"Peter Pindar," Joseph Banks, and the Case against Natural History

By Heringman, Noah | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

"Peter Pindar," Joseph Banks, and the Case against Natural History


Heringman, Noah, Wordsworth Circle


In 1663, Robert Hooke announced that the "business" of the newly chartered Royal Society was "to improve the knowledge of naturall things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures ... not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick" (Smith 59). Accordingly, from the beginning, the Philosophical Transactions published by the Royal Society included much natural history--that is, empirical studies in the three traditional branches of zoology, botany, and geology. However, when Sir Joseph Banks became President in 1778, his friend and Royal Society colleague, Thomas Pennant, implied in a letter of congratulations that natural history, as he defined it, had not been a central part of the Society's mission: "Let me add my wishes that something like Natural History may appear under your auspices in the annual productions of the society" (Smith 60). The two had collaborated six years earlier when Banks published a description of Staffa in Pennant's Tour in Scotland, a description that resembled a series of articles in Philosophical Transactions, starting in 1693, on the Giant's Gauseway, another outcrop of the same formation on the other side of the Irish Sea. Like these articles, contributed by a number of gentleman naturalists, Banks speculates on the prismatic form of the basalt columns in the aestheticizing idiom of the connoisseur or virtuoso. (1) While Banks's botany and Pennant's zoology (but not their geology) were distinguished from older natural history by the new Linnaean system, the system does not explain Pennant's refusal to acknowledge older natural history, nor did it radically redefine the empirical domain. The social and aesthetic importance of minerals, plants, and animals, the objects or, as Banks and his contemporaries called them, the "subjects of natural history," however, did change.

Although Banks's critics commented on his superficial affinities with the amateur collector of earlier times, he was also a consummate administrator who coordinated a worldwide corps of fieldworkers in the service of disciplinary specialization and of the "landed interest" associated with his social class (2) Richard Hamblyn has argued that "there was an expansion of the franchise on natural knowledge" in the second half of the eighteenth century, an expansion resulting from the fact that natural history was useful to the growing industries of tourism and manufacturing ("Landscape" 7). Pennant's Tour capitalized on the popularity of natural history to establish his authoritative survey of Scotland. Drawing on the rich legacy of provincial Dissenting culture, Hamblyn argues that "'low' cultural practitioners" such as tour guides and mineral dealers "often had an observable impact upon the production (and dissemination) of 'official' bodies of knowledge" (8). Observing the "control and centralisation of natural knowledge" (31) behind the "de-politicised demeanour" (28) of the Royal Society in the 1670's, Henry Stubbe, pamphleteer and Quaker, had successfully opposed its control of all "patents for manufacturing" (31). For the voyage of the Endeavour a century later, Banks harnessed the skills of the Quaker draftsman, Sydney Parkinson, among other "practical men." Because of Banks's collaboration with such Dissenting naturalists, indigenous informants, key government officials, and many other groups, the Royal Society realized the "control and centralisation of natural knowledge" that Hamblyn and others have recognized as one of its early ambitions.

By promoting empirical natural history, Banks also tapped the economic potential of natural knowledge fulfilling the intent of the Royal Society to connect the "knowledge of natural things" and the "usefull Arts and manufactures" while crossing Hooke's boundary between natural knowledge and practical politics. Beginning with the plant and animal specimens amassed during the three-year voyage of the Endeavour, Banks appropriated the most accessible and useful form of natural knowledge and made it an instrument of imperial policy.

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