The hm bark endeavour and
the origins of joseph banks' florilegium

August of 2018 marked the 250th anniversary of the sailing of the HM Bark Endeavour, the first ocean voyage dedicated solely to scientific discovery. The expedition, which departed England in 1768, returned 3 years later with some 3,000 plant specimens, including more than 1,000 new species, seeds for Kew Gardens, and 1,000 zoological specimens. Perhaps the Endeavour’s most remarkable contribution to science is the Banks’ Florilegium, the world’s most famous—and expensive—florilegium, published 200 years after the ship’s return to England.

In late August of 1768, Lieutenant James Cook (1728–1779) sailed from Plymouth to Tahiti with a naval crew of 84 plus a small group of scientists and artists to record the transit of Venus that would occur on June 3, 1769. Cook, a skilled astronomer as well as navigator, was joined in the observation by Joseph Banks (1743–1820), a wealthy naturalist, Charles Green (1734–1771), an astronomer, and Daniel Solander (1733–1782), a naturalist and student of Carl Linnaeus. Astronomers from several countries had also dispersed across the globe in a cooperative international effort to record the event.

A second objective of the voyage began after the ship left Tahiti. Cook’s orders were to sail southwest in the Pacific in search of Terra Australis Incognita, “the unknown land of the south”. While Dutch sailors had already traveled to New Zealand, Australia was still unknown to Europeans, and Cook was to claim the land, if it existed, for Britain.

The Endeavour reached New Zealand in October 1769 and set about mapping its entire coastline and collecting specimens. The following April, the ship landed on the east coast of Australia. For 70 days, the scientists and artists found themselves overwhelmed with the bounty of unfamiliar plants and animals, and Cook appropriately named the location Botany Bay.

Of the three artists on board, only Sydney Parkinson (1745–1771) was a botanical artist, with the others specializing in landscape, ethnographic, and zoological drawing. When sketching the plant specimens, Banks and Solander would classify the plants and instruct Parkinson on how best to portray them and which structures to include. At first, Parkinson was able to sketch and complete watercolors of each plant; soon, however, there were too many specimens for a single artist, and he only had time to make outline drawings of the plants with color notations. He managed to complete 674 outline drawings and 269 finished paintings, all accompanied by Banks’ and Solander’s notes.

Soon after leaving Botany Bay, the Endeavour ran aground in the Great Barrier Reef. It was 24 miles from shore and badly damaged. After two days of efforts to stop water from flooding the ship, the crew entered the mouth of what Cook named the River Endeavour and spent the next seven weeks making repairs to the ship. Again, the naturalists and artists had no trouble filling their days.

With the ship still in a damaged state, Cook sailed to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (present day Jakarta, Indonesia) where the ship was taken out of the water for substantial repairs. Misfortune next struck the crew, as fever and dysentery afflicted all but ten of the men, seven of whom died. The Endeavour set sail for the Indian Ocean on the day after Christmas, despite the continued illness of nearly half of the crew. Over the next few months, another 23 men would die from dysentery, among them all three of the artists on board, the astronomer Green, the ship’s doctor, and its carpenter. Cook anchored the ship in Cape Town for a month to allow the sick to recover and to make more repairs to the ship, and on July 12, they reached Dover.

Upon returning to England, Joseph Banks hired five artists to complete Parkinson’s unfinished drawings for a planned publication of the expedition’s scientific discoveries. By 1784, 750 watercolors had been completed and copper plate engravings made, yet, because of other demands on his time and Britain’s economic downturn following the American Revolution, Banks was never able to publish the works.

In the late 19th century, the British Museum (Natural History) produced several sets of black and white prints from Banks’ engravings. The image of New Zealand’s speargrass reproduced here, courtesy of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, is one of those prints.

Additional information about celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour’s voyage and links to several videos about the Endeavour and the Banks Florilegium can be found here. The process of producing the long-awaited 1989 publication of the magnificent Banks’ Florilegium will be detailed in the November Desert Breeze. — Cindy Hartwell



A version of this article appeared in the October 2018 issue of Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.