“For dirt & filth of all Kinds St Johns may in my opinion Reign unrivald,” wrote an unimpressed visitor to Newfoundland almost two and a half centuries ago. “As Every thing here smells of fish,” he added, “so You cannot get any thing that does not Taste of it.”
The gentleman in question was an as-yet little-known English naturalist, and though he might not have been swayed by the cuisine or the hygiene, he would end up with a very good reason to thank the town. For it was there he bumped into a fellow Brit who was also making his first marks on the world, and their chance encounter in St. John’s would lead to one of the most remarkable voyages in history.
The Age Of Wonder
Though many people often claim it, things weren’t better in the past. We are fortunate to be here now, and should be glad, living in a time of advanced medicine, increased longevity, declining violence, and great scientific and technological innovation.
Nonetheless, I do occasionally daydream about what it would have been like to have been born in another time. Of all the periods available, the latter half of the 18th century is the one that most intrigues me.
In this Age of Enlightenment, of Reason, and of Wonder, many extraordinary figures arose. My favourites – for a multitude of factors – were the Lunar Men, but they never made it to Newfoundland, so I shan’t crowbar them into this story.
The two men who did, and whose harbourside meeting in October 1766 was so fateful, were Joseph Banks and James Cook. They couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. Cook was the son of a Yorkshire farm worker, his first job a shop boy in a grocer’s. Banks was born into wealth and privilege, his father a Member of Parliament and country gentleman.
Both had an extraordinary drive for discovery, though, and it was this that brought them independently to Newfoundland.
The Navigator and the Naturalist
Having risen through the ranks as a merchant seaman, Cook signed up for the Royal Navy in 1755 and soon proved himself an able navigator and surveyor, not to mention captain. These skills served particularly useful in the Seven Years’ War, his maps helping General Wolfe defeat the French in Quebec.
Consequently, between 1762 and 1767, Cook was commissioned to produce the first detailed surveys of the coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador. The composite map is an astonishingly accurate and detailed piece of work, and was hardly improved upon until the 20th century.
Banks, meanwhile, was a rising star of British science. A strong proponent of the new biological species classification introduced by Carl von Linne, he became an advisor to King George III, but wanted to do something of novelty and significance.
When HMS Niger was commissioned to sail to Chateau Bay, Labrador, and construct a new garrison blockhouse in the summer of 1766, Banks and his friend Constantine John Phipps jumped at the chance to join the trip. Very little was known about the flora and fauna of the region, providing them with an opportunity for detailed studies.
Flora and Fauna
Talking of detailed studies, very little would be known about Banks’s trip if it wasn’t for the tireless detective work of a New Zealand zoologist, Averil Lysaght. In the 1950s and 1960s, she unearthed his diaries in an Australian library and his zoological notebooks in McGill University. Using these, she wrote Joseph Banks In Newfoundland & Labrador, 1766, an amazingly detailed work which earned her a Doctor of Letters from Memorial University.
Lysaght’s book allows us to glimpse the details of the voyage – including Banks’ thoughts on the capital’s cleanliness – and really appreciate the thoroughness of his work. Through the summer months of 1766, sailing from St. John’s to Croque, thence Chateau Bay, and back again, Banks described 340 species of plants and almost 100 types of bird, including the great auk. This was despite his being ill for most of July.
Botany was a particular fascination, one which would stay with Banks throughout his life. He was interested in the distribution of plants, and observed that species regarded as alpine in Europe grew at sea-level in Newfoundland and Labrador. Surprisingly perhaps, even though he made many new discoveries, Banks did not immortalize himself by naming them. Instead, he gifted the specimens to other naturalists to describe.
Banks “was uninterested in having his name attached to his researches,” explained Lysaght. “His great and lifelong passion was to investigate and extend all scientific knowledge.”
This included an understanding of the fishing industry, so crucial to the British. Banks described the techniques employed, compared these with what the French did, and even recorded the catches. On September 2nd, he noted that “a Halibut was brought aboard so large that his dimensions I fear will appear incredible in England.”
The fish was 6 feet 11 inches long from nose to tail, and weighed 284 pounds. Banks remarked incredulously that this was only 14 pounds less than an ox they had recently eaten!
A fateful meeting
In early October, the blockhouse in Chateau Bay finished, Banks and the crew of HMS Niger returned to St. John’s via Croque. Cook, meanwhile, had been surveying the south coast as captain of HMS Grenville, but with the weather beginning to close in, he too returned to port. The 27th of October saw both boats in the harbour.
It is entirely likely that Banks and Cook would have run into each other sooner or later. The reason their St. John’s session was so fateful was that it brought together the Royal Navy (Cook) and the Royal Society (Banks) at just the time the two organizations were contemplating an epic trip of geographic and scientific exploration. It was all about timing.
When, back in England in 1768, Cook was appointed captain of the Endeavour, tasked with sailing right round the world to make astronomical measurements of the transit of Venus and to clarify whether Terra Australis Incognita really existed, Banks was made the expedition’s official botanist.
The combination proved fruitful, Banks’ scientific and social skills enabling Cook to focus on the tasks of navigation and survey. The expedition itself proved more than fruitful, revolutionizing our understanding of the Southern Hemisphere, and making both men’s careers. Banks went on to become the longest-serving president of the Royal Society, Cook the most famous naval captain in the world.
For both, their paths to glory can be traced back to that autumnal meeting in the fishy filth of St John’s. For better or worse, this province was their proving ground, and the world saw the results.