|Endeavour's Scientific Impact (1768 - 1771)
By Steve Cafferty
Cook was tasked with bringing scientific samples of flora and fauna to Britain Captain Cook set forth to chart the transit of the planet Venus, and also to follow some secret orders. Steve Cafferty reveals how Cook's 'other' orders resulted in huge advances in European scientific knowledge.
The voyage in context
Captain Cook's expedition in his ship the Endeavour took place in the 'Age of Reason', a time of innovation and scientific discovery in Europe. The journey's primary purpose was largely politically motivated - it was to chart the transit of Venus over the Southern Ocean, as an aid to British naval navigation, and reflected contemporary Anglo-French rivalry in establishing control of the oceans and discovering new colonies. The expedition was deemed so important that all other British naval vessels and captains were ordered to render Cook any necessary assistance.
'Cook was to proceed south in search of the suspected but as yet undiscovered land mass known as Terra Australis Incognita...'
Alas, the attempt to chart the transit of Venus near Tahiti was unsuccessful, so Cook was prompted to open a further set of instructions for his voyage, hitherto kept secret. These told him to proceed south in search of the suspected but as yet undiscovered land mass known as Terra Australis Incognita, and to study and make collections of all natural materials, beasts, fish and minerals that he found. Although these instructions initially related only to the secondary aim of the voyage, it was because of them, and due to the passion and enthusiasm of the natural historians on board, that the whole expedition became so famous, and even today still fires the imagination.
Banks and Solander
The name of Captain James Cook is synonymous with the voyage of the Endeavour, but it was the on-board scientists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander who really made the voyage so exciting and memorable, and whose efforts largely outshone the remarkable navigational skills with which Cook carried out his orders.
'By the time they struck the reef and began to take on water, not only were the crews' lives at risk, but the great many botanical collections now on board were also in danger...'
When the British Royal Society first proposed the expedition, Banks was a young gentleman of 25 with a passionate interest in botany. This passion had been ignited in his childhood years, whilst a student at Eton, when he regularly walked and botanised along the path by the River Thames. Banks was invited to join the expedition and brought on board his own party, which included the very able Daniel Solander, an ex-pupil of Carl Linnaeus, who is today acknowledged as the grandfather of modern botany. Significantly, Banks also brought the princely sum of ￡10,000 to the project, rather more than the sum of ￡4,000 donated to it by King George III.
Banks was not above helping out on the voyage when necessary, as when the ship was holed by a reef off Australia, near the River Endeavour (named after the ship), and the pumps needed constant manning. Conditions were extremely cramped on board and the three-year journey had already taken the adventurers to Madeira, Rio de Janeiro, Tierro del Fuego and New Zealand, where many new and exciting species had been collected before the ship even reached Australia. By the time they struck the reef and began to take on water, not only were the crews' lives at risk, but the great many botanical collections now on board were also in danger, which might well have made Banks' pumping all the more enthusiastic.
Solander brought his own set of unique skills with him on the voyage. He had first-hand knowledge of the new method of plant classification devised by Linnaeus, and together with Banks was able to classify the plants they collected accurately, using this system, even though the vast majority of the plants were new to them both.
New Zealand was already known to Europeans, but here Banks and Solander discovered many new species, among them exotic tree ferns. They also paid close attention to plants that might be grown for economic reasons, including New Zealand Flax, Phormium tenax, used by the indigenous population for clothing, and now a common garden plant in Europe.
On 17 April 1770, Cook and his crew sighted the east coast of Australia. In this new land Banks and Solander collected over 1,000 species of plants and animals, in what must have been a thrilling 70 days - with new discoveries being made at every turn. Much of what was found was hitherto completely unknown, even to the very experienced and established botanists on board, and many species of Eucalyptus, Grevillea, Callistemon, Dillenia and Mimosa were all eventually formally classified on the basis of the specimens collected on this trip.
The Endeavour first anchored offshore at what later became known as Botany Bay, so named because of the extensive plant collections made near the bay. There must have been a heady atmosphere of discovery, far beyond the dreams of the collectors, and they worked long into the night trying to classify the new plants they found. Banks and Solander also worked closely with the artist Sydney Parkinson, who was on board the ship, instructing him in how they wished the plants to be drawn and which parts were to be depicted, urging him to capture the plants' forms while they were still fresh. To keep up with the pace of the two botanists, Parkinson resorted to making brief outline drawings of the plants, with specific areas partly coloured in so that they could be finished later.
The scientists had a further opportunity to visit the shore when their ship was later forced to anchor in the mouth of the River Endeavour, after striking the reef. They were to spend six weeks there, and Banks made full use of the time ashore - collecting further species of what came to be known as Banksia after those found at Botany Bay. It was the son of Linnaeus who later named this genus in honour of Banks, and these plants show an unusual feature - they need fire to propagate their seeds. It seems only appropriate that such a remarkable plant be named after such a remarkable man.
Other new plants discovered during the enforced delay in the river mouth included Hibiscus tiliaceus, a plant with beautiful large yellow flowers, and Aurucaria cunninghammii, the Moreton Bay pine.
The artistic legacy
The Endeavour expedition is perhaps as well known for the staggering collection of art, drawings and paintings that resulted from it, as it is for the scientific collections and the new species discovered during the voyage. Sydney Parkinson was the artist most involved, but unfortunately did not return with the ship to England. He died from an epidemic of fever and dysentery, which swept the ship shortly after it left Batavia (now Jakarta) in Indonesia, on the return voyage from Australia. Even so, he had by then completed 264 of 900 drawings, and the remainder fortunately all showed the critical points of each plant, as detailed by Banks and Solander on those long nights aboard ship.
Two other artists also made their contributions on board the Endeavour - Alexander Buchan, who was also to perish on board, in 1769, and Herman Sp?ring. Banks employed several other artists to complete the drawings on the ship's return to England, riding the wave of public admiration and respect that followed the adventurers' arrival home. By 1784 nearly 750 drawings had been completed and had copper plate engravings made of them; 738 of these still survive today, at the Natural History Museum in London.
'Solander, who had supervised the finishing of the drawings, died in 1782, his own scientific journals still unpublished...'
Banks had planned to publish a definitive catalogue of all the plants collected on the Endeavour. It was to be a momentous series of 14 volumes, a tribute to all involved in the expedition, and was eagerly awaited by other leading botanists of the day, including Linnaeus. However, Solander, who had supervised the finishing of the drawings, died in 1782, his own scientific journals still unpublished. Although Banks still hoped to publish his work, he was never able to do so, because his time was entirely taken up by his roles as President of The Royal Society and as George III's advisor on turning the royal gardens at Kew into a botanical institution.
Since Banks' time the exploits that took place on the voyage of the Endeavour have appeared in print only in very small batches, on a few occasions. It was not until the completion of Banks' Florilegium, published in 1989 by the Natural History Museum and Alecto Historical Editions, that all the parts were brought together, including the drawings, engravings, specimens and manuscripts. This in itself was an amazing work, using a 17th-century technique to produce magnificently coloured plates from the copper engravings made by Banks, including those illustrating over 300 Australian plants.
The impact on science by the voyage of the Endeavour
Over 3,000 plant specimens were collected on the three-year voyage, including an estimated 1,000 or more new species, and re-examination of the collections has led to the description of further new species as recently as the 1980s. Although the fruits of the voyage were never published by Banks as intended, they were kept safe. The botanical specimens, manuscripts, drawings and engravings have remained largely intact over the last 231 years and are all held at the Natural History Museum. It is possible to trace many items through from the diary entry to an individual specimen collected on a particular day, to the unfinished drawing of it by Parkinson, and ultimately to the finished drawing and engraving - as in the case of Banksia serrata.
'Without their joint contribution and unique skills, the voyage could not have been as successful as it was.'
The botanical specimens and artworks at the Museum are not only of great historical value but also of immense scientific value. Many of them are the basis for new species subsequently described, and of the finished engravings. Many may also be important representatives of now rare taxa, and provide a unique temporal record of the flora of the east coast of Australia.
Joseph Banks and James Cook came from very different beginnings, and were separated by 18 years in age, yet they apparently held each other in high regard, and rarely disagreed. Without their joint contribution and unique skills, the voyage could not have been as successful as it was. Cook was killed on a third subsequent voyage, by native inhabitants of Hawaii, whilst Banks went on to enjoy an administrative career, although he continued to encourage and actively seek new plant introductions through myriad contacts. This, and the collections themselves, together with the inspiration they gave to others to make further expeditions, add up to the great legacy of the Endeavour.
Find out more
The Ship - Retracing Cook's Endeavour Voyage by Simon Baker (BBC Worldwide, 2002)
Captain Cook and the South Pacific edited by TC Mitchell (British Museum Publications, 1979)
The Plant Hunters by T Musgrave, C Gardner & W Musgrave (Ward Lock, 1998)
Sir Joseph Banks: Eighteenth Century Explorer, Botanist & Entrepreneur by C Lyte (David & Charles, 1980)
The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768-1771, Volumes I & II edited by JC Beaglehole (Angus & Robertson, 1962)
Vikings of the Pacific by Te Rangi Hiroa (University of Chicago Press, 1959)
Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End by Ranginui Walker (Penguin, 1990)
Two Worlds: First Meetings Between Maori and Europeans by Anne Salmond (Viking, 1991)
About the author
Steve Cafferty is a Research Fellow at the Natural History Museum, London, specialising in historical collections.