Some of Banks’s projects to change political and economic realities by moving living things around the world were striking successes. He arranged for the theft of fine-wool Merino sheep from Spain: the result transformed Britain’s flock and laid the foundations for the huge Australian sheep industry. Other projects bore fruit only after his death, and some never came to anything. But the intentions became institutions of scientific statecraft and the global transfer of living things did indeed ‘shape the world’. A friend once flattered Banks: ‘Wide as the world is, traces of you are to be found in every corner of it.’ Some of those traces are Banks-branded places, geographical features, plants – towns in Australia, islands in the South Pacific and Canada, mountains, headlands, peninsulas, bodies of water, 173 species of the Banksia genus, which once grew only in Australia but are now in domestic gardens all over the world, and the ‘Big Bad Banksia Men’ of May Gibbs’s children’s books, which have infiltrated the ids of generations of Australians. Global Banks marks the extent of once global Britain. The man himself lies in an unmarked grave – which he requested – in a church under the flight path to Heathrow. And the definitive Chantrey-sculpted statue stands in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington – where it belongs, and where it’s safe.
Undaunted, Banks intended joining Cook’s second voyage, but he had become somewhat puffed up by fame, and the intemperate demands he made to accommodate him led to his staying behind. A short trip to Iceland, his last expedition, was a poor substitute. In order to cover Banks’s many subsequent occupations and interests, Musgrave abandons his chronological approach after the Iceland trip, proceeding instead thematically. This doesn’t altogether work, as many distracting cross-references in the text acknowledge.
In this book, which is published to coincide with the bicentenary of Banks’s death, Musgrave claims to ‘take a new look at this compelling gentleman’. But what is new here? By concentrating on Banks’s foreign travels, The Multifarious Mr Banks harks back to an older era and glosses over much recent scholarship (listed in the bibliography) that stresses the effects of Banks’s administrative schemes after his return. In content, this biography resembles the one by Patrick O’Brian (1988), who enjoyed the advantage of bringing a novelist’s verve to his narrative. Banks is a fascinating character, of undoubted historical importance, and much remains to be uncovered about his life.
Joseph Banks was the most famous man in England when, in 1771, aged 28, he returned from circumnavigating the world with Captain James Cook aboard Endeavour. Yet now he is all but forgotten, and even in his lifetime he was denigrated and lampooned. Toby Musgrave’s illuminating biography suggests reasons for that, including jealousy. For young Banks was among the 300 or 400 richest men in the realm. Descended from generations of semi-literate, but prosperous Yorkshire squires, he inherited a huge annual income and the family estate at Revesby in Lincolnshire, with 340 acres of deer park and gardens.