Everybody loves a good conversion story, right? Especially if it involves a handsome young man, dripping wet from a quick swim in the river near his school.

Or is that just me?

“Emerging late one summer afternoon from a schoolboy swim in the Thames at Eton, the teenage Banks found himself alone on the river, all his schoolfriends gone. Walking back through the green lanes, solitary and preoccupied, he suddenly saw the mass of wildflowers along the hedgerows vividly illuminated in the slanting, golden evening light. Their beauty and strangeness came to him like a revelation. (He said to himself) ‘It is surely more natural that I should be taught to know all the productions of Nature, in preference to Greek and Latin.’ He immediately began to teach himself Botany.”

What this rather fussy Victorian narrator really means is that young Joseph Banks — who would become one of the most important public figures of the age — immediately began hanging out with all the village women, gypsy herbalists, and local midwives he could find, because they knew all the special properties and aspects of plants that he did not, and this was something that he was suddenly, passionately interested in learning absolutely everything about.

He even managed to get his mother to loosen her grip on her much-loved copy of Gerard’s Herbal, the most widely read book on practical botany of the day.

Oh, yes, practical botany? I can hear you say as you stifle a yawn.

Yes, practical botany, smartass. Can you even conceive of how vital this kind of knowledge was in an era that knew little to nothing about what we would call medicine today? Practical botany was quite possibly one of the most useful things a person could learn about. So, naturally, it wasn’t taught in schools.

At least, not in the way that Joseph Banks wanted to study it.

Now, combine the ridiculously useful nature of practical botany with the most exciting, swashbuckling bits of the Age of Exploration, add in some spice from the Napoleonic wars and a handful of naked Tahitian ladies getting tattoos on their bottoms, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a pretty great story.

Or just a pretty great life. However you want to look at it.

Oh, how I love Joseph Banks.

From his dashing, impetuous youth to his absurdly impressive career as an international man of science, he’s just a tremendously appealing figure to me.

Dashing, impetuous youth

We’ve already discussed his charming conversion to the wonders of nature as his life’s calling, above, as the young Banks stood in a golden, sunlit field of flowers, hearts a-popping ’round his head as he took it all in for the first, apparently transcendant time. That’s pretty appealing, as an image, if you ask me. We can fight about it, if you want.

And in the way of all teenagers everywhere, ever, he saw his love of botany as a deeply Romantic rebellion against the fusty old traditions of his father, his father’s generation, and of the traditional, hide-bound, classical education he received at Eton, Harrow, and Oxford.

Oh, I didn’t mention he was also wealthy, privileged, and quite entirely a gentleman of leisure?

My bad.

Also: handsome.

Ah, yes, and dashing, too:

When he learned that there was no teacher of botany to his liking at Oxford, he mounted his horse and loped off to Cambridge, where he promptly hired away their best young botanist as his own private tutor. The spectacularly talented, heretofore obscure Israel Lyons suddenly found himself the recipient of a generous salary (Banksy paid him out of his own pocket), and mentor to an impossibly energetic young Banks and his Oxford coterie of similarly geeked out little friends. Banks, naturally, remained friends with Lyons his whole life.

Around this time, when Banks was eighteen years old, he came into his inheritance. This consisted primarily of vast estates and working farms across Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, all of this yielding him a rather princely income that flowed steadily into his pockets from then on.

He reacted to this good fortune by gambling it all away in the clubs of London, and begetting countless bastards on the whores and opera dancers of his acquaintance.

No, wait, that’s not what he did. Sorry, I got him confused with every other wealthy wastrel fop of his generation.

Instead, Banksy being Banksy, he purchased himself a berth aboard a nasty little ship, volunteering to participate in an arduous, seven-month expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador, where he collected samples to his little heart’s delight. He managed to impress even the dour, hardworking naval officers aboard this ship, not an easy task for a brash youth with unlimited funds and a seriously cushy upbringing, and even made the acquaintance of a certain young Lieutenant James Cook while he was at it.

He returned, pockets full of samples and diaries, to moderate fanfare and notoriety, and at the tender age of twenty-three was summarily elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Absurdly impressive career

Two years later, he would accompany Cook on his round-the-world expedition aboard the HMS Endeavor, which would make both their names and seal both men’s fame for good. They returned with Australia, New Zealand, and the magical South Pacific in their pockets, as it were, and it was all champagne and whores from then on out for Banks.

Oh, right, no. There I go again.

Actually, Banks then settled down into a long life of hard work and honors as a naturalist, conducting research and giving talks for the Royal Society, advocating for the continued exploration of New Zealand and Australia, and serving as a trustee for the British Museum for 42 years. He eventually became president of the Royal Society, served as an advisor to the King, helped establish Kew Gardens as the masterpiece of botanical samples from around the globe that it is today, and continued to serve as magistrate and sheriff for his hereditary lands until his death in 1820.

He helped make it possible for scientific expeditions to carry on unmolested throughout the endless years of the Napoleonic wars, regardless of the country of origin of the people involved. This, along with his prodigious correspondence with men of science across Europe throughout his life, did much to advance the international, above-the-political-fray ideal of the academic world that we still struggle to maintain today.

Of course, a fair bit of Banks’s work would lay the groundwork for much of the worst of what the Victorians would get up to later, colonizing and subduing and pillaging all those magical, paradisiacal lands that Banks first visited with Cook, and later, by proxy, Bligh.

But I’m going to heap the blame for all that squarely in the laps of those starchy Victorians, aren’t I? Yes, I’m afraid I am.

This is my blog, and I’ll champion who I want on it.

And today I say, let us think of superior men. Especially dashing, intelligent, Romantically-inspired men who like to muck about in the garden. No matter where, or how exotic, that garden might be.


For further reading on my man Joseph Banks, who died this day in 1820, you should seriously read The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. A riveting, highly entertaining account of an era when poetry overlapped indistinguishably with science, and dashing young men across Europe made their names by doing some pretty ludicrous things. Much of what I know about Banks, I learned from reading this book, and any errors contained in the above entry are mine alone.

5 Thoughts.

  1. Thanks, Beth, for making my Sunday evening with this.

    The only way I might have found Banks more impressive was if he had finally turned to champagne and ladies of ill repute in his 80s or 90s after his mental faculties had begun to decline. To everything there is a season, after all.

    But no one, alas, is perfect.

  2. Oooh, thanks for the education! I think high school history texts should employ subtitles such as “dashing, impetuous youth” and “absurdly impressive career”. Who could keep from turning the page?! I will definitely check out The Age of Wonder.

  3. I’ve always admired the single-minded focus of the vocation. Banks knew he wanted to be a naturalist from way back then, after that fateful dip in the Thames, and that’s what he became. I wish I’d had a moment like that, an interest so compelling that I could be undistractable for a lifetime.

    I haven’t read O’Brian’s biography, but I will now. Thanks, Randy.

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