By Charles Matthews

Saturday, September 25, 2010

2. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 13-46

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Joseph Banks in Paradise, 4-8
The Endeavour arrived in Tahiti six weeks before the transit, having lost only four crew members along the way. Banks had been involved in the incident that took the lives of two of them: On an expedition he led ashore in Tierra del Fuego, his black servants got drunk on a stolen bottle of rum, and froze to death in a snowstorm. Another member of the team, the botanical artist Alexander Buchan, had suffered an epileptic seizure, and Banks's attentions had been directed at seeing to Buchan. Banks had done what he could to rescue his servants, but he was deeply depressed by their deaths. "Cook had not blamed him for his companions' deaths; but for the first time perhaps, [Banks] felt the weight of his responsibilities."

Another death aboard ship also drew Banks's compassion: A young sailor committed suicide after being accused of theft. Banks wrote in his journal about "the powerfull effects that shame can work on young minds." Holmes comments that "it seems clear from Banks's entry that he suspected homosexual bullying by an older member of the crew." He expressed less compassion over the death of Buchan, "from what appeared to be a repeat of the epileptic fit," after their arrival at Tahiti, noting only that the death of the artist made his work harder.

Cook built an armed encampment, Fort Venus, on the beach in Tahiti. It "may have been as much designed to keep the sailors in, as the Tahitians out," but the curfew "was not very strictly observed, especially by the officers." The fort did provide some protection from theft:
To the Europeans theft was a violation of legal ownership, an assault on private property and wealthy. To the Tahitians it was a skilful affirmation of communal resources, an attempt to balance their self-evident poverty against overwhelming European superfluity.
Nails were especially sought after, because they were used to buy sex. "Among the able seamen the initial going rate was one ship's nail for one ordinary fuck, but hyper-inflation soon set in. The Tahitians well understood a market economy." Cook's attempt to regulate this trade was "'quite unsupported,' he later drily observed, by any of his officers." One consequence, however, was the spread of venereal disease, which Cook, who had had his crew medically tested before departure, wanted to blame on the French or the Spanish, but admitted that the Tahitians were probably correct when they called it "the British disease."

Although his artist, Sydney Parkinson, disapproved of the sexual license, Banks didn't. "He was clearly attractive to Tahitian women -- robust, generous, good-humoured -- and it is striking how quickly he gained a footing (if that is the term) in Tahitian society generally." Oborea, the Tahitian queen, was quite taken with him, but he found her ugly and much preferred one of her servants, Otheothea. "Characteristically, Banks was virtually the only member of the Endeavour who bothered to learn more than a very few words of Tahitian." He compiled a basic vocabulary and became the chief trading officer for the Endeavour.
He was also able to partake in Tahitian ceremonies not strictly approved of by Cook. As a result, from May 1769 onwards, Banks's journal entries steadily change their character. They are still full of exquisite botanical and zoological details, but they become more and more anthropological. People begin to replace plants. The daily journal entries begin to cover an astonishing range of phenomena: tattooing, nose-flute-playing, naked wrestling, roasting dogs, surfing.... The Enlightenment botanist, the aristocratic collector and classifier, was steadily being drawn in to share another ethnic culture and its customs.... Banks was becoming an ethnologist, a human investigator, more and more sympathetically involved with another community. The Tahitians are no longer "savages," but his "friends." He was trying to understand Paradise, even if he did not quite believe in it.
For the observation of the transit, Banks led a team to Moorea, an outlying island, where he made an effort to explain to the Tahitians the purpose of the expedition.

Despite his participation in Tahitian culture, on one excursion to explore the western part of the island, Banks woke one morning to find his clothes had been stolen, along with his pistol and his powder-horn. He suspected that Queen Oborea had been a participant in the theft. But on the same excursion he became the first European to witness, or at least to record, the "strange, extreme and quintessentially South Seas sport" of surfing. "The Tahitians had developed what were clearly surfboards, constructed out of the smooth, curved ends of old canoes.... Most extraordinary of all, this perilous activity evidently had absolutely no practical purpose or possible use. It was nothing to do with fishing, or transport, or navigation. The Tahitians did it for the sheer, inexhaustible delight of the thing."

Banks was the exception in his participation, however. "After eight weeks it became clear that many other officers were not integrating so well into the Tahitian way of life." Cook himself treated the Tahitians rather high-handedly for minor offenses, and Banks was critical of the captain in his journal. He began to experience tension with crew. When the Tahitians roasted a dog for a feast, "Banks carefully took down the recipe. Most of the sailors were repelled, but Banks declared the results to be delicious." He also experienced some sort of conflict with the ship's surgeon, Jonathan Monkhouse, that almost led to a duel. "Sydney Parkinson recorded a confrontation between the two, and thought it arose over Monkhouse propositioning Otheothea."

Engraving of Marae Mahaiatea on Tahiti Island, published in 1799.
These tensions may have led Cook to send Banks off on a separate expedition to circumnavigate the entire island in a small sailing boat. "For Banks ... it was a glorious scientific field expedition, and a tantalising extension of his new anthropological investigations." Among the discoveries was "an enormous stone 'marai' or funeral monument, shaped like a pyramid, some forty-four feet high and nearly 300 feet wide, with steps of superbly polished white coral down both sides." It "was unsettling to Banks because its construction seemed technically inexplicable. 'It is almost beyond belief that Indians could raise so large a structure without the assistance of Iron tools to shape their stones or mortar to join them.' Not far away was another mystery: a huge wicker man constructed of basketwork, evidently for some obscure sacrificial rite."

When Banks returned from his expedition, "Cook had completed a beautiful and lucid chart of the island, the figure of eight with its 'marshy isthmus' at the join, which would serve European mariners for generations to come."

The expedition began to plan to leave after its stay of three months. For the Tahitians, Banks planted the seeds of lemon, lime, and orange trees and of watermelons, which he had gathered in South America. And he decided to take up to offer of Tupia, a Tahitian priest, to return with Banks to England, along with his son. Cook questioned the decision until Banks agreed to be responsible for Tupia. Banks wrote about Tupia in his journal as if he were an exotic pet, like the lions and tigers some of his neighbors in England kept. The entry "shows that Banks, for all his sympathy and humanity, could easily revert to his role as Linnaean collector and wealthy European landowner on a jaunt among the natives."

The Endeavour left on July 13, 1769, but not after two sailors tried to defect and stay with their Tahitian wives. Again, it was Banks who did the negotiating that got them back on ship. On the voyage around other Polynesian Islands, on their way to New Zealand, Banks wrote an essay, "On the Manners and Customs of the South Sea Islands," in which he gives technical information about "Tahitian methods of cooking, boat-building, house- construction, tool-making, fishing, dancing, drum-making, navigation, weather-predicting, ceremonial dramas, tattooing." He also writes about the cleanliness of the Tahitians, especially contrasting them with Europeans. Even though the coconut oil that the Tahitians anoint themselves with can turn rancid, he notes, "These people are free from all smells of mortality and surely rancid as their oil is it must be preferrd to the odoriferous perfume of toes and armpits in Europe." Even his comments on Tahitian sexual mores are approving. "The only Tahitian practice that Banks found totally alien and repulsive was that of infanticide, which was used with regularity and without compunction as a form of birth control by couples who were not ready to support children."

By September 1770 they had circumnavigated both islands of New Zealand, mapped the eastern coast of Australia, and almost wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef. In May they had landed on the coast of Australia in a cove that Cook first called Stingray Harbour but later renamed Botany Bay because of the plants that Banks and his fellow botanist Daniel Solander discovered there.

But in November they arrived at Batavia (now Jakarta), where the crew began to come down with malaria and dysentery. "Between November 1770 and March 1771, when they reached the Cape of Good Hope, the Endeavour lost thirty-seven of its men, nearly half the original crew." Tupia and his son died, as did William Green, the astronomer; Monkhouse, the surgeon; and Sydney Parkinson, the young artist. "Solander would have died too, but for Banks's unstinting nursing care."

Banks suffered from dysentery, and was "shattered and disorientated" when they finally reached London on July 13, 1771. He was sick of the sea: "Grass I must have," he wrote. He was welcomed home by his sister, Sophia, who was distressed by his condition and "fondly (and unavailingly) promised that he would mend his ways and his Christian faith." But he made no effort to get in touch with Harriet Blosset. "It was obvious now that, whatever else, his experiences had left Banks utterly unfit for a quiet, regular, married life." There was gossip and scandal about their breakup, but Harriet soon married a clergyman "and was 'blessed by a numerous and lovely family.'"

There was also tattle about Banks's dalliance with Tahitian women, but Banks, along with Cook and Solander, had become a celebrity. He became a friend of George III, who was only five years his senior, and was interested in science. Banks and Solander received honorary doctorates from Oxford. Banks became a friend of Samuel Johnson, and Boswell "described him as 'a genteel young man, very black, and of an agreeable countenance, easy and communicative, without any affectation or appearance of assuming." Sir Joshua Reynolds painted his portrait.

The demand for a full account of the voyage led to John Hawkesworth, a journalist and literary scholar, being commissioned to write it. He was given access to Cook's and Banks's journals and Solander's papers, as well was the drawings of Buchan and Parkinson. "All that was required were accuracy, objectivity and the ability to assemble a vivid narrative. After nearly two years' labour, Hawkesworth achieved none of these." The three volumes were dull and moralizing. Hawkesworth "wrote with delicious outrage of Tahitian dances and sexual practices." But Parkinson's journal, also published in 1773, after some some quarreling among Hawkesworth, Banks, and Parkinson's family, was better. "When it finally appeared, the Tahiti section of Parkinson's journal proved to be brief but strikingly vivid, and left an extremely favourable impression of Banks."

Banks himself wrote his own appreciation of Tahitian culture in a privately circulated "Thoughts on the Manners of the Otaheite." "It was a surprising piece, skittish and suggestive in tone, mannered in its classical references, and verging on the kind of mild pornographic frisson thought to be favoured by the French philosophers of Paradise." After this "glimpse of Banks the Tahitian libertine," Banks was expected to produce a sumptuous edition of his own journal.

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