In the summer of 1771, London’s fashionable society was aflutter with news of Joseph Banks’s return from the South Seas. Almost precisely three years earlier, the young gentleman naturalist and an accompanying team of artists, secretaries and servants had sailed from Plymouth aboard a Whitby collier called Endeavour. Before he left, Banks had been challenged by a friend who suggested he undertake the grand tour of Europe instead. Banks had replied with a resounding, ‘Every blockhead does that; my Grand Tour shall be one round the whole globe.’
And indeed it was. In three years, under the brilliant stewardship of Lieutenant James Cook, Endeavour rounded the Cape, crossed the Pacific, landed at Tahiti, charted both islands of New Zealand and sailed up the hitherto uncharted east coast of Australia, colliding with the Great Barrier Reef as it went. On 12 July 1771, the ship anchored at Deal ‘laden with spoils’, and Banks and his chief companion, Daniel Solander, stepped ashore into a world of celebrity. The ‘people who are most talk’d of at present’, gossiped the London socialite Lady Mary Coke a month later, ‘are Mr Banks & Doctor Solander’.
But unlike many a drawing-room conversation, there was a deeper substance to the Endeavour story. As Banks and Solander dined with Boswell and Johnson and travelled up to Oxford to collect their honorary doctorates, the fruits of the voyage were being unpacked at Banks’s house in New Burlington Street. These