10. Explorers 1750-1780

Throughout the 1750s and 1760s men of science became especially interested in the exotic treasures being brought back from tropical shores by a brave new generation of explorers. While they were waiting for the next journey abroad they would share their hopes and experiences over cups of coffee at Slaughter’s. Some would walk round the corner to see the latest additions to a growing collection of plants and stuffed animals being curated by one of their regular company, Daniel Solander (1733-1782).


The collection was in a large house at 32 Soho Square, purchased by Joseph Banks (1743-1820) to exhibit the things collected on his expeditions of the new Empire.

He had been introduced to Solander as Linnaeus’s favourite student and, anxious to promote that same taxonomy, Banks appointed Solander as the archivist and offered his sister work as housekeeper. All the time she wanted her brother to settle down and become “enlightened with the Bright Sunshine of the gospel” but she was soon to be bitterly disappointed for Solander enjoyed temptation as well as enlightenment and life in Soho gave him plenty of both.

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Banks had married a rich heiress and because they had no children they both devoted their time to science and to looking after the growing hoard of artefacts of nature that was packed into their house in Soho Square. For forty years they were at the centre of scientific life and became respected society hosts. For the meetings of the Royal Society Banks wore a “Full Dressed Velvet or Silk coat” to “properly fill the President’s Chair” and there he held science up for all to see, the public, the civil servants and the politicians.

Banks was one of the eighteenth century’s most important natural scientists, and from Eton to Oxford he yearned to explore the rich diversity of different environments. His family’s estates in Lincolnshire produced more than enough income to fulfill these ambitions so he began to travel the world. First, he went to Newfoundland and Labrador, collected plants in Iceland, then visited Fingal’s cave in the Hebrides and when he was 23 years old he joined Captain Cook’s expedition to Australia onboard HMS Endeavour.

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Cook, Banks, Sandwich, Solander, Hawksworth            HMS Endeavour – Cook’s first voyage

Also caring more for the adventure in his veins than for coffee, Solander joined with Banks on that same voyage and in May 1770 they landed at Botany Bay. Cook noted the very beautiful birds such as cockatoos and parrots but was more wary of the Aborigines: “we were never able to form any connection with them.” Nevertheless, what these sophisticated visitors did see of the native lifestyles affected them deeply: “these, I had almost said happy, people, content with little nay almost nothing. From them appear how small are the real wants of human nature”. The exhausted crew navigated the Great Barrier Reef and the two naturalists added to the rich pickings of the expedition.

On their return they moved the crates of specimens into Banks’ house in Soho and set to work identifying and describing the 1,400 new species. Solander was pleased to test his hero Linneaus’ system on such a large set of untried species while Banks’ motives were more commercial. At the Royal Society he had talked with a doctor from the English Midlands called Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) about their exciting new discoveries. Darwin wrote of their importance: “the future improvements in Agriculture, in Medicine, and in many inferior Arts, as dying, tanning, varnishing; with many of the more important Manufactures, as of paper, linen, cordage”. Solander’s identifications were going to be crucial in organizing these benefits.

It was Banks who then did so much to help open up the new human society that migrating Europeans were starting up in Australia, experimenting with merino sheep to improve the breeds there, exporting the breadfruit tree from Polynesia to the Caribbean and importing mangoes from Bengal. And back home he promoted Botany Bay as a convict colony.


In Africa he encouraged others to explore the Nile and the Niger, all the while encouraging scientific investigation and financial investment from England. There, he was an archetypal country squire, short and fat and on public occasions wore stockings and a wig, as well as his silk coat.

That happened quite often, because by then his life in London was spent running the Royal Society.  He was first elected in 1769 and from 1778 to 1820 was its President, advising government and directing its money to the many causes that applied the scientific work of Bacon’s by-then successful and well-tried method of experiment. Many of the social and cultural changes were inspired by goodness, liberty and a love of nature. Also emerging was a harder and more measured way of doing science the Bacon way, experimenting and analyzing each variable separately and with great precision. Banks held office while the Royal Society was going through a period of transition, starting when the more romantic view of scientific work was normal and ending when the more firmly restricted objective experimentation was taking over. Although the fuller romantic views remained highly valued in their own right, they appealed most to particular people further away from science. The journals of the explorers, Gilbert White’s correspondence and the writing of Coleridge and Wordsworth held on to nature’s beauty as the centerpiece of what life on earth was about. What Solander and Banks had seen of the inhabitants of the lands they visited expressed another perspective of this idea, just as Hooke’s 1664 drawings in Micrographia had shown beauty as well as precision.

One of the many social rewards from the continuing support of exploration and observation came a few years later with Banks’ suggestion that if Britain imported tea only from its colonies it would save £700,000 a year, a significant sum of money then. The imports of Camellia sinensis from China were switched to the tax-free market in India once the commercial production of Camellia assamica began a few decades later. As with coffee and sugar before, “there is no possibility of preventing the consumption of tea … so the only Object we can aim at is to produce the Article ourselves.”

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Cook’s second world voyage, on board HMS Resolution, set off in 1772 with father and son naturalists Johan and Georg Forster, and they were all joined at the Cape of Good Hope by another of Linnaeus’s students, Anders Sparrman.  They didn’t return home to Sweden until 1776, exhausted but with especially rich pickings. Of all their new species, none seemed to fit with any of the known forms of fossils, frustrating those who had argued that the fossils were accounted for by being living species as yet undiscovered.

There were other Swedish students at that time such as Carl Thunberg who explored the interior of South Africa and then Japan and who returned to Uppsala to take over the professorship after Linnaeus’s death in 1776.

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Carl Thunberg in South Africa                 leaves of the orchid Cypripedium

Although he was a very functional explorer, there to describe the organisms rather that admire the beauty of the scenery, Thunberg did have his local admirers. One South African local wrote that “As long as botanists wander in our paradise of flowers, so long will the name of Thunberg be held in honoured remembrance.” Linnaeus himself had written in memoriam of earlier explorers years before these men, and others of his students, ventured forth: “Good God! When I observe the fate of botanists, upon my word, I doubt whether to call them sane or mad in their devotion…”. As if in evidence, just two years later, aged only 49, Solander had a stroke at the house in Soho Square and died there.

Many more expeditions followed in succession by competing European countries building their Empires. The French navy sent Admiral Louis Antoine de Bourgainville (1729-1811) on an expedition around the world, and more than 200 men were away from 1766-9.

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Some of the travellers tried to negotiate for an end to slavery and in other ways to improve the new societies that they visited. But colonization and the church’s hypocrisy had become big business and many generations were to pass before the imbalances could be controlled.