John Gascoigne
Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment

For the French philosophe D'Holbach, reason was 'truth discovered by experience, meditated upon by reflection, and applied to the conduct of life'—a definition which reflects the all-pervading influence of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) on the thought of the Enlightenment. The roles of experience and utility, then, were of primary importance in the Enlightenment's conception of the proper place of reason. Knowledge was to be derived as far as possible from first-hand observation and then utilised for the public good, or, as Francis Bacon, one of the Encyclopedists' patron saints, had put it, applied 'for the relief of man's estate.'

For Banks, too, true enlightenment meant the dispelling of ignorance through observation and its application for the benefit of humankind or, more particularly, for that of his native land. On such a view exploration and discovery were particularly enlightened activities, since they both made available often dearly-bought first-hand observations to the general public and the possibility of greater wealth and comfort from new products and new lands; more pragmatically, such voyages of discovery frequently offered further avenues for British commerce. Thus in 1818 Banks praised Governor Macquarie of New South Wales for 'your enlightened activity in causing the Country beyond the blue mountains to be explored'—thus allowing European settlement to extend inland. More programmatically the first statement of the goals of the African Association on 9 June 1788—an organisation which was largely founded and maintained through Banks's initiative-urged the need for the exploration of Africa in order to strengthen the enlightened credentials of both the age and of Britain. As its founders themselves put it, they were 'desirous of rescuing the age from a charge of ignorance, which, in other respects, so little belongs to its character'; they were also 'strongly impressed with a conviction of the practicability and utility of thus enlarging the fund of human knowledge.'

Banks saw his own great voyage of discovery on the Endeavour as pioneering the tradition of linking naval exploration with scientific discovery. Though Banks adopted a rather anglocentric view in overlooking the work of the Dutch and the French in promoting such scientific discovery, nonetheless there is substance in his claim that his work helped to make such voyages a source of national prestige as an instance of British promotion of enlightened goals. As Banks himself wrote: 'I may flatter myself that being the first man of scientific education who undertook a voyage of discovery and that voyage of discovery being the first which turned out satisfactorily in this enlightened age, I was in some measure the first who gave that turn to such voyages.' The emigre German, Johann Reinhold Forster, was to pay tribute to British success in promoting such goals by referring to the Resolution (on which Forster performed a role similar to that which Banks had created for himself on the Endeavour) as belonging to 'the most enlightened nation in the world.' This association between Enlightenment and discovery was carried still further by Georg, Forster's son and fellow traveller on Cook's second voyage. His essay, 'Cook the Discoverer: Attempts at a Memorial' (1786) was based on the premise that 'Enlightenment advances to infinity from experience to experience,' while Cook was singled out for praise as one who had 'led his century in knowledge and Enlightenment.'

Such an enlightened pursuit of useful knowledge embraced the collection of living plants and their cultivation in familiar environments. Thus the domestication of the new and useful through the establishment of botanical gardens, either in England itself or within the British Empire at large, was an appropriate activity for an enlightened age. The principal agency for promoting such goals was the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, of which Banks acted as de facto director. Thus the great catalogue of these gardens, the Hortus Kewensis (1810-3) compiled by William Aiton, the head gardener, was prefaced by a dedication to George III conveying 'the heartfelt gratitude of an enlightened nation' not only for his support of the botanical activities at the Gardens but also for the way in which Kew had become a centre for an archetypal source of useful knowledge, the breeding of improved (and more profitable) sheep under the supervision of Banks. In distant Jamaica Thomas Dancer urged the need to maintain a botanical garden as one of the amenities of an enlightened community. 'A Botanical Garden,' he wrote, 'is not now, as formerly, considered merely as an appendage to a college or an university, but is become an object of general concern with enlightened men of every description, even the mercantile class, in maritime and manufacturing towns, &c.' Banks's work in promoting such institutions and advancing natural history more generally led to one correspondent describing him as 'The Liberal Patron of Science, and the Enlightened Cultivator of Natural Knowledge.' Such epithets as 'liberal' and 'enlightened' could be applied not only to those who discovered and applied useful knowledge in the natural world but also to those who utilised such methods in dealing with the problems of human society. Thus in 1818, two years before his death, Banks praised Sheffield for his recent pamphlet on the Poor Laws, viewing its advocacy of 'employing so large a number of labourers' as a 'liberal and enlightened policy.'

The pervasiveness of such an appeal to enlightened values in such a quintessential embodiment of the English Establishment as Sir Joseph Banks—Baronet, President of the Royal Society and, for many years, confidant of the king—underlines the extent to which the Enlightenment formed part of the mental world of the eighteenth-century English elite and the validity of the term 'English Enlightenment.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.