House Terrace two weeks ago to coincide with the society's spring exhib ition. However, in a corner of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, a former Australian veterinary surgeon, Harold Carter, and an English archivist, Julia Bruce, have been attempting since 1989 to catalogue and record all Banks's work. So far they have identified 20,000 letters from collections and museums around the world. But the pounds 75,000 raised from donations for this work runs out next year. I hope the project will not be allowed to die. Mr Carter says it will probably take until 2020 before the complete writings can be published.

(Photograph omitted)