This paper is kindly presented by Prof Alan Frost,
it is the one to have been presented on the opening day of the proposed "1770 in 2020" Symposium.
"Thus this mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth."
Moby-Dick, chapter 111"
The Pleasure of Discovery and the Possibilities of Botany
How James Cook’s discoveries and Joseph Banks’s botanical expertize contributed foundations to the Pitt administration’s ambitious scheme to build a global trading empire.
Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of 1519-22 went a long way to establishing the true dimensions of the world, and indicating the vastness of the ocean he called Pacific.
In the course of the next one hundred years, some Spanish navigators –
principally García Jofre de Loaysa and Andrés de Urdaneta– expanded knowledge of the wind and current systems of the North Pacific; and others – most notably Alvaro de Mendaña, Pedro Fernández de Quirós and Luis Vaez de Torres – using the equivalent systems in low latitudes in the South Pacific, makesignificant discoveries as they went – the Solomon, Marquesas,Santa Cruz, New Caledonia and New Hebrides islands and Torres Strait.
By purposeful discovery and accidental encounters, from the beginning of the seventeenth century Dutch navigators began to chart sections of the coast of Australia, with Abel Janszoon Tasman touching at Tasmania, then the western coasts of New Zealand and the Fijian Islands in 1642.
Otherwise, however, the geophysical structure of the southern reaches of the South Pacific remained obscure. This was partly because the mirage of a massive Terra Australis distracted geographers; and partly because the winds and currents on the western coast of South America inexorably pushed navigators who entered the Pacific either via the Strait of Magellan or via Cape Horn to the northwest towards the equator. (Consider, for example, the routes of George Anson in his circumnavigation of 1740-44 and of John Byron in his of 1764-66.)
This pattern was broken by Samuel Wallis who in 1767, once into the Pacific, pushed further west than usual, in search of the Terra Australis. Naturally, since it didn’t exist, he did not find it; but when he turned northwest he took a route past the Tuamotu Archipelago and discovered Tahiti.
When Wallis returned to England with news of this striking discovery, with the King’s support, the Admiralty and the Royal Society were planning to observe the Transit of Venus in 1769, from widely-separated locations; and Tahiti appeared as an ideal one in the Pacific. As is well-known, James Cook, chosen for his astronomical skill and promoted to lieutenant, was given command of the converted collier renamed the Endeavour; and Joseph Banks, a very wealthy young man with a passion for botany, was given permission to join the expedition with a suite of persons to assess and record results. An attendant aim was to discover Terra Australis.
Cook took the usual eastern route into the Pacific Ocean, then took ‘a far more westerly Track than any Ship had ever done before’, but found no land until he neared Tahiti, which he reached on 13 April 1769. After he and Green had observed the Transit – which, incidentally, was probably more accurate than has long been thought – Cook sailed again on 13 July. After exploring among the Society Islands, in August he turned the ship directly south, in search of the elusive continent. When he did not find it, he circumnavigated and charted the New Zealand Islands, then decided to return home via Indonesia and the India Ocean. Sailing west, he came upon the eastern coast of Australia at Point Hicks, then followed it north. He sojourned for a week at Botany Bay, where he wooded and watered the ship, and Banks and Daniel Solander botanized. Then, Cook made a slow passage northwards, with the Endeavour being nearly wrecked on one of the shoals inside the daunting Great Barrier Reef, before he effected makeshift repairs at Endeavour River (Cooktown).
Cook passed through Torres Strait on his way to Batavia.
Endeavour’s voyage was notable for a number of reasons, including charting of New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia, and the rediscovery of Torres Strait. From other perspectives, though, there are other significances, which are less obvious, but perhaps equally as important as or even more important than the physical discoveries.
Let me start with Cook. Early in Endeavour’s voyage, Cook deferred to the better-educated Banks and copied excerpts from his journal. However, as the voyage progressed, he grew more confident in his navigational abilities and more skillful at recording events. He also became more curious about indigenous peoples and their cultures. By the time he left the eastern coast of New South Wales, for example, he had so moved beyond the confines of his own culture’s assumptions that he could write of the Aborigines that, though ‘they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, . . . in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholy unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniencies so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them’.
And it was among the shoals of the Great Barrier Reef, which he termed ‘the most dangerous navigation that perhaps ever Ship was in’, that Cook came to know viscerally what it was to be an explorer. After Endeavour had narrowly escaped destruction a second time, he wrote: ‘Was it not for the pleasure which naturly results to a Man from being the first discoverer, even was it nothing more than sands and Shoals, this service would be insuportable especialy in far distant parts, like this, short of Provisions and almost every other necessary’.
And then there were the never before classified plants that Banks and Solander collected at Botany Bay and further north along the coast. The English merchant and botany enthusiast John Ellis wrote to Linnaeus: ‘Be so good to inform Dr Solander’s friends of the success has had in in returning safe after so many perils, laden with the greatest treasure of Natural History that ever was brought into any country at one time by two persons’. Obviously, Banks had a passion for botany before Endeavour’s voyage, but he massively extended his interest during it. He remained intrigued by the botany of New South Wales, writing to Evan Nepean in 1789, ‘Concluding that it will be thought a desirable Object to bring home for his Majesties Botanic Garden at Kew some of the many Beautifull & usefull plants with which the country in the neighborhood of Jackson’s Bay is known to abound’, he asked that the Guardian bring some back. That voyage miscarried terribly; but over the years Phillip and his successors and others, as well as a series of collectors Banks employed, continued to send him antipodean plants. In 1797 he termed New South Wales ‘my favorite colony’.
The Endeavour voyage did much to elucidate the wind and current systems of the western expanses of the South Pacific Ocean. It also effectively put paid to the notion of a vast landmass in high southern latitudes. However, there was one area, that between South America and New Zealand, where land might still lie; and by the time he returned to England Cook had formulated a plan of exploration which would settle the matter. This was to involve entering the Pacific from the west, across the Indian Ocean, refreshing at Cape Town and
New Zealand, then in the summer months with the westerlies at back, [running] to the Eastward in as high a Latitude as you please and, if you met with no lands, would have time enough too get round Cape Horne before the summer was too far spent, but after meeting with no Continent & you had other Objects in View, than haul to the northward and after visiting some of the Islands already discover’d, after which proceed with the trade wind back to the Westward in search of those before Mintioned thus the discoveries in the South Sea would be compleat.
Cook followed this plan with great determination on his second circumnavigation, finding no continent, but discovering or rediscovering the islands of the Tongan, New Caledonia, New Hebrides and Marquesas groups, and Norfolk Island.
While subsequent voyages of discovery added further details of the geography of the Pacific Ocean, by the conclusion of Cook’s second voyage British planners had enough knowledge of this to be able to think of the world as a whole, which is what the leading members of the Pitt administration began to do when they were returned to office in the spring of 1784.
Having in mind the emergence of Modernism, Virginia Woolf asserted that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’. In the long expanse of history, however, it is usually difficult to identify precise moments of change, as past events shape contemporary outlooks and new developments require modifications to earlier outlooks and policies; but for present purposes let me start with some of the ways in which William Pitt, the Prime Minister,took control of certain events in the mid-1780s.
Upon being returned to office, Pitt turned his mind to what to do about the growing number of convicts, asking a French savant how French convicts were accommodated and what work they did, was thee a hospital for them, and about their food and clothing and guards. One outcome was the passage in August 1784 of a new act authorizing transportation beyond the seas, with the government able to determine the place of transportation without seeking parliament’s approval.
By mid 1786, Pitt had decided that this should be somewhere ‘to the Southward of the Line [i.e., Equator]’, in order to increase Britain’s strategic capacity on the sea routes to South America and the East. When Botany Bay was chosen, Joseph Banks was given the responsibility of equipping the colonists with food plants and seeds. He attended to this business with his usual thoroughness; and if all the items he ordered would succeed, then the colony would have a greater range of produce than any single English county.When the colony struggled in its first years, Banks continued to send it plants from Europe, America and Africa in large numbers.
Another of Pitt’s moves was the creation of a Board of Control for India, in August 1784. Initially, the commissioners comprised Lord Sydney, William Pitt, Henry Dundas, W. W. Grenville, Lord Walsingham and Lord Mulgrave. But Sydney soon informed Pitt that he was ‘ready to abandon it to the ambition of those who like the department’. ‘Lord Sydney never attends, nor reads or signs a paper’, Dundas remarked in 1787. Progressively, the India Board’s membership changed, as Walsingham went off as ambassador to Spain and Grenville occupied himself more and more with Board of Trade business. Though others were added, into mid-1787 the core membership consisted of Dundas, Pitt and Mulgrave, with Mulgrave having particular responsibility for naval and strategic planning. Lord Hawkesbury, the head of the Board of Trade, also contributed much to economic policies at this time.
From the mid-1780s, a number of perceptions and concerns shaped their planning. One was to increase Britain’s overseas trade. To achieve this, the present constrictions should at least be diminished if not removed entirely.
Here, the doctrines of Adam Smith were foremost in Pitt, Dundas and Hawkesbury’s thinking. There was the need to abolish the East India Company’s monopoly of all British trade in the vast area between the Cape of Good Hope and the west coast of South America. ‘Free ports’ open to ‘Ships of all nations’ were then shorthand terms for free trade..
For example, when it sent Colonel Charles to ask Chinese authorities to grant British merchants much more liberal access to their markets, the India Board instructed him to negotiate for ‘a small tract of Ground, or detached Island, in some more convenient situation than Canton’. It told him to stress that Britain’s views were ‘purely commercial’; that it had ‘not even a wish for territory’; and that it ‘desire[d] neither fortification nor defence, but only the protection of the Chinese Government for our Merchants’. He was also ‘to obtain free permission of ingress and regress for ships of all nations’; or as William Pitt himself put it, ‘the chief Point . . . relates to giving Liberty to all Nations to enter our proposed Establishment’.
At the same time there was the need to lessen Britain’s dependence on other countries for raw materials and thereby also diminish the large sums of money paid annually to foreigners.If overseas trade were to be massively expanded, it would be by means of increasing the volume of manufactured goods sold. To achieve this, it would be necessary to find much larger quantities of raw materials, particularly of cotton and dyes, to feed the ever increasing cloth-manufacturing capacity.
Even though the decisive harnessing of steam power, which involved the deployment of James Watt’s rotary action engine, still lay ten years in the future, mechanization developed with extraordinary rapidity in the 1780s, as manufacturers quickly adopted the new machinery. This allowed for the production of lighter and finer cloths, for which changing fashions was bringing an ever-increasing demand, in much greater quantities than before.
By the end of the 1780s, there may have been as many as 2,000,000 spindles in the emerging factories, capable of producing many different kinds of yarn, including the fine ones needed for muslins. The volume of raw cotton imports is another indication of the swiftness of change, with these rising from 6,800,000 lbs in 1780 to 31,400,000 lbs in 1790.
By the middle of the 1780s it had become clear to a small group of influential planners that these developments had the potential to add very significantly to the nation’s prosperity. Pitt, Dundas, Hawkesbury and Banks each understood clearly that the cheap, efficient manufacture of cotton cloths presented Britain with the opportunity vastly to increase its overseas trade. As Banks put it to Dundas in mid-1787, ‘the greatest part of the merchandizes imported from India have hitherto been manufactured goods of a nature which interferes with our manufacturies at home; . . . our cotton manufacturies are increasing with a rapidity which renders it politic to give them effectual encouragement and . . . a profit of 100 per cent is to be got with certainty upon the importation of the raw material of cotton’.
These concerns were evident in the commercial treaty with France that Pitt and his colleagues negotiated in 1786-7. As Pitt explained to Parliament, France would gain ‘a great and opulent market’ for its wines, brandy and olive oil and vinegar; while Britain would gain one for its manufactures. Therefore, if British cloths might gain access to the market constituted by France’s much larger population, while France’s products might be exported to Britain in larger quantities and at cheaper rates, then both nations would benefit.
But there was a rub. The West Indies planters and merchants were alarmed that Pitt’s proposal to lower the duty on French brandies would damage their home market for rum. They agitated mightily against the proposed change; but when Pitt offered only a minor concession they told him that they would have to switch from sugar to cotton production. Of course this was just what he wanted to hear, so he offered them the sop of bringing breadfruit and other food plants to their islands. Therein lay the genesis of the breadfruit voyage, which Pitt asked Banks to organize. Banks’s first thought was to have Phillip to send one of the transports on to New Zealand for the flax plant and Tahiti for the food plants. When Phillip pointed out the impracticality of trying to equip a ship at Botany Bay to carry plants, Banks changed his mind and decided to send a ship directly from England. Hence Bounty’s voyage.
There was also the larger question of what markets additional to those of the domestic one, those of North America, the West Indies and Africa, and those of France and other European countries. Here, the Chinese one beckoned alluringly. As Banks again told Dundas: ‘If we look towards the Chinese market we shall see a still more flattering prospect. The immense population of that enormous empire ensures a consumption for very large quantities of all those things which necessity, fashion or prejudice have brought into vogue among them’. In addition to the Chinese one, there were also the potential markets of the East Indies, Korea, Kamchatka and Japan. Indeed, in the manner of that old adage of ‘carrying coals to Newcastle’, the British thought it not impossible that they might even sell their cloths in India, the ancient home of cotton production.
If these new Asian markets might be accessed, then there would be additional benefits. If domestic cloths rather than Indian ones were shipped there, British manufacturers would make greater profits; ships sailing to Asian destinations would have outward as well as homeward cargoes; and traders would not need to take large amounts of bullion outwards.
It was in this consciousness that Pitt, Dundas, Mulgrave, Grenville, Banks and Hawkesbury developed an ambitious scheme to ‘zone the world’s whole bulk about’. At the end of January 1787, with the commercial treaty before parliament and with Eden preparing to put the revised arrangements for operations in Bengal to the French, Dundas wrote to Cornwallis that he was now able to turn his attention to ‘the great lines of the Indian system’. However, there are strong indications Indeed, there are some indications that these planners had in fact begun to do so six months earlier (perhaps from the time of the Botany Bay decision), for when Dundas informed Grenville of their response to Cathcart’s convention in September, he referred to ‘the chance of the dissolution of the monopoly of the East India Company . . . You will agree with me there are events which may lead to such a dissolution’; and he told Sydney in November, ‘Nothing can be greater insanity than our being jealous of or averse to other Nations trading to our Asiatick Possessions. I know upon that Subject I have a World of Prejudice to encounter’.
From the mid-1780s into the nineteenth century, Pitt and his colleagues pursued policies intended to put this plan into effect. Their general aims were
to lessen, if not entirely remove, Britain’s dependence on other nations for the naval materials needed for the efficient operation of its military and merchant marines
to reduce the very large sums paid annually to foreign nations for raw materials
to develop new markets for British manufactures, particularly cloths
to make it possible for British merchants to trade freely about the world
remove the need constantly to find bullion or specie to pay for Chinese goods
and thereby, to increase Britain’s wealth and power
The individual policies needed to achieve these aims may be grouped under three headings.
1: Diplomatic Initiatives
1a: Commercial treaty with France
1b: Settlement of trading disputes with France in India
2: Following the Nootka Sound dispute, concessions from Spain concerning navigational rights in the Pacific Ocean, and visits to unoccupied western coasts of the Americas
3: Negotiations to open the Chinese market
2: The removal of constraints on independent British merchants
1: Extension of the limits within which the Southern Whale Fishers might operate
2: Requiring EIC ships to carry out annually 5000 tons of merchandise
3: The reduction or abolition of the EIC’s monopoly
3: The creation of resources which Britain might control
1: Securing long sea routes
2: Establishing strategic resources in British colonies
3: Creation of food resources in British colonies
4: Creation of a network of botanic gardens to facilitate the large-scale transfer of plants (at Kew Garden, Jamaica, St Vincent, St Helena, Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Sydney)
5: Transfer of plants
While I cannot give a detailed account now, Banks was heavily involved in the implementation of a number of these policies.
The British were not the first Europeans to undertake the long-distance transfer of plants and of European biota more generally. The Spanish had earlier sent Mediterranean species to their American colonies; and from the 1660sthe Dutch had established temperate ones to the Cape of Good Hope. From the 1770s, using their Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Mauritius (Bourbon) as staging bases, the French had established eastern spices in their tropical American colonies.
However, no other nation had ever previously moved plants and animals in such numbers and over such distances as the British did from the mid-1780s into the nineteenth century. This happened because of the interest of botanists, in particular Joseph Banks; the planning and financial support of government; the skill of nurserymen and gardeners willing to endure very uncomfortable conditions; and the generous co-operation of interested private persons, such as West India planters and the captains of East Indiamen.
The British plan was Janus-faced, for it looked backwards to the first English colonizations of North America, and it anticipated later developments nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the emergent neo-Europes fed and clothed hundreds of millions of people. Indeed, we may see the Pitt administration’s scheme as the substantial beginning of the botanical and biological transformation that underlies the modern world. Yes, this is a large claim, which at first consideration may seem far-fetched, given that there may seem little to connect, for example, the southern United States becoming the largest suppliers of cotton to British manufacturers in the first half of the nineteenth century; the growth of Assam and Ceylon as major centres of tea production from the middle of this century; Australia’s becoming the major supplier of fine wool to Britain from the 1830s onwards; Canada and the United States, Argentina and Australia becoming the leading suppliers of meats, cereals and fruits to Europe and Asia in the twentieth century.
We may suppose these long historical processes would have proceeded in any case, though perhaps not so systematically or rapidly. Nonetheless, the plain fact is that they received great impetus from the plans developed by Banks and the British politicians in the 1780s and pursued through the 1790s. By early in the nineteenth century, enjoying a more efficient government bureaucracy and stronger finances, not experiencing devastating social upheavals and besting their rivals in war, the British had moved significantly ahead of the French (and all others) in the business of transferring plants and animals between hemispheres, and thereby creating new centres of primary production for food and for raw materials for the metropolitan manufacturing sector. The scheme to ‘zone the world’s whole bulk about’ was a powerful indication of how, by the end of the eighteenth century, with the benefit of Cook’s explorations and Banks’s botanical expertise, far-sighted British planners had come to view the world as a whole.
There is good evidence that the New South Wales colony was from the first part of the Pitt administration’s ambition scheme.
1: it was adjacent to the new route into the Pacific Ocean pursued by Cook.
2: A productive colony would be able to offer food and other items to ships pursuing this route either for the purposes of trade or war.
3. Norfolk Island and New Zealand offered the promise of much-needed naval materials.
4. Consolidating Cook’s initial discovery and claiming possession, a British settlement would constitute effective occupation of NSW, and thereby pre-empt the French from possessing it.
5. A cheap labor force should provide raw materials needed for manufacture.
6. In time, the colony might become an entrepôt for Asian traders.
If some of this seemed far-fetched, consider:
Phillip was instructed to take possession of Norfolk Island ‘as soon as circumstances will admit of it, [and] to send a small establishment thither to secure the same to us, and prevent it being occupied by the subjects of any other European power’, and he told P. G. King at Cape Town that he would lead the settlement. King and his party left two weeks after the First Fleet reached Sydney.
Towards the end of 1786, Evan Nepean sought advice from John Singleton, a Wigan cloth manufacturer, who thought that cotton would thrive in the South Seas. Singleton provided seed, which Philip King took to Norfolk Island, where he continued to experiment with cotton cultivation into the mid-1790s. Phillip picked up cochineal insects in Rio do Janeiro, and managed to keep them alive in his garden through the first winter. (Thereafter they disappear from the record.)
As the colony progressed, it became a place of refreshment for ships proceeding into the Pacific Ocean, a role which began much earlier than generally thought. At the end of 1791, for example, the captain of the whaler Britannia observed that if ‘a voyage can be got upon this coast, it will make it shorter than going to Peru, and the governor has been very attentive to sending greens for refreshment to our crew at different times’.
On 6 July 1788, as the last of the convict transports were leaving Sydney, Governor Arthur Phillip wrote to Sir Charles Middleton that ‘when this Colony is the Seat of Empire’ Port Jackson would offer ‘room for Ships of all Nations’. As Phillip had had no new communications since sailing from England in May 1787, he must have been told before he left that it was the Pitt Administration’s intention to create atrading empire in the East.
Or, to put this another way, Phillip could not have envisaged this future for the colony if the only expectation he had beengiven of it was that it was intended to be and would continue asonly a dumping ground for convicts!
Cook to Stephens, 23 October 1770, The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery, vol. 1, The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771 (Hakluyt Society, London, 1968), p. 500.
See R. J. Bray, ‘Australia and the transit of Venus’, CSIRO (February 1981), Sheet no. 1-35.
Cook, Journals, vol. 1, p. 399.
Cook to Stephens, 23 October 1770, Cook, Journals, vol.1, p. 500.
Cook, Journals, vol. 1, p. 380.
Ellis to Linnaeus, 10 May 1771, quoted in The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, ed. J. C. Beaglehole , 2nded. (SLNSW. Sydney, 1963), vol. 1, p. 53.
Banks to Nepean, 27 April 1789, NA CO 201/4, fo. 79.
Banks to King, 30 March 1797, Banks: IPC (Pickering & Chatto, London, 2011), vol. 4, p. 451.
‘I however have made no very great Discoveries yet I have exploar’d more of the Great South Sea than all that have gone before me so much that little remains now to be done to have a through knowledge of that part of the Globe’ – Cook to Walker, 17 August 1771, Cook, Journals, vol. 1, pp. 505-6.
Cook, Journals, vol. 1, p. 479. The before-mentioned islands were ones Tupaia had depicted on his extraordinary chart.
See ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924).
Michaud to Pitt, 19 May 1784, John Rylands Library, R 937, fos 6 ff.
24 Geo. III c. 56.
Nepean to Steele, 10 June 1786, NA T1/632, fo. 40.
Sydney to Pitt, 24 September 1784, quoted in Earl Stanhope, Life of the Right Honourable William Pitt (London, 1861), vol. 1, p. 228; Dundas to Cornwallis, 29 July 1787, Correspondence of Charles, First Marquis Cornwallis, ed. Charles Ross (London, 1859), vol. 1, p. 321.
See, e.g., Board of Trade, Minutes, 14 November 1786, BT 5/4, pp. 75-7.
Pitt to Dundas, 26 August 1787, Clements, Pitt Papers, vol. 2.
At the beginning of 1788 manufacturers estimated that there were 143 water-powered mills in England and Scotland, each with machinery driving at least 2000 spindles; about 20,070 hand-powered machines with a total of 1,605,600 spindles; and about 550 composite machines with 49,500 spindles, for a combined total of at least 1,941,100 spindles, many of them capable of producing fine cloth.
On changing tastes in clothing and furnishings, see Beverly Lemire, Fashion’s Favorite:The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain 1660-1800 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1991).
M. M. Edwards, The Growth of the British Cotton Trade, 1780-1815 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1967), p. 250; B. R. Mitchell and P. Deane, ed, Abstract of British Historical Statistics (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1962), p. 330.
Banks to Dundas, 15 June 1787, NA PRO 30/8/361, fos 33-5.
Pitt, Speech to Parliament, 12 February 1787, in The Speeches of William Pitt, 3rd ed. (London 1817), vol. 1, p. 241.
Banks to Dundas, 15 June 1787, NA PRO 30/8/361, fos 33-5.
Dundas to Cornwallis, 29 January 1787, Correspondence of Charles, First MarquisCornwallis, ed. Charles Ross (London, 1859), vol. 1, p. 265.
Dundas to Grenville, 27 September 1786, Report on the Manuscripts of J. B.Fortesque (Historical Manuscript Commission, 1892-1927), vol. 1, p. 269; to Sydney, 30 November 1786, Clements, Melville 2.
George III, Instructions to Phillip, 25 April 1787, HRNSW (Sydney, 1892), vol. 1, p. 2, p.89; Fowell to Ourry, 10 November 1787 (from the Cape of Good Hope), The Sirius Letters, ed. Nance Irvine (Fairfax, Sydney, 1988), p. 54.
Melville to Enderby, 22 November 1791, SLNSW, Mitchell MS A 322, pp. 519-25.
Phillip to Middleton, 6 July 1788, (privately owned).