An abiding passion for books (part 3)

As one who’s been so close to the many magnificent collections in the State Library, does Paul have a favourite item, that’s stayed a favourite through his career? The 18th-century specialist doesn’t hesitate.

‘It’s the Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks,’ he says. ‘It’s the first account of our nation by a European. Banks wrote it on the voyage in 1768–71, and returned to Britain with it.’

Joseph Banks Esq, 1774. William Dickinson after Sir Joshua Reynolds (National Portrait Gallery,
Joseph Banks Esq, 1774 (National Portrait Gallery, Australia)

‘When Flinders set out on his voyage, sponsored by Banks, Banks gave him the journal to use.

Matthew Flinders, c 1800, artist unknown. State Library of NSW, Orig Min 52
Matthew Flinders, c 1800, artist unknown. State Library of NSW, Orig Min 52

‘And when Flinders was imprisoned in Mauritius on his way home, he sent Banks’s journal back to Britain in a trunk.

Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, 1812. after Thomas Phillips N Schiavonetti, National Portrait Gallery. Purchased 2010
Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, 1812, after Thomas Phillips N Schiavonetti (National Portrait Gallery)

‘Banks died in 1820. He never had children. His executors appointed a group of five people to write the biography of Banks, and the journal travelled to each of their homes.

Then all his papers, including the journal, were sent to the British Library.

‘In the 1880s a member of Banks’s family approached the British Library, saying the family had only lent the papers to the library, but would be happy to sell them to the library for £250. The British Library refused, so the family sent the papers to auction.

‘Eventually, the State Library of New South Wales bought Banks’s papers, but these didn’t include the journal. Following the auction of the journal, it passed into the private collection of Australian collector, Alfred Lee.

Portrait of Alfred Lee, from a biography of Alfred Lee and Minnie Lee, by Norah St George Butter. State Library of NSW, MLMSS 1508
Portrait of Alfred Lee(State Library of NSW)

‘David Scott Mitchell wanted that journal, and kept asking Lee about it.

Finally, in 1906, Mitchell bought Lee’s entire collection for £5,700 (a huge amount then), primarily to obtain Banks’s journal!

‘Mitchell died in 1907, and Banks’s journal has been in the Mitchell Library ever since.’

The journal was most recently on display when Paul included it in the State Library’s major exhibition, 100, which celebrated the Mitchell Library’s centenary in 2010.

The twists and turns of the journal’s provenance seem suited to a figure like Banks. Its journey from Banks’s hand to State Library treasure is full of movement and purpose, like its author as a young man.

But there are paradoxes as well: the journal used on Flinders’ voyage on the wide-open sea returned to England bundled up in a trunk; the journal relied on by Banks’s biographers became an income-generating asset for Banks’s relatives, and so on. They seem to echo some of the paradoxes in the story of Banks.

Without Sir Joseph Banks, modern-day New South Wales would not exist.

Sydney Harbour from the Bridge, around 6pm, 04-12-2013. Photo: Theresa Willsteed, copyright 2013
Sydney Harbour from the Bridge, 6pm, December 2013. Photo by Theresa Willsteed

He was a key adviser and ongoing influence in the forming of the colony of NSW, but never returned here in his long life after the Endeavour voyage.

He was a brilliant botanist, a stunningly generous benefactor, a towering and energetic figure for many decades. But despite his education and intellect, he misread the Aboriginal people he encountered in Australia from April to August 1770.

On such brief experience, he encouraged the planting of a tough British penal colony here, convinced that Australia was uninhabited (later described as a terra nullius, meaning a land belonging to no-one, uninhabited).

But on this essential point, Banks’s talents failed him. He was secure in his denial of the people who’d lived in Australia for millennia, and of the impact colonisation would have on them and their world.

Some of his conclusions about whether Australia was inhabited (or not) appear on page 275 of his journal:

From the Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks (State Library of NSW)
From the Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks (State Library of NSW) [Transcript, page 275: This immense tract of Land, the largest known which does not bear the name of a continent, as it is considerably larger than all Europe, is thinly inhabited even to admiration, at least that part of it that we saw: we never but once saw so many as thirty Indians together and that was a family, Men women and children, assembled upon a rock to see the ship pass by. At Sting-Rays bay where they evidently came down to fight us several times they never could muster above 14 or 15 fighting men, indeed in other places they generaly ran away from us, from whence it might be concluded that there were greater numbers than we saw, but their houses and sheds in the woods which we never faild to find convincd us of the smallness of their parties. We saw indeed only the sea coast: what the immense tract of inland countrey may produce is to us totaly unknown: we may have liberty to conjecture however that they are totaly uninhabited … ]
 [Interview concludes in Part 4]


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