It’s tempting to call this book a little gem. Despite being written by an academic, it’s an easy read and fulfils the promise of the title admirably. For most of us in the UK or the US, Joseph Banks is an unknown character. Australians will know him much better, as he was also largely responsible for the founding of the penal colony that would eventually become a great nation. Banks was present on Cook’s voyage of scientific discovery and imperial plunder, and traded on this ‘expertise’ for the rest of his life.
So it is a good book – a gem indeed – but I still felt somewhat let down because of the other key word in that description – little. This is the shortest full-priced popular science book I have ever come across. Not only is it small – this hardback is about the size of a mass market paperback – its 157 main pages are in large print. In fact it seems an almost deliberate attempt to clone Longitude – both very short books about a little-known figure who made a small but significant contribution to scientific history without really being scientists.
It’s actually stretching things a little to call this popular science, as there is hardly any science in it. It’s more a compact biography of a man who was a powerful scientific administrator (as well as a political force). This doesn’t take away the fact that Banks is a fascinating subject (despite the title, it is about Banks – Linnaeus is really just a reference point). Mocked for his sexual adventures on Tahiti and for being an effete dabbler, he nonetheless managed to take control of the Royal Society for 40 years, proved a major influence on the adoption of the Linnaean classification structure, changed the sheep breeding world and was responsible for Australia becoming the UK’s preferred prison destination. Can you resist?