In 1770, visiting Australia’s east coast aboard Captain Cook’s Endeavour, the botanist Joseph Banks thought the coastal soil north of Botany Bay barren. He tasted what he called Indian kale or spinach, parsley, fruits including figs, and seeds and nuts from cabbage and other palms. On the Great Barrier Reef, Banks observed there were ‘plenty of turtle and so large that a single turtle always served the ship’.
Sir Joseph Banks was a well-to-do English gentleman who, despite never obtaining a formal degree, took a keen interest in natural history. He made several voyages to various parts of the world collecting plants and observing the local wildlife and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1766.
It was at the urging of the Royal Society that Joseph Banks joined Cook’s expedition to the South Seas, the purpose of which was to record the transit of Venus across the sun. He took with him a retinue of servants as well as two naturalists and two natural history artists who recorded, preserved and sketched the marine, animal and plant life they encountered on their voyage. Banks was not impressed with the native food resources of “New Holland”, as the continent was then known, but admitted that they could sustain life. He wrote:
“Upon the whole New Holland, tho in every respect the most barren countrey I have seen, is not so bad but that between the productions of sea and Land a company of People who should have the misfortune of being shipwreckd upon it might support themselves, even by the resources that we have seen. Undoubtedly a longer stay and visiting different parts would discover many more.”
Banks erroneously thought that Australia’s indigenous people would be found only on the coastal fringes, where seafood was readily available. In his journal he described the food customs he observed as the Endeavour travelled up the coast.
For food they seem to depend very much tho not intirely upon the Sea. Fish of all kinds, Turtle and even crabs they strike with their Lances very dextrously. These are generaly bearded with broad beards and their points smeard over with a kind of hard resin which makes them peirce a hard body far easier than they would do without it. In the sourthern parts these fish spears had 4 prongs and besides the resin were pointed with the sharp bone of a fish; to the Northward again their spears had only one point; yet both I beleive struck fish with equal dexterity. For the Northern ones I can witness who several times saw them through a glass throw their Spear from 10 to 20 yards and generaly succeed; to the Southward again the plenty of Fish bones we saw near their fires provd them to be no indifferent artists.
For striking of Turtle they use a peg of wood well bearded and about a foot long: this fastens into a socket of a staff of light wood as thick as a mans wrist and 8 or 9 feet long, besides which they are tied together by a loose line of 3 or 4 fathoms in lengh. The use of this must undoubtedly be that when the Turtle is struck the staff flies off from the peg and serves for a float to shew them where the Turtle is, as well as assists to tire him till they can with their canoes overtake and haul him in. That they throw this Dart with great force we had occasion to observe while we lay in Endeavours river, where a turtle which we killd had one of them intirely buried in its body just across its breast; it seemd to have enterd at the soft place where the fore fins work but not the least outward mark of the wound remaind.
Besides these things we saw near their fire places plentifull remains of lobsters, shell fish of all kinds, and to the Southward the skins of those Sea animals which from their property of spouting out water when touched are commonly calld sea squirts. These last, howsoever disgustfull they may seem to an European palate, we found to contain under a coat as tough as leather a substance like the guts of a shell fish, in taste tho not equal to an oyster yet by no means to be despisd by a man who is hungrey.
Of Land animals they probably eat every kind that they can kill which probably does not amount to any large number, every species being here shy and cautious in a high degree. The only vegetables we saw them use were Yams of 2 sorts, the one long and like a finger the other round and coverd with stringy roots, both sorts very small but sweet; they were so scarce where we were that we never could find the plants that producd them, tho we often saw the places where they had been dug up by the Indians very newly. It is very probable that the Dry season which was at its hight when we were there had destroyd the leaves of the plants so that we had no guides, while the Indians knowing well the stalks might find them easily. Whether they knew or ever made use of the Coccos I cannot tell; the immence sharpness of every part of this vegetable before it is dressd makes it probable that any people who have not learnd the uses of it from others may remain for ever ignorant of them.
Near their fires were great abundance of the shells of a kind of fruit resembling a Pine apple very much in appearance, tho in taste disagreable enough; it is common to all the East Indies and calld by the Dutch there Pyn appel Boomen (Pandanus); as also those of the fruits of a low Palm calld by the Dutch Moeskruidige Calappus (Cycas circinalis) which they certainly eat, tho they are so unwholesome that some of our people who tho forewarnd depending upon their example eat one or 2 of were violently affected by them both upwards and downwards, and our hogs whose constitutions we thought might be as strong as those of the Indians literaly dyed after having eat them. It is probable however that these people have some method of Preparing them by which their poisonous quality is destroyd, as the inhabitants of the East Indian Isles are said to do by boiling them and steeping them 24 hours in water, then drying them and using them to thicken broth; from whence it should seem that the poisonous quality lays intirely in the Juices, as it does in the roots of the Mandihocca or Cassada of the West Indies and that when thouroughly cleard of them the pulp remain[in]g may be a wholesome and nutritious food.
Their victuals they generaly dress by broiling or toasting them upon the coals, so we judg’d by the remains we saw; they knew however the method of baking or stewing with hot stones and sometimes practis’d it, as we now and then saw the pits and burnd stones which had been made use of for that purpose.
Although Banks never returned to Australia, he retained a keen interest in the colony and is commemorated in a number of place names, including Bankstown in Sydney. There are several Australian plant species named after him: a red spider flower, Grevillea banksii; the seaweed known as ‘Neptune’s necklace’ or ‘Bubble-weed’, Hormosira banksii; a sundew, Drosera banksii; a wild pepper, Piper banksii; and a tree, the Tenterfield woollybutt, Eucalyptus banksii Maiden.