Reflections by award-winning maritime historian Joan Druett, author of many books about the sea
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Thursday, January 16, 2014
Sir Joseph Banks did it twice!
Interfered with the outfitting of a ship, that is.
George Suttor, gardener
We all know the story of how Joseph Banks arrived home from
the Endeavour voyage puffed up with his triumph, lauded as a lion in all the salons of London.
Made confident by his success, he
interfered with the outfitting of the ex-collier Resolution, which
was to be Cook's command on the second discovery expedition. A deck with
laboratories, libraries, and accommodations for a ridiculous entourage was
planned and built ... making the ship so crank that on her first trial it was
obvious that she was unseaworthy. So the extra deck was dismantled, much
to Banks's fury. He threw a tantrum, which he much regretted, because he was
coolly dismissed from the expedition. Captain Cook sailed without him, and the
voyage was no less famous because of the botanist's absence.
Well, you think that Joseph Banks would have learned from
his mistake. But no. When a young gardener by the name of George Suttor
approached him, it happened all over again.
Twenty-four-year-old George Suttor was a quixotic soul, the son of a market gardener who had ambitions of being an actor. After reading
accounts of Banks’s voyage on the Endeavour, he changed his mind, being filled instead with romantic dreams of converting some distant wilderness into
an Eden-like garden, and New South Wales seemed just the place. In February 1798 he
managed to get an interview with Sir Joseph, who first of all felt doubts, but
then was fired up, himself. So he arranged for George to take charge of a collection of plants that was bound to Port Jackson, caring for them en route in return for a free passage
for himself and his new wife, and a grant of land. And, what's more, he gave him thirty guineas as a start-up fund.
Unfortunately, Banks also took a hand in the outfitting of
the ship, HMS Porpoise. While
Suttor collected a selection of culinary and medicinal plants, fruit trees,
vines, fodder plants and trees for timber, along with other useful herbs, like
hops for brewing, and looked after them at Kew Gardens, Banks designed a
"plant cabbin" for this precious cargo. As usual, Sir Joseph’s
word held sway in the corridors of power, and so a "plant cabbin" was
built on the quarterdeck of the unfortunate ship, according to his
specifications, and exactly as he wanted.
It was the story of the Resolution all over again.The Porpoise set sail on 6
September 1799 amid considerable doubt about her seaworthiness. Her commander,
Lieutenant William Scott, was extremely worried, because of the weight and placement
of the plant cabin. After sustaining critical damage
in the Bay of Biscay, he was forced to abandon the voyage, and return to
Spithead. The following month a Spanish corvette was commissioned to take the
crank ship’s place. While she was also called Porpoise, for obvious reasons she did not have a Banks-designed "plant cabbin." She set sail for New
South Wales in May 1800 arriving in November, and yes, George Suttor and his
plants were on board. Unfortunately, his
collection did not travel well, but Banks commended him nonetheless, and Suttor
received a five-guinea reward from the Treasury.