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.
‘When Flinders set out on his voyage, sponsored by Banks, Banks gave him the journal to use.
‘And when Flinders was imprisoned in Mauritius on his way home, he sent Banks’s journal back to Britain in a trunk.
‘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.
‘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.
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: