Next to Lieutenant James Cook, the most influential man on the Endeavour’s historic voyage to the Pacific from 1768 to 1771 was the wealthy naturalist Joseph Banks.
I’m as full of admiration for Banks and as I am for the master navigator in command of that journey, Cook, although I’m actually full of admiration for any poor bugger who sailed on HMB Endeavour. It would have been pretty damn uncomfortable at the best of times.
If you have ever set foot on the replica HMB Endeavour, which is usually docked at the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney, you will know how pokey the original must have been below decks. The replica is a splendid vessel and I have been aboard it when it has visited Brisbane, which it does occasionally. (Expect it to visit again this summer.) It is sturdy and seaworthy. In fact, every year it goes on voyages around Australia’s coastline and you can pay for the privilege of becoming part of the crew, which involves quite a bit of hard yakka, I believe; learning the ropes, as it were, literally.
I have toyed with the idea of sailing on HMB Endeavour, but not as a member of the crew. There is another level of participation more suited to my disposition.
If you prefer a more leisurely pace you can sign on as what they call a supernumerary. You pay about $200 a day for that privilege and can lounge in your bunk or stroll the deck to your heart’s content (although I’m told most supernumeraries – four per voyage – tend to muck in with everyone else). I’m not sure I would and I don’t think Banks (the original supernumerary) would have, either. Besides, on the way home from Australia he would have been too busy categorising all the specimens he had collected. Banks and his small team returned to England with an unprecedented collection of artefacts and specimens of birds, fish and other animals as well as thousands of plants, most seen for the first time in Europe.
You can ogle these artefacts and other items from the comfort of your couch while browsing through the pages of a handsome new book on Banks. Endeavouring Banks: Exploring Collections From the Endeavour Voyage by Neil Chambers (New South Publishing, $85) features a foreword by Sir David Attenborough. It is a stunning tome, and by looking at the objects from various museums and collections the author gives us a fascinating insight into that important voyage and the remarkable Banks.
Banks was born into a well-to-do but untitled family, was a keen naturalist and patron of science who got himself included in Cook’s expedition and visited Tahiti, New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, coming ashore here in 1770.
This book features an array of items, specimens and works of art, including one commissioned by Banks on his return to England. I refer to the 1772 work, A Portrait of Kongouro From
New Holland, by George Stubbs. This is a contentious painting and is still in England, despite our efforts to buy it for the National Gallery of Australia. (Coincidentally, it was Attenborough who rallied the Poms to keep us from getting it.)
Stubbs was given a dried pelt by Banks and he re-created what he thought a kangaroo would look like from that – and did a pretty good job. I reckon we should have the artwork here and I think Banks would have agreed. We supernumeraries have to stick together.
Don’t miss Phil Brown’s arts coverage weekdays on The Courier-Mail website