September 02, 2010
Just in case you ever wondered what Captain Bligh was doing, collecting breadfruit trees, or were under the impression Joseph Banks was a "botanist":
The formal commission called for Cook to steer the good ship Endeavour halfway around the world in the service of science, since early June of that year would bring a great astronomical rarity: the transit of the planet Venus directly between the earth and the sun. The proper measurements of this phenomenon, undertaken from just the right places on the globe, promised to afford astronomers the raw data necessary to work out the exact size of the solar system...D. Graham Burnett again, this time from the excellent and extraordinary Lapham's Quarterly.
But then there were those other instructions, tucked in a sealed envelope that Cook was not to open until well out to sea: these rather tinctured that glowing light of rational inquiry with a leering glint of imperial lucre, as these secret orders instructed him, shortly after attending to the transit observations, to comb the southern Pacific on the lookout for Terra Australis, which, should he come upon it, was to be adorned instantly with a Union Jack, the better to forestall French ambitions and outflank the meddlesome Dutch.
Banks served both as the president of the Royal Society and as the semiofficial director of British overseas exploits in a crucial era of imperial expansion. An impresario of exploration, a fixer and commissioner, he brokered essential links between government policy, private enterprise, and military might. At the peak of his power he theorized global domination as something like estate management on a planetary scale. Knowledge of nature, as he saw it, amounted to the right to rule - an analysis that did wonders for the social status of the sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Though Cook and Banks could squabble over the best way to spend time on the voyage (Banks wanted to stay ashore and get plants; Cook wanted to make a few observations and keep moving), their joint voyage can be thought of as a kind of crossing point for their two traditions. Between them over three hundred years of traveling cartographers and traveling collectors combined to create a totalizing view of what there was in the world and exactly where it could be found. It was an immensely powerful instrument for thinking about nature...
And not all the payoffs were merely, shall we say, conceptual. In that totalizing view of the what and the where, the traveling naturalists assembled the administrative heart of European colonialism, which came with a sense that the world could be managed.
How? Well, Banks himself worked for years to rearrange the natural world in the interest of English slave plantations in the Caribbean: he figured the pervasive problems with malnutrition in the cane fields could be rectified by transplanting breadfruit trees from Tahiti - the fruit of paradise, to feed the mouths in hell. And while the first effort to move the trees (sailing on the HMS Bounty under the command of one Captain William Bligh) met an unfortunate end in a notorious mutiny, Banks persevered and eventually got his way.