Historical botanical illustration of the day

Alexander Buchan, Sydney Parkinson, Endeavour, florilegium, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell, transit of Venus

Three months prior to arriving at Tahiti, Captain Cook and the crew of the HMB Endeavour had struggled to make it round Cape Horn.

After several aborted attempts, on 16 January 1769 the ship finally anchored on the Pacific coast of Tierra del Fuego at a place Cook subsequently named the Bay of Good Success.

In the circumstances, this was perhaps something of a misnomer – at least for the two black servants naturalist Joseph Banks brought along with him on the voyage.

Thomas Richmond and George Dorlton helped carry Banks’ equipment, plus that of his fellow plant collector Daniel Solander as the pair set off to explore the high hills around the bay.

They were joined by others including the astronomer Charles Green, the surgeon William Monkhouse, plus Alexander Buchan, the landscape artist Banks had enlisted.

The steep climb took its toll and Buchan at one point had an epileptic fit, which soon passed but left him weak. Towards evening, the weather turned and a blizzard struck. Solander too began to struggle and eventually said he couldn’t go any further, lying down in the snow.

Richmond began to flag as well. Banks sent some of the other men ahead with Buchan to build a fire for the night while he stayed with Solander till his companion got up enough strength to continue to the camp.

Alexander Buchan, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, florilegium, Natalie Waddell, transit of VenusThe pair left Richmond behind, along with Dorlton and another seaman. The latter survived the night but the two servants froze to death. Buchan recovered and made it back to the ship next day, going on to complete the illustration to the right, A View of the Endeavour’s Watering Place in the Bay of Good Success. But his epilepsy returned at Tahiti and on April 17 he died.

While Cook mourned the passing of Buchan, describing him in his journal as “a Gentleman well skill’d in his profession and one that will be greatly missed in the Course of this Voyage,” Banks was more concerned about the impact the lack of artwork would have on his dinner parties back home.

“I sincerely regret him as an ingenious and good young man, but his Loss to me is irretrevable, my airy dreams of entertaining my freinds in England with the scenes that I am to see here are vanishd,” he wrote in his journal. “No account of the figures and dresses of men can be satisfactory unless illustrated with figures: had providence spard him a month longer what an advantage would it have been to my undertaking but I must submit.”

The main task of recording all the specimens Banks and Solander collected during the Endeavour’s voyage, as well as the other sights the men encountered, therefore fell to the botanical artist Sydney Parkinson. One of his watercolours from Tierra del Fuego, of Gunnera Magellanica, is the one above.

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