After spending five weeks last summer as an intern and immersing myself in the NMM’s collections relating to Nevil Maskelyne, I have found myself intrigued by the character of his relationship with Joseph Banks. A previous post on this blog highlighted two episodes in the forty or so years that they knew each other, one from 1775 revealing a confident friendship between them and a shared scientific curiosity, and the other painfully polite, written in highly stilted and formal language in the months following a major dispute in 1784. Further reading has shed more light on the latter incident, and I have found documents that reveal the depth of the schism between the two men at this time.
Maskelyne had been a high-ranking member of the ‘Mathematical Faction’ that took a stand against Banks’s leadership of the Royal Society between November 1783 and March 1784. Having opposed Banks’s motion in a Council meeting designed to remove Dr Charles Hutton, a fellow mathematician, from his role as Foreign Secretary, Maskelyne found himself removed from the Council the following week at the Society’s Anniversary meeting. The troubles escalated over the following months before support for Banks’s leadership was confirmed by a significant majority vote at two separate meetings in February. By the end of March all issues were decided in Banks’s favour, and the majority of the ‘Dissenters’ either resigned or quietly withdrew from the Royal Society.
Maskelyne, however, was not in a position to remove himself from close contact with Banks. As Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society respectively, their roles meant that Maskelyne was answerable to Banks as Chair of the Visitors to the Royal Observatory, and as they were both key members of the Board of Longitude there was no way for Maskelyne to avoid Banks without reneging on his responsibilities.
It was in fact the Board of Longitude that brought them face to face in the immediate aftermath of the disputes for a meeting on March 6, 1784, with six other commissioners present. In a letter sent later that day to Charles Blagden, Banks’s close friend, ally and soon-to-be appointed Secretary to the Royal Society, Banks describes a moment in this meeting: ‘… when I was revenging myself on the R Astronomer at the board of Longitude who was reduced to a compleat state of humiliation…’ A clue to just how Banks was doing this lies in his draft minutes of the meeting, which begin: ‘The Astronomer Royal, without the consent of the Committee certified Mr Bonds and Messrs Wright and Gill. The PRS signified his wish to be excused from acting any more on the Committee.’ It appears Maskelyne may have been severely reprimanded for taking action without the Committee’s permission, and that the President no longer wished to work with someone who would do such things.
Together these notes provide a rare glimpse into an unusually vindictive side of Banks’s character and show that he had been seriously provoked by the men who stood against his Presidency. But there is no sign of friction in a smaller Committee meeting just two weeks later, and as discussed in the previous post, within a few months Banks had arranged certain financial matters to Maskelyne’s benefit. Maskelyne was also reappointed to the Royal Society Council the following November and remained there until his death in 1811.
I am still fascinated at how they rebuilt their relationship, having to work closely together for another 25 years after this incident, and by the nature of that friendship. Was it warm and trusting, or respectful, but cautious? One view, taken by several historians, is that whatever their disagreements may have been, ‘in society they appear to have enjoyed each other’s company and to have met as friends and intimates.’ I am inclined to question the level of enjoyment and the degree of intimacy in their friendship. To avoid each other was impossible, and so peaceful, public compromises had to be made, but what they thought of each other in private may have been quite different.
H.B. Carter, author of the most comprehensive biography of Banks, describes Maskelyne as ‘a difficult and uncertain man, with whom [Banks] kept an enduring friendship in spite of their many disagreements.’ This may reflect a more accurate version of how Banks thought of Maskelyne, but I would also query the ‘enduring’ aspect of their relationship. A second serious dispute between them concerning the watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw peaked in 1806 and led to Banks’s non-attendance at Board of Longitude meetings until Maskelyne had passed away. I suspect holding their work relationship together was always a difficult task, but both men did so for as long as they did because of their commitment to science and willingness to accept the responsibilities of their respective positions.
I wonder if readers of this blog are aware of any documents that show evidence of ‘enjoyment’, ‘intimacy’ or otherwise between them after 1784 and then 1806? I would love to hear from you!
 MM/7/41 Royal Society Library. Draft minutes, in Banks’s handwriting, of Board of Longitude meeting. Messrs Wright and Gill were the partners of an eminent wholesale stationery company.
 Derek Howse, Nevil Maskelyne: the Seaman’s Astronomer, 1989, p160, following the comments of H.C. Cameron, Sir Joseph Banks, KB, PRS: the Autocrat of the Philosophers, 1952, p.232.
 H.B. Carter, Sir Joseph Banks, 1988, p319.
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