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27 Apr 2020

Botanical discoveries of Botany Bay 250 years ago

Just over 250 years ago in late April of 1770, naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander stepped ashore in Botany Bay with Lieutenant James Cook. It was a botanical wonderland and over eight days they collected thousands of plant specimens, hundreds of which are kept at our Herbarium and include iconic Banksia species named after Banks.

Endeavour track chart
 This is a 1893 chart of the track taken by the Endeavour during Captain James Cook's first voyage to the Pacific Ocean. View image larger here

All aboard the Endeavour

Joseph Banks, who was only 27 when he landed at Botany Bay, had considerable financial resources at his disposal through his inheritance and funded eight others to join him on the Endeavour. The Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander, a student of the great Linnaeus, the Finnish naturalist Herman Spöring (who also served as Banks’ personal secretary and as a draughtsman), artists Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, and four servants from his estate: James Roberts, Peter Briscoe, Thomas Richmond and George Dorlton. An astronomer, Charles Green, was the other member of the scientific party and was there to fulfil the requirements of observing the transit of Venus at Tahiti.

HMS Endeavour off the coast of New Holland, by Samuel Atkins c.1794

First stop: Tahiti and New Zealand

Banks, Solander, and their team collected a huge number of plant species and specimens on the Endeavour voyage. During nearly two months in Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, they amassed extensive collections of 308 plant species.. In early June 1769, they headed for New Zealand where approximately 343 plant species were collected and described during their time there. At the National Herbarium of NSW, there are a small number of collections from Tolaga on the North Island which were made in October 1769, making them the oldest specimens in the collection..

Eastern journey of HMS Endeavour
The Endeavour's journey of the east coast of Australia .

Bound for Botany Bay

Banks and Solander stepped ashore at Kurnell Peninsula in Botany Bay with Lieutenant James Cook in late April of 1770. Over the next eight days they enthusiastically collected hundreds specimens of 132 plants species from Kurnell, Cronulla and up into the Georges River. The National Herbarium of New South Wales, currently located at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, is fortunate enough to have 833 their specimens within its collection of over 1.43 million botanical specimens.

View across Botany Bay to Kurnell.jpg
View across Botany Bay to Kurnell.

Landing at Botany Bay in late April was probably one of the least interesting times, botanically speaking, to visit the area and its surrounds. There are fewer species likely to be flowering at this time of the year, particularly in comparison to peak flowering that occurs in August and September. After their time in Botany Bay, they pushed onwards and went further north, observing the entrance to Sydney Harbour (but not entering it) and up to what is now Queensland.

Banks and solaner maps
Maps of Botany Bay and Endeavour River.

On 23 May 1770, the Endeavour stopped at Bustard Bay, the second site on its journey. The botanists collected more specimens from a site originally called ‘Round Hill’ by Cook, which is now known as 1770 or Seventeen Seventy, near Eurimbula National Park. They collected specimens of 33 species of plants, including mangroves, palms and Pandanus.

On 11 June 1770, the Endeavour hit the Great Barrier Reef and after some substantial efforts, the ship hauled onto what is now known as Endeavour River for significant repairs. The repairs took about seven weeks, which allowed the scientific party time for forays into that part of north Queensland where they collected specimens of 341 species of plants.

Endeavour beached at its namesake river, Endeavour River, for repairs after her grounding on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770. By Johann Fritzsch, published 1786.
Endeavour beached at its namesake river, Endeavour River, for repairs after her grounding on the Great Barrier Reef in 1770. By Johann Fritzsch, published 1786.

A day in the life of Banks & Solander

It is clear from the writings of Banks and Solander, and from their associates on board the Endeavour, they had a great passion for natural history and especially botany. It appears that their passion was often thwarted by Cook, who was much more pragmatic, and by the landscape and weather - restricting their opportunities to explore as many localities as they would of desired. 

Banks described a typical day on board as starting at 8 am, having a break for lunch at 2 pm, returning at 4 pm and working till dark. All the descriptions of the collecting activities describe a process that is not at all unlike that carried out by our botanists in the 2020s. There was of course no access to Global Positioning Systems or the internet; and instead of smartphones to take photographs, Sydney Parkinson was busy sketching the specimens and making annotations of colour and habit so that paintings could be completed at a later date between landings.

Like botanists today, there was a level of redundancy in the collecting process for Banks & Solander with duplicates collected, and where possible, the same species was collected from more than one location. Anyone who has seen botanists working on a collection of herbarium specimens would also know that it usually requires  space for the specimens to be spread out for comparison, documentation and annotation. As a consequence, much of the great cabin of the Endeavour was taken over for this work.

State Library_Solander image.jpg
Daniel Solander

Discovering and naming the iconic Banksias

The most iconic of the specimens collected by Banks and Solander at Botany Bay are the specimens of Banksia species. These specimens attracted immediate attention given the unique and striking inflorescences they were able to collect and display.

The specimens collected at Botany Bay were used as Type specimens for the iconic species Old Man Banksia, Banksia serrata, which was described by Linnaeus the younger in 1781 in honour of Banks. Banksia robur was also collected at Botany Bay but it was not described until 1800. He also described Banksia integrifolia, Banksia ericifolia and Banksia dentata, which were collected in north Queensland.

Sir Joseph Banks
Sir Joseph Banks

How did the specimens survive at sea?

The Endeavour was not exactly spacious, so storing thousands of specimens and preventing spoilage and infestation by mould, insects and rodents, would have been extremely challenging, particularly given the perennially leaking nature of the ship.

Zinc-lined chests helped, but some time was spent in Botany Bay to pull out the specimens that had been collected to date and lay them out on a sail in the sun to dry. And, of course, this practice had to be replicated at Endeavour River when they were saturated. The collision with the reef had a substantial impact on the existing collections. The water inflow eventually made its way to the hold where the collections were stored and they were unfortunately immersed in sea water. An entry in Banks’ journal explains that:

Since the ship has been hauled ashore, the water that has come into her has of course all gone backwards and my plants which were for safety stowed in the bread room were this day found under water; nobody had warnd me of this danger which had never once enterd into my head; the mischeif was however now done, so I set to work to remedy it to the best of my power. The day was scarce long enough to get them all shifted etc.: many were savd but some intirely lost and spoild.

Despite all this, most of the specimens returned to London and are still in pretty good condition for their age.

Specimens from the expedition are part of The National Herbarium of NSW collection.

Returning to England

Unfortunately, only Banks, Solander, Briscoe and Roberts survived the expedition, and the others died of misadventure, dysentery, malaria and typhoid fever in the East Indies. By the time the Endeavour returned home to England in 1771, a whopping 30,000 plant specimens had been collected from a variety of localities ranging from the tropics to the subantarctic. The specimens were finally unloaded off the Endeavour and were then taken to Banks’ residence. These collections included about 3,000 different species, of which around 1,400 were previously undescribed, at least by European science.

A wealth of knowledge about the plants in the places they visited was of course already held with Aboriginal people. Still to this day, Aboriginal people use many plant species for a variety of purposes, including food, health, construction, artefacts, manipulation to encourage fauna for hunting and fuel to name.

Aboriginal people therefore needed sophisticated taxonomic knowledge of the plants to know which ones were safe to use, when they were safe to use and how to manage these resources sustainably. Thankfully we are now starting to recognise this level of knowledge and reflect that the management practices used are likely to benefit modern society.

Blechnum camfieldii, one of the 824 plant specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in 1770 and kept at The National Herbarium of NSW. Picture: Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
Blechnum camfieldii, one of the 824 plant specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander in 1770.

What happened to the specimens?

Daniel Solander continued to work on the collections, coining manuscript names, preparing descriptions and using the work of Sydney Parkinson (18 volumes with 269 finished drawings and 673 unfinished drawings attributed to him). However, Banks was distracted from completing the work on the collection and formal publication was never achieved.

Plates based on Parkinson’s drawings, and finished by the artists, James and John Frederick Miller, John Clevely and Frederick Nodder, were prepared and 743 were engraved on copper plate. These were stored at the Natural History Museum in London and formed the basis of Banks’ Florilegium that was eventually published in 1980. Solander died in 1782 and inevitably with that went any hope of the descriptions being published. The main portion of the collection remains at the Natural History Museum.

The specimens collected at Botany Bay in 1770 did not play a major role in the subsequent systematic description of Australian flora, and they 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.

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. For example, Sir James Edward Smith 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’ legacy and influence

Banks was of course 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. 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 also had 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 he 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.

Banksia integrifolia field label.jpg
Banksia integrifolia with field label.

Are the collections still relevant today?

These collections are still scientifically, culturally and legislatively important today. The cultural value is easy to understand, given they were collected on a voyage that was to have momentous importance to the colonisation of Australia by the British and to have an even more momentously detrimental impact on Aboriginal people who lived here.

Scientifically, the collection was in a way less important than it should have been – given that Banks and Solander never published the findings from the trip and not all of the specimens of species were the type material for a species, even though the specimens may have been the first collected. A number of other botanists viewed the material and, in some cases,, used the specimens as the type on which a species was defined.

The Banks and Solander collection is also important from a legislative perspective as it is a definitive indication of what vegetation was or was not present in Australia prior to 1788. We can use our understanding of evolutionary processes, plant family relationships and biogeography to provide a definition of the vegetation of Australia prior to European colonisation, which can then be corroborated by the diaries and journals of explorers from across Australia. It may seem self-evident that various species occur naturally in different parts of the country, but when tested in court there is nothing better than the hard evidence that a herbarium specimen provides!

herbarium collection trays preparing plant data for digital age.jpg
Specimen collection trays inside the National Herbarium of NSW.

Discover more 

To learn more about the primary sources of knowledge of Australian plants and animals from our First Nations Peoples ahead of Cook’s voyage to Australia, please explore these stories.

Or learn more about The National Herbarium of NSW in the Branch Out podcast below. 

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