The influence of Sir Joseph Banks
The most significant development at Kew during this period was
not the addition of land and new buildings. At this point in the
Garden's history came the gaining of a formidable international
significance under the guidance of Sir Joseph Banks. He was instrumental
in changing the direction of Kew from the simple collecting and
showing of exotics to serious scientific and economic botanical
Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) was a wealthy entrepreneur and natural
history enthusiast. He went on several collecting expeditions including,
between 1768-71, James Cook's round the world expedition in the
Endeavour. He paid for his own passage and those of eight companions,
including botanists, artists and a secretary. During the voyage
he gathered considerable anthropological, scientific and botanical
material. On his return he was widely acclaimed and gained an audience
with George III; a meeting that was to prove instrumental in shaping
the Gardens' future.
From 1773 Banks became established at Kew, taking on, in his words,
"a kind of superintendence" to promote the Gardens and
without his guidance, it is doubtful if Kew would have evolved into
the internationally respected institution it is today. He was elected
President of the Royal Society in 1778 and held the post for 41
George III and Joseph Banks enjoyed a close relationship and their
desire to develop economic uses for exotic and native plants set
the course for the Gardens' development. Over the coming years Banks
instigated collecting campaigns in South Africa, India, Abyssinia,
China and Australia, and plants and materials were shipped from
the Gardens to the colonies and vice versa. For example, in 1793
over 800 pots were transferred from HMS Providence to Kew Gardens
after her voyages in the southern hemisphere.
A key example of Banks' role in the colonial economy was his delayed
translocation in 1793 of breadfruit seedlings from their native
Tahiti to the West Indies, in order to feed plantation slaves better.
This had been attempted two years earlier, on a ship named the
captained by William Bligh. The infamous mutiny had caused the
By the early 1800s Kew Garden's reputation and influence had grown
to such an extent that virtually no ship left India or any other
colony without some living or preserved specimen for the Botanic
Gardens. Through Banks, the Botanic Gardens established an international
reputation for plant collecting and competed vigorously to be the
first European garden to display any new specimen.
More importantly, under Banks' benign "kind of superintendence",
the Botanic Gardens at Kew became not simply a collecting house
for botanical specimens, but the British centre for economic botany
with a direct practical relevance to both Britain and her colonies.
In recognition of this vital contribution that Banks made to the
history of Kew, the Sir Joseph Banks Centre for Economic Botany
building was named in his honour in 1990.
Banks' death in 1820 coincided with that of George III. The loss
of these two driving forces in the Kew's development almost led
to the disestablishment of the Gardens.
Back to: 1771-1820:
George III and Joseph Banks