Captain Cook’s first voyage.
Exactly 250 years ago today, on August 26th 1768, the Endeavour departed from Plymouth on Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world, with the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on board to document the natural history they encountered on route. A few days ago, Rob and I went to a superb exhibition at the British Library which brings together the journals, log books, charts and sketches produced by those on board to tell the story of a hugely important expedition which ushered in an age of empire building and scientific discovery, led to the founding of modern-day Australia, and which remains both influential and controversial to this day.
I have been fascinated by Captain Cook and his voyages since I was a boy. My mother worked at the Museum of Mankind in Piccadilly (where the British Museum’s ethnographic collections were once housed in their own wonderful small museum, now sadly closed and the collections absorbed into the main museum), and I would spend many hours during school holidays wandering the dimly-lit galleries exploring the objects brought back from far-away regions of the world. The highlight of the Pacific galleries were the polished wood and shell objects brought back from Cook’s voyages.
The British Library exhibition opens with a pre-Endeavour world map, with only bits of the coastline of New Zealand, Tasmania and Australia sketched in, and it brought back the childhood excitement at the thought of embarking on an expedition to an area literally off the map. More recently, for 10 years I was lucky enough to be the Curator responsible for the botanical collections at the Natural History Museum which included the preserved plant specimens brought back from all three of Cooks voyages. For many, the botany of the Endeavour voyage is epitomised by the beautiful sketches produced on board by Sydney Parkinson, and the artists who worked up the finished painting after the return to England. But for me the preserved specimens, brown and shrivelled though they usually are, are far more exciting, like the botanical equivalent of mediaeval relics (except, unlike most relics, they are not fake). The actual plant (still containing viable DNA in many cases), that was actually growing in Botany Bay or by the Endeavour River in the 1770s, and which was actually picked by Banks, Solander or Cook, and transported back to England on the actual Endeavour. But was exactly were Banks and Solander collecting, and how were they going about it?
Plant collecting on the Endeavour
As well as the surviving plant samples themselves, two other sources give an insight into the day-to-day collecting activities on the Endeavour by Banks, Solander and their assistants and servants. These are Banks’ Endeavour journal and a remarkable handwritten ‘Rules for collecting and preserving specimens of plants’ which exists amongst Joseph Banks’s personal archive, both of which are housed at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
In the Rules, Banks explains how, for the purposes of the Botany (the science of identifying, naming and classifying plants), it is not necessary to transport plants in a growing state, but that “branches with fruits and flowers, gather’d when in perfection and dried in such a manner as to be preserv’d from Corruption…is sufficient to Distinguish and ascertain their species”. He then proceeds to describe his preferred method of collecting and drying plants.
“No plant shall be gathered unless it has either flowers or fruit upon it …
Each specimen whether intended for flowers or fruit must be chosen with a competent number of leaves upon it…
The plants thus gathered are to be lay’d in a basket not pressed close, lest they should bruise each other, and kept as much as possible from the sun, that they may not fade and wither: in cases however where plants are to be brought from a distance it is better to have a faded or withered specimen than none at all.
In his journal entry for 12th July 1770, Banks describes the baskets he used in more detail:
“The Wild Plantain trees, tho’ their fruit does not serve for food, are to us a most material benefit; we made Baskets of their stalks (a thing we learn’d of the Islanders) in which our plants which would not otherwise keep home remain fresh for 2 or 3 days; indeed in a hot climate it is hardly Practicable to go on without such baskets which we call by the Island name of Papa Mya.”
The Instructions on collecting continues:
“When they are brought home which should be within a few hours after they have been gathered, they are to be put in between the leaves of a paper book, two leaves of which should be left between each plant. They should be lay’d as smooth as they conveniently can, each leaf flat to the paper, but no leaves or flowers should be pulled off even if they should happen to be rumpled, the books are then to be piled upon each other and a flat board or some such thing of 10 or 12 lbs weight layed upon them to keep the leaves of the book together. In this manner they are to lay 12 hours: they are then to be taken up and will be found damp, the plants must therefore be shifted into other books that are dry, during which time they may be materially smoothed, and many leaves which have been rumpled by the first laying in spread out flat and even.
Each of these books is then to be tied up with pack thread to prevent the plants from dropping out, and exposed to the sun or a fire for 3 or 4 hours during which time they should often be turned that they may be equally warm’d, after which they should be piled upon each other again and remain in that state 12 or 14 hours more; then the plants may be changed into their old books (which in the mean time must have been dried) and again exposed to the sun or fire; by this time the smaller plants and grasses will be sufficiently dried and may be put up in the books themselves, the larger and more juicy will take more time but a repetition of the same process for a fortnight will dry almost any plant; the books in which they are put up may be looked at about once a fortnight, and if they are found damp, the plants changed into dry ones 2 or 3 such changes will secure them from all future danger.”
In the journal entry for May 3rd 1770, Banks describes spending a day at shore at Botany Bay drying specimens:
“Our collection of Plants was now grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil in the books. I therefore devoted this day to that business and carried all the drying paper, near 200 Quires of which the larger part was full, ashore and spreading them upon a sail in the sun kept them in this manner expos’d the whole day, often turning them and sometimes turning the Quires in which were plants inside out. By this means they came on board at night in very good condition.”
Such was the volume of material collected, that the process of changing the papers and drying the specimens in the sun became a full-time job:
“One person is entirely employ’d in attending them who shifts them all once a day, exposes the Quires in which they are to the greatest heat of the sun and at night covers them most carefully up from any damps, always careful not to bring them out too soon in a morning or leave them out too late in the evening.”
The Instructions on collecting concludes:
“They may then be laid a plant in each leaf of the Books, or if they are small several; as many as will cover the surface of it, these books should be pack’d in boxes to prevent their being bent, which would break the plants in them. Any kind of paper that is tolerably smooth will do for this purpose, but the best of all is paper which has been printed upon it if it can be procured sufficiently large.”
Remarkably, one such “book” still exists in the Natural History Museum: a quire (an old bookbinding term meaning a group of printed pages that have been gathered prior to binding) of Addison’s Notes on Paradise Lost. It was used to store and transport specimens back from Madeira, the Endeavour’s first port of call, but was never processed and the specimens have remained in situ ever since.
This low-tech method of collecting and preserving plants results in specimens which, if house and handled carefully, can last indefinitely and contain all the elements necessary for modern scientific study. The method of collecting and preserving herbarium specimens described above remains essential the same today, and any modern field botanist will be familiar with Banks’ descriptions, particularly the time-consuming activity of changing drying-papers, often in the evening after an exhausting day in the field.
Over 3,000 plant specimens were collected on the three-year voyage, including an estimated 1,000 or more which were new to science. Although living material was not brought back on this expedition (other than some seeds), the impact on horticulture was huge. The specimens and paintings that arrived in London after the expedition, of now-iconic Australian plants but which were then unlike anything seen before, created a thirst amongst gardeners for more exciting plants, and heightened the excitement of obtaining new, exotic seeds from around the world, and discovering how to germinate them and keep them alive in our climate.
As I said in a previous blog post, it is difficult to imagine the excitement among botanists and gardeners when new and exotic plants unlike anything in Britain or Europe started arriving from overseas, first as a trickle in the 17th century and then a flood by the mid 18th century, thanks to global trade and exploration. By the end of the 18th century, no other country had so many plants in cultivation and today the number of non-native plant species grown in British parks and gardens is estimated at a staggering 14,000 species (and over 50,000 varieties and cultivars).
The Endeavour and our garden
Even today, Australian and New Zealand plants have a special allure, and I am not the only gardener who enjoys the challenge of trying to grow them in a British climate. In honour of Banks, Solander and Cook, in our garden we grow several plants which they encountered in Australia and New Zealand, in a bed devoted to Australasian plants.
Callistemon viminalis ‘Captain Cook’
Perhaps the most iconic of Australian plants, banksias were first collected by Banks and Solander in Botany Bay in 1770. The genus of around 170 species, in the proteaceae family, was named in honour of Joseph Banks by Linnaeus junior in 1782.
The Notes on Paradise Lost, along with original botanical specimens and artwork from the Endeavour voyage, can be seen in the Expeditions and Endeavours exhibition at the Natural History Museum, London, until October 2019.