Sir Joseph Banks has been credited as a visionary scientist who helped make Kew the leading botanical garden it is today.
But English Heritage has branded him an “enabler of slavery”, claiming his scientific work was pursued with the “ultimate aim” of helping British colonialism.
Sir Joseph – who documented species like eucalyptus on Captain Cook’s Endeavour voyage, before advising King George III on the development of Kew – has been reappraised for his attempts to increase “the power and prosperity of the British Empire”.
The naturalist was an “enabler of slavery”, according to English Heritage information for his official plaque, updated in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and aided British interests by devising schemes for the import of sheep and production of tea.
It explains that Sir Joseph devised Captain William Bligh’s ultimately mutinous Bounty voyage in order to ferry breadfruit plants to the West Indies, stating: “They were intended to provide cheap food for enslaved workers. He was, therefore, an enabler of slavery.”
Employed by George III as an unofficial director at Kew, Sir Joseph helped make it a centre of botanical science. As president of the Royal Society for more than 40 years, Sir Joseph also steered scientific endeavour in Britain.
He has been hailed by Sir David Attenborough as a “very important figure in the history of science” and a “panjandrum” of British science.
But new online information for his plaque in London’s Soho Square states that: “Banks was behind the global transplantation of many other botanic and live specimens across the globe, all with the ultimate aim of increasing the power and prosperity of the British Empire.”
Examples cited include Sir Joseph’s suggestion that tea could be grown in part of British India instead of China, and his importing of Merino sheep from Spain, which ultimately “formed the basis of the Australian wool industry”.
Sir Joseph Banks is commemorated in a stone tablet at Soho Square, along with Robert Brown and David Don
Credit: Dimple Patel/Alamy stock photo
English Heritage information drafted in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests has also picked out the racial opinions of Sir Joseph, and states that his “attitude to other races was typical of Europeans of his era”.
“He believed that black people had less ‘mental vigor’, and considered the indigenous Australians ‘cowardly’ and therefore unlikely to pose a threat to setting up a penal colony at Botany Bay,” English Heritage added.
Dr Zareer Masani, historian of British colonialism, has labelled the reappraisal of a figure who died 200 years ago as a “historical farce”. He added that the review was “yet another instance of wokedom taking over our cultural institutions”.
A spokesman for English Heritage said: “English Heritage started an ongoing programme of updating the online entry for each blue plaque recipient.
“English Heritage has no plans to remove any of our blue plaques or to add any physical interpretation at the site of a plaque.”
Kew Gardens’ history reassessed
Kew Gardens itself, first established in 1759, expanded under George III with the help of Sir Joseph, has been recently reassessed for its links to British colonialism.
Following Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Richard Deverell, its director, wrote that “parts of Kew’s history shamefully draw from a legacy that has deep roots in colonialism and racism”.
While many plants were said to be discovered by Western men of science like Sir Joseph, Kew’s director of science said scientists have historically “appropriated indigenous knowledge”.
It was announced in March 2021 that the botanic gardens would replace display boards for specimens like sugar cane, which was historically harvested by slaves, in order to highlight the site’s “imperial legacy”.