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The role that various scientific societies played in the early life of the colony of New South Wales is briefly reviewed. It is suggested that one of the reasons that was instrumental in the formation of these societies and in the establishment of the Australian Museum in 1827 was the diverse and apparently bizarre biota that engaged these early colonists. This is even more remarkable, given that the colony was initially established as a penal settlement.

Text by Dr Pat Hutchings, from the book The Natural History of Sydney.
With the generous support of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW, Mosman, Australia.

When Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay in 1770 on board the HM Bark Endeavour, he was confronted by what must have appeared to Europeans as a bizarre fauna and flora. The naturalists on board led by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander made extensive collections both in Botany Bay and elsewhere along the east coast of Australia during this expedition.

A living room in London...

On his return to England in July 1771, Banks became a scientific celebrity. Both Banks and Solander were presented to George III in August and, in November 1771, Oxford honoured both naturalists with the degree of Doctor of Civil Law. With Solander as secretary and librarian, the huge collections of seeds, plants, shells, insects, bottled specimens, native implements and reams of notes and drawings were installed in Banks’ London residence - there was no appropriate institution in London at the time. The British Museum of Natural History was not founded until 1881.

Even though the British Museum opened in 1759, the foundation collections largely consisted of books, manuscripts and natural history with some antiquities (including coins and medals, prints and drawings) and ethnographic items. Banks chose to retain his collections in his own house rather than entrust them to this Museum, perhaps because he had personally funded the collection of the material. More specimens and curiosities continued to pour into Banks’ London house and, by 1776, he had moved his headquarters to 32 Soho Square, a large house where Solander could do justice to the ever increasing library and museum. On 30th November 1778, Banks was elected to succeed Sir John Pringle as President of the Royal Society. He also became a Trustee of the British Museum, a role he held for 42 years.

Some of the first birds to be described from New South Wales came from these collections, with the first description of a kookaburra appearing in 1776 by Sonnerat but wrongly entitled by him as the “Grand Martin-Pêcheur de la Nouvelle Guinée”. It in fact depicts one of the kookaburras caught by Banks on the east coast of Australia in 1770. On the Endeavour’s return journey to England, Banks gave a specimen of this species to Sonnerat when they met at the Cape of Good Hope. This is how the bird acquired its incorrect but lasting scientific name Dacelo novaeguineae, implying that it had been collected in Papua New Guinea. Another species to be illustrated from these collections made in Botany Bay was the rainbow lorikeet, Trichoglossus haematodus (Brown, 1776).

How bizarre: Australia’s flora & fauna

Not only did Banks play a role in highlighting the bizarre fauna of New Holland but also he gave evidence before a House of Commons committee in 1779 that strongly recommended Botany Bay as a suitable place for a penal settlement. This support may have been strong because he wanted to indulge his interest in the botany of the potential colony. Certainly, once the colony was established, he continued his interest and arranged for a large number of useful plants to be sent out on one of the early supply ships, the Guardian which, however, was wrecked. Banks continued his close association with the Colony, and all the early returning ships from New South Wales brought back specimens (plant, animal and geological) for him, which were deposited at his house.

The Royal Botanical Gardens

In 1816, the Botanical Gardens were established and the first Colonial Botanist was appointed in 1817. In 1901, the new Herbarium was opened within the Botanical Gardens, which became the Royal Botanical Gardens in 1959. Initially it was for the promotion of exotic plants and commercially important species and only later did the focus shift to the study of the Australian flora.

Many of the early settlers primarily viewed the fauna as a potential source of food, which was often critically important when crops failed or supply ships did not arrive. Others were concerned with exploiting mineral resources and supplying stone and timber suitable for building. While much is made of the convict origin of New South Wales, some of the early free settlers were, in fact, well educated and intrigued by the Australian fauna and flora and became interested in it. This is supported by the first scientific society being formed within 40 years of the establishment of the penal colony in Sydney.

Beginnings of the collections

The Philosophical Society of Australasia held its inaugural meeting on the 4th July 1821. According to the minutes of that meeting, each member was requested to pay £5 to set up a museum and library in a room in the Colonial Secretary’s Office. The Society received collections of minerals, fossils and timber, read papers at weekly meetings on astronomy and geology of the Sydney region, and the local indigenous people. One of their first actions was to set up a plaque at Kurnell to commemorate the landing of Cook and Banks. An anniversary dinner was held, but the Society lapsed after two years. Branagan (1972) suggested that the Society was instigated prematurely. Had it been a few years later it may have been maintained by a larger and more active membership.

The collections, accumulated by the Philosophical Society of Australasia, came under the responsibility of Alexander Macleay, who arrived in Sydney in 1826 to take up the post of Colonial Secretary of New South Wales under Governor Darling. Prior to this, he had been the Honorary Secretary of the Linnean Society of London from 1789 until 1825, and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Macleay arrived in Sydney with a personal collection of insects, which he added to considerably during his time in Sydney. This was to later form the basis of the Macleay Museum, now housed at the University of Sydney.

Australia’s first museum

In 1827, Governor Darling on the recommendation of Macleay, allocated £200 to the establishment and running of a museum, the Colonial Museum, which was subsequently renamed the Australian Museum in June 1836. By early 1830, it had moved from the Colonial Secretary’s office to a shed attached to the Judge-Advocate’s Old Office and, in 1831, it was transferred to the Old Legislative Council building in Macquarie Street. In 1836 it moved again, this time to the Chief Justice’s office in Macquarie Street where it was open to the public two days a week from 12-3 pm. In 1841, it was on the move again, to the Court House at Woolloomooloo. As the collections expanded, more space was needed and the New South Wales Colonial Architect James Barnet was instructed to design a new building to be erected on the present William Street site. During construction of the museum, a whale skeleton mounted under a temporary shelter outside proved to be popular. The external structure of the museum was finished in 1852 but the interior fit-out was not completed until 1856, and opened to the public on the 24th May 1857.

Over 10,000 people visited during the first week, and given the population at that time, this means that most of the population of Sydney visited the museum during that week. Strahan (1979) provides details of all the problems associated with this construction and the associated funding dilemmas. This building, which is on the corner of College and William Streets, has superb cedar joinery and paneling and rooms of grand proportions although mezzanine levels were installed during the early 1970s in the area then occupied by the Malacology Department. This department moved, along with many other departments, into the new Collections & Research Building in late 2008. This is the latest of many additions and renovations that have occurred at the site over the last 150 years.

An outstanding achievement

It may come as a surprise to some that a penal colony established only 39 years before had instigated a scientific institution that is recognized as one of oldest natural history museum in the world with extensive zoological, geological and anthropological collections from Australia and the Indo-Pacific. The first Secretary of the Australian Museum was William Holmes, who was dubbed the “Colonial Zoologist” although he was a carpenter and appears to have been employed mainly for his skills at constructing display cases rather than for his zoological knowledge. He was accidentally fatally shot in Moreton Bay, Queensland, while collecting birds and other curiosities in August 1831. The first major display at the Australian Museum was of New South Wales products, which was subsequently dispatched to the Paris International Exhibition in 1855.

You can find the full article, including fantastic illustrations, in the book The Natural History of Sydney.

[This article is based on Pat Hutchings' scientific paper, and has been slightly changed].