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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.


Martin Evans said...

In chapter 5 of "The Floating Brothel" Sian Rees suggests that Banks also had a hand in fitting out the GUARDIAN supply ship, that was to accompany the LADY JULIAN convict ship to Sydney Cove in 1789.


Joan Druett said...

That's really interesting, and thanks for pointing it out. Banks had put plants on board GUARDIAN, because the despatches say that the "plant cabbin" on PORPOISE was to replace the plants lost on GUARDIAN, but I haven't seen any mention of a garden room on that ship.

It also occurred to me that the infamous mutiny on BOUNTY was partly Banks's fault, because he insisted on the Great Cabin being turned into a garden room, meaning that Bligh had to sleep in the pantry, which made him very vulnerable, particularly considering he had no marines.