August 14 1815: A Conversation with Sir Joseph Banks

On August 14 1815, John Cam Hobhouse writes  in his diary about a long conversation he had with Sir Joseph Banks which included discussions about Burke and Samuel Johnson. Bankes was an explorer and naturalist. He had been to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766. He had also been with Cook on his first voyage. He had also been president of the Royal Society for a very long time. Hobhouse writes:

Ditto. Dined with Sir Joseph Banks. He told me that since he has been President of the Royal Society there have been alchymists – one, an F.R.S., made gold before a committee of which Lord Palmerston was one – all were eminent. Banks said “I shall be damned if he takes me in too. I know he can’t do it, but he may deceive me, so I will have nothing to do with it, except he consents to my conditions”. Banks drew up a set of conditions: the Alchymist was to be at one end, and the party at the other end of the table – Banks was to put everything into the crucible – the Alchymist was not to move his hand beyond a certain line – everything was prepared, when at the end of three days Banks heard the Alchymist had poisoned himself with laurel water* of his own distillation, and so badly distilled that he was half an hour dying.

Wolf, F.R.S., was also an alchymist friend of Bankes, who says moreover he doubts not there are gold searchers in the garrets of Wapping. Banks mentions the number of systems he can recollect, the most curious the urinum magnetium* – twenty people stood round a tub, each holding a handle – the operator made pointings of his fingers at them in the usual manner, when one began to vomit, another fainted, another laughed, a fourth kicked &c. All were affected – the folks could never do anything with Bankes. They wanted to treat him, but he was incredulous and therefore unmoved.

He told me that when he was taken with Johnson the first time, Johnson took a book and read it all dinner time and three hours afterwards. He never spoke a word. He talked for victory – it was most despotic his sway – even Burke was afraid of him – Banks once talked against him on a subject of which he was perfectly master, Johnson knowing nothing – the debate grew warm. He felt some one tapping his back. It was Sir Joshua Reynolds. When Banks returned from his tour he was the London Lion. Reynolds got him to sit for his picture and had Burke to talk to him all the time. Banks observed to me that formerly there were some one at the head of everything – even whoring had its Kitty Fisher* – now there are no chiefs, yet he owned that the discoveries of the next fifty years would be most unparalleled, and would bring my generation into a new world. “That makes me sorry,” said he, “that I am going to die soon”. He told me, “Johnson was afraid of the devil, which between you and me, won’t do”. So here is another philosopher. He, very well I think, said that a man who always talked for victory would not be a very moral man. Boswell’s Life, he said, was a very fair one.

Sir William Jones was a good man, but a republican, which Johnson did not like. Banks tells me the Pyro ligneous acid, (the Paris vinegar) is thrown away at Woolwich – he said he had no doubt that in two years we should have news from Tombucto, the Senegal for 1,200 miles being in our power, and relays of blockhouses being about to be built.

Sir Joseph Banks is a very extraordinary, underrated man, I think. His accuracy in science is without a parallel as far as I ever heard. I was delighted hearing him talk today.

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