In September this year, the Royal Society is hosting an international conference looking at the career and influence of Sir Joseph Banks, our longest-serving President. The conference marks the culmination of an 18-month collaborative project, ‘Joseph Banks, Science, Culture and the Remaking of the Indo-Pacific World’, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
As you’ll probably know, Banks was the botanist on Captain Cook’s first voyage, and spent three months in Tahiti from April to July 1769 exploring, collecting specimens and learning the Tahitian language, while the Endeavour’s astronomers prepared to observe the Transit of Venus. We’ve recently added an item to our Royal Society printed book collection which ‘documents’ this period of Banks’s life; as with our earlier Misogallus book purchase, however, it’s not something that Banks would have allowed anywhere near the Society’s shelves during his Presidency, as it takes a rather sardonic view of his exploits.
Entitled ‘An epistle from Oberea … to Joseph Banks, Esq.’, our newly-acquired 1774 volume is a verse satire in the style of Ovid. According to the title page (to be taken with a large pinch of salt), it was ‘translated’ from the original words of the Queen of Tahiti by a Dublin-based ‘Professor of all the languages of the undiscovered islands in the South Sea’, known only by the acronym ‘T.Q.Z.’ Opinions differ as to the true identity of the author – long thought to be Major John Scott-Waring of the East India Company, the finger of suspicion now seems to point more firmly towards Sir John Courtenay, a noted lampoonist and wit.
You can see why the author wished to keep his identity hidden from the libel lawyers, as the ‘Epistle’ begins with Oberea’s lament on her abandonment by Banks:
‘I Oberea, from the Southern main,
Of slighted vows, of injur’d faith complain.
Though now some European maid you woo,
Of waiste more taper, and of whiter hue;
Yet oft with me you deign’d the night to pass,
Beneath yon bread-tree on the bending grass’
The poem continues in similar flowery fashion, relating how Oberea botanized with Banks (‘taught thee each plant that sips the morning dew’) and showered the English visitors with gifts (‘And give them cocoas, women, bread, and hogs’). But Banks’s stay was not without its petty annoyances, such as the notorious ‘purloined trousers incident’ of 28 May:
‘Say fondest youth, canst thou forget the night
When starting from your sleep in wild affright;
Rise Oberea, rise my Queen, you said,
Some thief has stol’n my breeches from my head.’
Thankfully, the trousers were replaced by a fine native petticoat and harmony was restored, until the sad day when the crew of the Endeavour left Tahiti for unknown southern lands, taking Oberea’s high priest and adviser Tupaia with them. The Queen was left to bemoan the loss of ‘Opano’ (the Tahitian nickname for Banks) and prophesy that, should he ever return, he would find only her Morai, or tomb:
‘Perhaps Opano (be the omen vain)
If ere thy ships shall reach these shores again
You’ll seek the wigwam where we fondly lay
And in its place will find my sad Morai
Yet think at least my copious tears you see
And spare one thought from Botany for me’
Alas, poor Oberea! I am, of course, guilty of taking the same facetious tone as ‘T.Q.Z.’; the story of Banks in Tahiti and the interaction of the two cultures is a far more nuanced one than can be described in a blog post based around scurrilous lampoons and the ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ image of the entitled young explorer, and I’d recommend the opening chapter of Richard Holmes’s superb ‘The Age of Wonder’ if you’d care to explore further. And do book a Banks Conference place if you’d like to hear a fascinating range of papers on his later role as a key figure in Enlightenment exploration, collecting, botanical diplomacy and many other fields. We hope to see you at the Royal Society on 14 and 15 September – but hurry, tickets are selling fast!