Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic

Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820: Journals, Letters and Documents
Edited by Anna Agnarsdóttir
The Hakluyt Society  708pp  £85

Ash and cod have long dominated foreigners’ notions of Iceland. While other countries’ ships fished the well-stocked seas, naturalists found the island’s glacial ice and volcanic fire fascinating. First-hand information was scarce; some even wrote the island’s natural history without ever going there. The first British survey was led by Joseph Banks in 1772. At a key moment in the invention of romantic aesthetics and in North Atlantic politics, Banks’ journals and letters offer a gripping story of science and travel. They are now available in the Hakluyt Society’s fine edition.

Banks was a scientific celebrity of late Georgian Britain. A gentleman of enormous wealth, he spent his twenties as a traveller and obsessive botanist. His hero was the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. In 1768 he recruited one of Linnaeus’ followers, Daniel Solander, as his assistant. At first they planned to go to northern Lapland, where Linnaeus had won his scientific spurs. Instead they were offered the chance of a Grand Tour to the South Pacific on a voyage commanded by James Cook. 

The Endeavour circumnavigation made Banks’ reputation. When a second voyage was proposed in early 1772, Banks assembled a large team, but accommodation for his entourage on Cook’s ship would render it unseaworthy and he withdrew in high dudgeon. His journal starts with a long chapter of complaints about the disaster. Instead, Banks sought alternative employment for his crew, including Solander and his friend (and future Swedish archbishop) Uno von Troil, as well as servants, musicians and a trio of artists led by the marine painter John Cleveley. Within a fortnight in early summer 1772, he hired a ship, the Sir Lawrence, and set off instead for the North Atlantic. 

The Sir Lawrence voyage through the Western Isles brought the travellers to Staffa, where their descriptions of what they learnt to call Fingal’s Cave were soon lapped up by audiences eager to learn of volcanic marvels. Hebrideans impressed Banks less. Nor, initially, was Icelandic hospitality better, since the expedition was at first taken to be a raiding party of pirates. But soon Banks’ group met with a warmer welcome: his servants were so gorgeously uniformed that islanders found it hard to tell gentlemen from underlings. They visited the volcano Hekla, lava samples gathered and the astonishing geyser visited, where Banks arranged for a ptarmigan he had shot to be boiled in the hot spring. 

Banks and the Icelanders impressed each other. There were honorific odes, feasts of cod and shark and collections of Icelandic literature and flora shipped home to London. Banks had Hekla and a map of Iceland on his visiting card and ‘Baron Banks’ became a favoured toast when Icelanders and British visitors met. During the Napoleonic Wars, which involved conflict between Denmark and Britain, Banks often recommended either the annexation of the island or its occupation. Ever since, romanticised appreciation of Iceland’s marvels has been tangled up with similarly challenging political and environmental issues.

Simon Schaffer is Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge.

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