Ben Oliver


Joseph Banks: A Life

01 October 2020

A biography of the famous Botanist and long time president of the Royal Society.

Joseph Banks sailed with James Cook on his first voyage to the South Pacific, he was one of the first Europeans known to have set foot in Australia. This was a three year undertaking which involved countless run ins with native populations, the ship running aground and a huge loss of life. Banks risked life and limb to collect thousands of samples of local flora and fauna.

Patrick O’Brian was the author of the Aubrey–Maturin series of historical sea novels (also made into a film, Master and Commander), so it follows that he would have a keen interest in Banks. He is a safe pair of hands to write this biography, it is a well researched and compelling book.

In the chapters covering the first voyage, O’Brian sifts through Banks’ journals and carefully constructs the story using a huge amount of primary source data. He knows when to sit back and let Banks’ words speak for themselves, and he knows when to fast-forward a little or when to add a touch of contextual information.

The events following the trip on the Endeavour are framed differently, but are no less interesting. Banks fronted the Royal Society for over 40 years, and his work was truly prolific despite hardly ever publishing anything. Through his letters and those of others we get a picture of a generous, affable man and a portrait of a life well lived.

O’Brian shows us that Banks was not the greatest in his field, and wasn’t even a particularly great scientific mind. However, his ability to shine a light on the work of others and to propel them to greatness is what made him a much loved and well respected character. It is said that he wrote over 50 letters a week, maintaining relationships with some of the biggest names in science but also with people trying to get a start in life.

O’Brian’s tone is scolarly but friendly, like an old professor telling you about someone he knew. It pushes you to read on and hear more. Before you know it you’ve spent an hour reading about how they brought merino sheep to England, and you are happy to have done so.

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