Banksia Men and the Transit of Venus

banksia manBanksia men have terrified generations of Australians. They have cyclops eyes, long hairy legs and a tendency to snatch sleeping children, even when the door is bolted. I would creep along the back hall of my great-grandfather’s house, in the dark, feeling the wall, certain the long arms of a banksia man would reach out, and I would be doomed. Dropped into a hole. Followed by a boulder. But I made it to the light cord and survived another night.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, May Gibbs wrote and illustrated her children’s stories, The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. The book has never been out of print. The appeal of the fragmented stories is the gumnut children within the love and care of anthropomorphised Australian flora and fauna. Mr Lizard, the lissom Ann Chovy, an elderly Mr Nut, tend the chubby little brothers, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, protecting them from Mrs Snake, Mr Octopus and the arch-enemy, the evil banksia men. “Squeeze and breeze / root and shoot / stone and bone,” the hairies chorused. No wonder I was a thin child.

This essay appears in the April edition of Quadrant.
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Gibbs may have damned the Banksia genus in the minds of some overly suggestible children. And it has taken time to recover and form an attraction to the revered plant with its impressive Enlightenment lineage. Celia Rosser, the botanical artist, reframed the reputation of the genus from the early 1970s. Rosser and the West Australian botanist Alex George were commissioned by Monash University to document the species. The resulting three-volume series, The Banksia, took more than twenty-five years to complete.

Rosser recorded all known banksias with their fruiting cones: sixty-two varieties from Western Australia and seventeen varieties from the east coast. Did she have a favourite? Perhaps her first glimpse of serrata in the East Gippsland sand, or the banksia that looks like a fuzzy tennis ball and named after her, rosserae. May Gibbs’s preferred cone may have been the West Australian droplet-shaped attenuata, or the crimson coccinea, but in the main, her “big, bad banksia men” were modelled on the common “old man” banksia, or serrata.

Though the pinkish-orange ashbyi or a tobacco beauty with wide glossy leaves, robur, has tempted me, the coastal banksia, integrifolia, remains in first place on my list. Integrifolia was one of four banksias collected by Joseph Banks and his Swedish colleague Dr Daniel Solander between April 28 and May 6, 1770, in Botany Bay. It was one of four species published in 1782 as part of Carl Linnaeus the Younger’s original description of the genus. The first four were ericifolia, integrifolia, robur and serrata. The tropical dentata was collected later at the Endeavour River careening site on the north-east coast.

This August is the 250th anniversary of the sailing of HM Bark Endeavour, captained by Lieutenant James Cook, from Plymouth on August 25, 1768. The circumnavigation expedition had three goals: to observe a transit of Venus in Tahiti, to search for the Great South Land, and to make a scientific study of flora and fauna. The Admiralty appointed Cook captain of the bark with just under 100 crew and “experimental gentlemen” on board. Leading the scientists were the naturalists, Banks and Solander, and the astronomer, Charles Green. There were two artists, the landscapist Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson, a noted botanical illustrator.

In his journals of the voyage, Banks’s neat script belies the perils of the journey. He describes terrors that nearly scuttled all three objectives of the voyage. But his narrative also says a great deal of a young man’s nerve in the face of disaster. The first was before the ship rounded Cape Horn. With some difficulty, Cook had brought the Endeavour through the Strait Le Maire to Tierra del Fuego. Banks and Solander, keen to set about botanising, left the bark with Green, two crew and servants. The weather was fine. They walked inland and upwards through dense woods. And then the weather changed to a blizzard. Solander wanted to rest in knee-deep snow and others were fading in the conditions. The party split, vultures circled, a fire was lit. And Banks was “expos’d to the most penetrating cold I ever felt as well as continual snow”.

The following morning three men were dead, and the others limped back to the mooring. Banks had shown decisive action—those with hypothermia were lifted onto plinths and covered with vegetation. But the expedition could have lost three principal scientists before leaving the Atlantic.

Cook was keen to sail for Tahiti without delay to prepare for the Endeavour’s first mission: to observe a transit of Venus, on June 4, 1769. This is an astronomical phenomenon that occurs when Venus moves across the face of the sun, allowing a scientific measurement that determines latitude. The transits occur in pairs (within a few years) and in June or December. The most recent transit was December 11, 2017, visible in China, Korea, Taiwan and Australia.

The Royal Society had appointed Cook as the chief observer and Green the second observer. Adding to the substantial scientific equipment on board the Endeavour, the Society funded two tele­scopes, a quadrant, a sextant and “some other instruments” for the transit view.

Tahiti was selected as the most suitable island after Captain Wallis, on the Dolphin, returned from a circumnavigation in 1768. And two sites were identified as observation points—Point Venus and Moorea—as a caution against scuttling the research by cloud cover. Cook moored the Endeavour in Matavai Bay in April 1769 with under two months to prepare. He built what he thought was a secure encampment and began an observation tower at Point Venus.

The responsibilities of Cook and Banks become clearer in their notebooks. Aside from his navigational skills, Cook was responsible for his crew and their behaviour to indigenous people. He protected the scientists with musket but flogged a member of the crew for misconduct. And Banks? Without naval duties, he botanised, fraternised with the natives and bargained for provisions. But neither he nor Cook was prepared for the degree of pilfering by the Tahitians—even of objects nailed down and padlocked. Even Banks’s trousers were filched as he lingered overnight in a canoe. Then on May 2 the Royal Society’s quadrant was stolen. One month from the transit, a vital measuring device was gone.

Banks wrote: “No time was now to be lost, [they] had opened the cases. The weather was excessively hot, the thermometer at 91 degrees. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we ran.”

The culprit had run to the hills. Banks and Green, along with a Tahitian chief, were in pursuit. Then Banks considered, “[we were] seven miles from the tents [with] no arms but a pair of pocket pistols”. He sent a midshipman back to the encampment for a reinforcement party.

The trio located the likely whereabouts of the thief:

one of his people bringing part of the quadrant in his hand. The box was now brought to us. Mr Green began to overlook the instrument to see if any part or parts were wanting. Some of which were returned, others not. The stand was not there, so we packed all up in grass.

But the pursuit of Venus was flawed—there were two different measurements taken by Cook and Green at Point Venus on June 4. Perhaps it was the lack of the stand or the presence of the grass seeds. Though to be fair to Enlightenment science, it must have been a fiendish manoeuvre to record, as results from other points on the globe differed too.

The bark left Tahiti with some last-minute delays—two midshipmen had run away and Banks had prevailed on Cook to sail around the island for some final botanising. Unlike the later crew of the Bounty, the two seamen returned to the ship together with a Tahitian, on Banks’s payroll, to assist with navigation in the South Pacific.

Following the Admiralty’s orders, Cook sailed the Endeavour to forty degrees south, coming about to the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. The bark circumnavigated the two islands before heading into the Tasman Sea and to New Holland. Sailing up the south-east coast, the small boats from the Endeavour were deterred from landing by the surf until:

on Sunday, a bay appeared at last. In the afternoon, the wind backed southerly, and the ship stood in, sailing between the two arms of the bay, Point Solander and Cape Banks.

They had made it to Terra Australis and Botany Bay, April 28, 1770. The enthusiasm of Banks spills out of his notebook. But isn’t that expected from first-time visitors? He and Solander collected flora for days. There were so many specimens that Banks dried them on paper on the beach. They caught a huge stingray and ate the entrails, pronouncing it to be “not as good as skate [but] the tripe everybody thought excellent”. After nine days in Botany Bay, Cook resumed his navigation of the coast, sailing past the entrance to Port Jackson before naming Cape Byron, the most easterly point of the continent. On May 15, Banks wrote of Mount Warning: “at sun set a remarkable peak’d hill was in sight 5 or 6 leagues of in the country, which about was well wooded and look’d beautiful as well as fertile”.

On June 10, there was the fateful holing of the Endeavour on the Great Barrier Reef, some twenty miles off the coast. It was high tide. Cook had to wait for another high tide before the bark could be floated off the reef. Six cannon were jettisoned. Pumps were pumping. Banks, knowing there was insufficient space on the boats, contemplated his death by drowning or starving on land, “being debarred from a hope of ever seeing [our] native country again” and “fear of Death now stared us in the face”. But “at 10.00 am she was floated and hauled into deep water”. Two days later, the crew carried anchors in boats with cables trailing, “heaving with the capstan until the ship was over it, beginning again”. And then the wind changed to an on-shore. The hole was tapped by a sail and, by chance, a lump of coral stuck in the hull slowed the entry of water. From Banks’s notebook, the ship’s officers kept their composure throughout the ordeal and the crew worked liked navvies. By June 12, the Endeavour was tied up at the estuary of the Endeavour River for repairs.

Two months later, she sailed north towards New Guinea and Torres Strait. There was another near miss on the Reef on August 16, saved only by intermittent “puffs of a breeze” and rapid sail-setting. Cook winkled his bark through the reef to Providential Channel and into known waters. He claimed the entire east coast for the British Crown on August 22, 1770; three months from landfall to claim. But doubts remained that the land was in fact Terra Australis, and Cook, on his voyage in the Resolution, 1772 to 1775, sailed through the Southern Ocean at sixty degrees south in a fruitless search for the elusive continent.

There are several exhibitions celebrating the departure of Cook and the Endeavour from Plymouth. Perhaps the most distinguished is the opening of a new gallery, Pacific Encounters, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The museum has anticipated a series of commemorations over the next ten years—from the departure in 1768, to the landings in New Zealand and Australia and to the death of Cook in 1779. There is over a decade ahead to examine the rich collection of the museum—and an opportunity to see Nathaniel Dance’s well-known portrait of Cook in 1776; his left hand gently holds the chart of the Southern Ocean, his right index finger points to the east coast of Australia. Also on show are George Stubbs’s paintings, The Kangouro from New Holland and Portrait of a Large Dog (a dingo) which he painted in 1772 from two animal skins Banks had collected at the Endeavour River careening site. Also from this site is a fragment of a tree to which Cook tied up the Endeavour, dated 17 June 1770.

Captain Cook and the Pacific, by John McAleer and Nigel Rigby, published last year by Yale University Press, complements the new gallery exhibition; the text has been an important reference source for this article. Late last year, David Mabberley opened a small exhibition of engravings from Joseph Banks’s Florilegium at the Australian National University’s library. He and his colleagues Mel Gooding and Joe Studholme have written Joseph Banks’ Florilegium: Botanical Treasures from Cook’s First Voyage, published by Thames & Hudson, the engravings taken from Sydney Parkinson’s drawings. This grand volume gives the reader a sense of the scale of Banks and Solander’s botanising. In September, the Australian National Library will open another commemorative exhibition with a handsome exhibition catalogue, Pacific Stories: The Voyages of Captain Cook. John Hamilton Mortimer’s 1771 group portrait of Cook, Banks, Solander and other notables, painted after the Endeavour returned to England, will be part of the exhibition.

The surprise sleeper of the Cook’s voyage shows was a video installation, in Pursuit of Venus [infected], by the New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana in the New Zealand national pavilion in last year’s Venice Biennale. At the end of a long day looking at earnest art from young artists, I stumbled into the last room. The great green scenic landscape, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, printed by the nineteenth-century French entrepreneur Joseph Dufour, scrolled at walking pace across the screen. Reihana had sucked out the neo-classical figures and replaced them with video clips of Maori and Pacific Islanders acting fictional scenes with Cook, Banks and Parkinson. There was a fair degree of dancing, two floggings and exchanges between the scientists, artists and islanders. A bit skewed, so the viewer didn’t fuss about historical truths. Why the title has the word “infected” in square parenthesis is not stated. It may refer to the graft of new video material into the panorama or it may be a post-colonial reference. Revisiting it recently, the work rings with generosity and Reihana’s adventurous skill. In early 2018, it was shown at Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney and the John Curtin Gallery in Perth, and will be part of a major survey of Oceania arts at the Royal Academy of the Arts, London, this coming July. Next year, commemorating the transit, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] will be presented at the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, Paris, as part of their “Océanie” exhibition.

I live on the coast in a grove of Banksia integrifolia. In spring, brightly-coloured lorikeets swoop down from Queensland for the banksia nectar, followed by flocks of dainty bossy birds. If the weather inland has been dry, yellow-tailed black cockatoos shriek through. In winter, the grey trunks sway and the fingers of banksia men scratch on my window. I sing the Witches’ Chorus to them from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with a stressed, “and Carthage burns tomorrow”.

It has taken a lifetime to love the plant, and my grove is very special. With luck and a good on-shore sou-easterly, someone will plant a grove of serrata at Kernell, Botany Bay, and dentata south of Cooktown in 2020. No fireworks, mate, just botany.

Jane Sutton lives in Melbourne

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