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Taking it to the edge: did you know? Sir Joseph Banks and the exploration of Australia

''It is impossible to conceive that such a body of land, as large as all Europe, does not produce vast rivers, capable of being navigated into the heart of the interior …''
Joseph Banks: Letter to John King, Under Secretary of State 15 May 1798 as published in Historical Records of Australia series 1 volume 2 p. 231

Joseph Banks sailed with James Cook aboard the Endeavour, as the naturalist, on the voyage to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus, which then went on to discover the east coast of Australia in 1770. In 1779 Joseph Banks spoke before a House of Commons committee that was looking at alternative locations for penal settlements, during the Revolutionary Wars with North America. To this committee he gave a glowing report about the climate, soils, and other particulars of New South Wales, which eventually resulted in the First Fleet being sent out under Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788. Banks was also behind the decision to transplant breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies that ended in the voyage of the Bounty and the famous mutiny. He sent Bligh out again on a second voyage to collect breadfruit after the first had failed and later supported his appointment as Governor of New South Wales. 

Having been so involved in the foundation of the colony, Banks maintained an interest in Australia for the rest of his life, corresponding with the various governors, sending out botanical collectors and encouraging exploration. It was the botanical collectors that Banks arranged to go to Australia who contributed so much to its early exploration, notably George Caley and Allan Cunningham. In pursuit of their botanical collections these men effectively became explorers in their own right, adding considerably to the knowledge of the territory comprising New South Wales. Matthew Flinders placed his plans for the exploration of the remaining Australian coastline before Joseph Banks who forwarded them to the Admiralty. Banks took an active interest in the Flinders voyage, to the extent that he wrote the instructions for Flinders and for the botanical collector who he selected, Robert Brown. When Flinders was detained on Mauritius in 1803, Banks campaigned for his release, although this was long delayed. For more details of the Flinders' voyage see the State Library's Encounter website.

In 1798 Joseph Banks wrote: 'We have now occupied the country of New South Wales more than ten years, and so much has the discovery of the interior been neglected that no one article has hitherto been discover'd, by the importation of which the mother country can receive any degree of return for the cost of founding and hitherto maintaining the colony. It is impossible to conceive that such a body of land, as large as all Europe, does not produce vast rivers capable of being navigated into the heart of the interior…".  (Historical Records of Australia Series 1 volume 2 page 231). This belief in a large river capable of navigation would stimulate the exploration of the interior for many years, as did the concept of an inland sea. (For further information see the State Library's Downstream website. 

David Burton was the first of Banks' collectors in New South Wales of note. Arriving in 1791, he collected many specimens for Banks and Kew Gardens, but also examined the potential of the Parramatta district for Governor Phillip, and explored the Nepean River district.

George Caley arrived in 1800, and shortly thereafter accompanied James Grant and Francis Barrallier on an expedition aboard the Lady Nelson to Bass Strait. He also explored along the foot of the Blue Mountains, travelled to Norfolk Island and to the Derwent River in Tasmania. Mount Caley and Caleys Range in New South Wales are named for him as are a species of acacia, grevillea, a banksia and a eucalyptus.

Allan Cunningham arrived in New South Wales in 1816 and shortly afterwards joined John Oxley's expedition to the west of the Blue Mountains. Mount Cunningham was named after him. From 1817-22 he served with Philip Parker King in the surveys of the tropical coasts of northern and north-west Australia. In 1822 returning in land he explored west of the Blue Mountains, and in 1823 discovered Pandora's Pass through the Liverpool Range to the Liverpool Plains beyond. A number of short trips followed, including a trip to New Zealand in 1826. Cunningham's most important journey was in 1827 when he discovered the Darling Downs, and Cunninghams' Gap. He later explored the upper reaches of the Brisbane River Valley. He returned to England briefly, but later accepted the post of Colonial Botanist. He died in June 1839, and a memorial was placed in the Botanic Gardens, Sydney by his friends. It is surrounded by a grove of Archontophoenix cunninghamiana otherwise known as the Bangalow palm.

For more information on:

Sir Joseph Banks:

Australian National Botanic Gardens - biography website Click on  B and scroll down and click on Banks, Joseph

Plant explorers website go to the explorers, then the golden age of botany, and then click on the entries for Joseph Banks

Allan Cunningham:

Australian National Botanic Gardens - biography website Click on  C and scroll down and click on Cunningham, Allan

George Caley:

Australian National Botanic Gardens - biography Click on C and scroll down and click on Caley, George.

Further reading:

Australian Dictionary of biography volume 1 Banks, Sir Joseph

Maiden, JH Sir Joseph Banks the father of Australia  Sydney: William Applegate Gullick, Govt. Printer; London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1909

McMinn, WG, Allan Cunningham: botanist and explorer Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1970

Banks suggests Mungo Park to explore Australia
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Incentive to explore Australia
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Sir Joseph Banks
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