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Banks & Solander specimens - what happened to them?

Banks and Solander had collected enthusiastically at Botany Bay in 1770. However, a definitive list and description of these plants was never formally published. Why?

In July 1771 Banks and Solander returned to London with an immense amount of material, the botanical part of which was for the most part already described in manuscript, and needed but little to prepare it for the press. Solander took up residence in Banks' house as botanist-librarian. The descriptive tickets, which had been drawn up by Solander, were arranged in systematic order and transcribed for publication. About 700 plates were engraved on copper in folio at Banks' expense, and a few prints or proofs were taken, but they remained largely unpublished until the Florilegium project in the 1980s. Solander's death in 1782 and Banks' devotion to his duties as President of the Royal Society and his directorship of the Royal Garden at Kew were probably responsible for the failure to complete the work.

As a result, the specimens collected at Botany Bay in 1770 did not play a major role in the subsequent systematic description of the Australian flora, and do not include the large number of taxonomic Type specimens that might be expected for a major scientific expedition into new territory. Visiting botanists such as the Swede Carl von Linnaeus (the son of Carl Linnaeus) and the German Joseph Gaertner had access to the specimens, and they described a few of the many species brought back by Banks and Solander. For example, specimens collected at Botany Bay were used as Type specimens for the iconic species Old Man Banksia, Banksia serrata, which was described by the younger Linnaeus in 1781 in honour of Banks, as well as for Banksia integrifolia and Banksia ericifolia, which he also described.

The visit to Banks in 1778 of the German botanist Joseph Gaertner, who was particularly interested in fruit shapes, led to Botany Bay material, or the illustrations based on it, being cited as types for a number of species including Corymbia gummifera, Leptospermum arachnoides, Leptospermum laevigatum (capsule pictured), Leptospermum squarrosum, Angophora costata, Melaleuca armillaris, Melaleuca nodosa, Syzygium paniculatum and Philydrum lanuginosum.

After Solander's death, the collections were looked after by other botanist-librarians: until 1810 by Jonas Dryander (1748-1810), and from then by Robert Brown (1773-1858) after he returned from Australia. On his death in 1820, Banks left his herbarium, library and papers for the use of Robert Brown, but they were to go to the Trustees of the British Museum on Brown's death. Brown transferred the collections to the British Museum and in 1827 became the first Keeper of the Botanical Department.

The many exciting new plants of Sydney were largely described by other botanists from other dried specimens and from living plants grown from seed sent back by the colonists and the French and Spanish expeditions. Sir James Edward Smith, for example, received specimens from Surgeon-General John White and others, and described these species in his book A Specimen of the Botany of New Holland (1793-95). This was the first important English-language publication on Australian botany.

Banks himself was very influential in other spheres. He set a model for later European expeditions by adding scientific enquiry to geographic exploration on Cook's voyages. Not only did he promote the inclusion of scientists on expeditions, he also promoted the inclusion of artists to draw the plants and animals seen.This model was followed by all subsequent major expeditions, notably by the British, French and Spanish in the Australasian region. Banks was also instrumental in starting the development of the royal gardens at Kew near London into today's leading scientific and horticultural organisation, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

Banks had a particular influence in the way Australia changed post-contact. Botany Bay was chosen for a convict settlement largely on his recommendation. He later corresponded with the first Governors of the colony, and sent out a series of naturalists and horticulturalists. In particular, he sent out the Scottish botanist Robert Brown, who was based in Sydney 1802-1805 and travelled around Australia on Matthew Flinders' Investigator. Brown's plant descriptions were based mainly upon his own field observations and specimens, but also used the specimens of Banks and Solander, Labillardière and others. He published these descriptions in his Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae (1810) - the first comprehensive and systematic account of the Australian flora as then known.

The main set of Banks and Solander's specimens of plants and animals is still kept in the British Museum (now called the Natural History Museum) in London. Since about 1900, duplicate material has been donated by the Museum to other institutions relevant to the Endeavour voyage. The National Herbarium of New South Wales at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney has received over 600 specimens, including material from Queensland (labelled variously as collected at Bustard Bay, Bay of Inlets, Palm Island and Endeavour River) as well as from Botany Bay. These duplicates were incorporated into the general herbarium with other material of the same species. As a result it was not possible to access a complete list of these specimens until they were again separated in the 1960s and, more recently, redetermined with current names, databased and maintained as a separate historical collection.

We would like to acknowledge the Cadigal people of the Eora Nation within Sydney and pay our respect to Elders past, present and future.