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Ethnographic collecting and the despotism of Joseph Banks

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While Joseph Banks is generally thought to have been an effective scientific patron, things were not always so. In 1784, several disaffected members of the Royal Society printed a remarkably angry pamphlet which accused Banks, their president, of numerous acts of ‘despotic’ behaviour quite unwarranted in a man who, in their opinion, possessed only ‘puny pretensions’ to his position. While Banks might make ‘a very good Clerk’, they offered, ‘the man who is to fill the place of President, should be something more’.

In this talk, I explore such thinking on Banks’ very particular brand of scientific patronage in terms of its impact upon the development of a subject which he did not much like. Although an avid collector of artificial curiosities on board the first expedition of Captain Cook, there is little evidence that Banks encouraged the subsequent development of object collecting as a subset of natural history, or as a means of colonial knowledge; in fact, he seems to have done much to frustrate the all-embracing mode of natural historical enquiry in which such study found legitimacy. By focusing in particular upon Banks’ relationship and correspondence with colonial officials and scientific elites in late eighteenth-century Australia (the continent, perhaps, in which he was most invested), I argue that the nascent ethnographic studies favoured by imperial administrators as well as amateur explorers were gradually undermined by the enduring appeal of collecting according to the Banksian hierarchy. Our understanding of early Aboriginal Australia, I conclude, has never quite recovered.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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