Author’s View: The ‘Joys’ of editing the Banks Iceland and North Atlantic papers

The recent publication of Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820. Journals, Letters and Documents (Hakluyt Society Third Series No. 30) is the result of more than two decades of researching, translating, annotating and editing. In this longread, editor Anna Agnarsdóttir goes back to her days as a graduate student at the LSE to trace the long and winded road she traveled over the many years that led to this edition, taking her from Britain to Iceland, Canada, the United States, and back. After a series of reflections that will strike many readers as familiar – “Research means travel”; “Transcribing is much like learning a foreign language”; “Primary sources live forever” – she reminds us also of the prosaic limitations to spending one’s summers following in the footsteps of one’s subject, namely having family members who prefer sunnier climes.


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Editing the Banks Iceland correspondence was a joy – now that it is finished and I look back on the experience. It all began last century when I was at the London School of Economics working on my doctoral thesis on Anglo-Icelandic relations 1800–1820. I was in the Botany Library of the Natural History Museum looking at the Banks Iceland correspondence preserved there. The curator said I must meet Harold B. Carter. Harold was an Australian research scientist who had become interested in Banks – after all Banks is very well-known as “the Father of Australia”; he adorned the $5 bill at the time – and before leaving Sydney for England Carter had published two hefty volumes of Banks Correspondence dealing with wool and Merino sheep, a joint interest of Banks and George III.

Harold was in the process of founding The Banks Archive Project, under the joint auspices of the Royal Society and the Natural History Museum in London. He had been mapping out how Banks’s role was reflected in his correspondence and had identified 21 main themes, one of them being the Iceland correspondence. On the completion of my thesis Harold suggested I take on the editing of these documents. I was of course delighted to be immediately involved in a new project, and a prestigious one for a young Icelandic historian. However, at more or less the same time I was lucky enough to be appointed to a tenured position as a lecturer at the University of Iceland and thus entered academic life full-time with all that that entails. The expectation of publishing at least the equivalent of one article a year and giving a few public lectures put this huge project on the back burner, as it was obviously going to take a long time to complete.

Thus I have spent most of my professional life with Banks when I had some spare time and during sabbaticals. He has always been lurking in the background. Editing primary sources and actually writing history are quite different processes. Apart from my thesis I regard this volume as a great achievement. Why? Because this is first and foremost a collection of primary sources – and primary sources do not have a sell-buy date. They – unlike us – live forever, waiting for future generations to interpret them. Almost everything else I have written will become obsolete with the passing of time and new research.

The editing of this volume has thrown up a lot of challenges. As Banks had no direct heirs, his papers were sold at auction to collectors and archives all over the world; what Banks scholars call ‘the great dispersal’. For example the journal he wrote while in Iceland can be pieced together by going to the archives in Maidstone, Kent, and in Montreal, with additional memoranda in the Natural History Museum. The repositories with the actual Iceland correspondence are about twenty. This meant travel. It is simply not enough to work from a photocopy, you have to see and feel the original document. I am happy to say that I managed to visit all the repositories housing Icelandic Banks material, except for Canberra and Adelaide in Australia, and even went twice to San Francisco, which has an exceptionally large collection of Banks material. But repositories containing sources necessary for background for the annotations added many more archives to the list and I have no idea how many times I visited the Rare Book Room in the British Library (my favourite place to work) to trace elusive information for the notes. All great fun of course.

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Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820: Journals, Leters and Documents (London: Hakluyt Society, 2016). #BanksIceland

Thankfully the groundwork for the rules of editing had been laid by Harold Carter, supplemented by Hakluyt Society conventions. In 1990 Carter had stated that ‘the arrangement of the text’ should be as ‘near as possible to the original letter even in the matter of paragraphs and identations.’ This I followed faithfully. Carter had also sorted all the Banks letters and listed what he considered to be Iceland letters. Later I decided to take on the Greenland, Faroese and Norwegian ones – as they did not seem to fit anywhere else and the idea of the Banks Archive Project is to publish the Banks correspondence in toto (18 volumes so far published and more in the pipeline).

During these two decades the PRO became the TNA, the Danish and Icelandic archives decided to change their filing system and full stops in abbreviations quietly disappeared. A project taking more than two decades invariably means it will be chock- a-block with inconsistencies. This is where my invaluable Hakluyt Society editor, Gloria Clifton, came in (how many e-mails we have exchanged is a matter of research in itself) whose eagle eye and meticulous work spotted a lot of discrepancies, rectified in time for publication. She also queried some notes, thus saving me from embarrassing mistakes, helped me with the index, did all the formatting, put everything in order etc.

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century handwriting can be difficult to decipher: in Iceland Gothic script was the favoured norm, preferably in Danish, while Banks’s handwriting, spelling etc., steadily worsening as the gout spread, and can charitably be said to be a challenge. In fact deciphering a letter is a lot like learning a foreign language – suddenly it makes sense. Though not surprisingly a word here or there proved to be indecipherable or illegible due to the paper having faded or been torn.

Most of the fun proved to be in the annotation. I certainly learnt a lot. A book like this needs more expertise than any one person can be expected to have. Despite having learnt Latin extensively at my Reykjavík grammar school my Latin was not up to translating these letters – almost all the Latin letters being written by learned eighteenth-century Icelanders – English not being in use in Iceland at the time. The great expert Professor Charles Burnett (Warburg Institute) translated the Latin letters into elegant English while I attempted the other languages and then got specialists to look them over. Unlike Banks geology and botany were not my favourite subjects at school, but thanks to Professor Leifur Símonarson and Dr David Hibberd I am pretty confident that these notes will not disappoint.

Names are notoriously the most difficult to decipher. Banks, a poor speller, mentioned one ‘Juin’. Who was he? Well, the name of course was misspelled. Probably a man called Nicolas Jouin, a Jansenist pamphleteer found in French records. Former Hakluyt Society President Will Ryan found another headache, a man Banks called Wheatley who turned out to be Whately, such identification was not an easy task. What I personally found most difficult to annotate was Banks’ journey up the Western Isles to Scotland, where I have never been. I have berated myself since in not taking a summer holiday there during the past two decades and following in Banks’s footsteps, but my daughters preferred sunnier climes.annaa

Decisions have to be taken as to what words the general reader will not understand and thus need a note. The nature of editing is that you can go on and on. Finally, I said that’s it! And here is it, all 707 pages of it.

Anna Agnarsdóttir


Anna Agnarsdóttir is Professor of History in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik. She has published on Icelandic history, exploratory voyages in the North Atlantic, and global encounters more widely. She is the editor of Sir Joseph Banks, Iceland and the North Atlantic 1772-1820: Journals, Letters and Documents (London: Routledge for the Hakluyt Society, 2016).


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