(1743 – 1820)
By the time he began to involve himself in African exploration, Sir Joseph Banks had already accumulated an impressive resume of scientific and intellectual achievements, not the least of which being his presence on Captain Cook’s first voyage, elevation as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1766, and election as President of the Royal Society in 1778. Banks was devoted, though not exclusively, to the study of botany, and was King George III’s friend and advisor on matters of science and agriculture. As President of the Royal Society, he was also given extended influence and prestige, and although never an MP, managed an extensive network of political acquaintances. Moreover, Banks became “an ex officio member of the governing boards of the few institutions established by the British government to deal specifically with scientific affairs: the Royal Observatory, the board of longitude, and (from 1793) the board of agriculture.” In 1797 he would become a privy councillor.
Banks involved himself in a vast array of intellectual and exploratory happenings in 18th century Britain, and was in epistolary contact with many of the leading intellectual lights of the day as well, sending over 20,000 letters to Europe, America, and the colonies.  His house in Soho Square, with its felicitous proximity to both the British museum and Westminster, “defied its dimensions” by teeming with members of his staff and his personal collection of biological specimens and other spoils of exploration, and gave Banks “a semi-institutional position not only as patron of European science but as advisor to government.” He was the single most influential man of the period when it came to British exploration: ” the unseen hand, the shadowy impresario of Britain’s colonial expansion in the era before the state had created a governmental machine to administer the empire.”
It was not surprising, therefore, that Banks should be involved in exploration in Africa. He was one of the founding members of the African Association and remained its Treasurer until 1804, when ill health forced him to resign from the role.  In fact, in the words of then-Secretary of the Association, Bryan Edwards, Banks was “the life and soul of the Association.” In addition, Banks at times acted as interim Secretary, in effect shouldering the entire leadership of the African Association.  In this context, perhaps it is not too difficult to imagine that Banks could not only “inspire and lead,” but also “on occasion dominate,” as Dorothy Middleton imagines.
More to the point, however, Banks put his political connections to good use on the Association’s behalf. When the African Association dispatched Frederick Hornemann to Africa in 1797, it was found necessary for him to travel through France, which presented something of an impossibility given the war at the time. But Banks neatly stepped in, and arranged not only for Hornemann to have a passport to France, but also provided him with letters of introduction to his intellectual contacts there. Likewise, in 1799 the African Association adopted the view that Britain ought to take control of the banks of the Joliba River and shortly afterwards Banks addressed a letter to his old friend Lord Liverpool, conveniently for his purposes now the President of the Board of Trade, in which he outlined the many reasons why such an exertion on the part of the British government would prove ultimately advantageous in not only securing economic superiority, but also contesting the region with France. It may or may not have been a coincidence that it was the very next year in which Britain sallied forth to capture the French island of Goree off of the African coast, establishing an official British presence in Western Africa to counter that of the French. And it was certainly not a coincidence that in 1802, when Banks wrote another letter – this time to the Under-Secretary of State at the Colonial Office – stressing some of the same points, the government reacted with real anxiety and the disastrous expedition into the interior on which explorer Mungo Park, along with most of the British soldiers sent to accompany him, died.
Banks remained a member of the African Association, and indeed, of its governing Committee, until his death in 1820. His contribution to the Association was vast, and although Banks never ran for office, the prestige conferred upon him by his intellectual reputation and role as President of the Royal Society opened doors for the Association. In the words of Robin Hallett: “Without his unflagging support, his efficiency, and his shrewd common sense, the Association, it is not too much to claim, could never have achieved all that it did.”