Nothing is known of his ancestry or early life. In 1776, he was recommended as a suitable botanical collector to Cook, who had failed to attract an established botanist to the position. He was appointed, and received a small amount of botanical training and instruction by Joseph Banks and William Aiton before embarking. On returning to London in 1780, he worked as a gardener at Kew Gardens for seven years, before accepting an appointment as botanist to Bligh's voyage to Tahiti to obtain breadfruit trees. He was caught up in the mutiny and, remaining loyal to the captain, was one of the 19 men cast adrift without arms in a small boat. He survived the famous 3800-mile voyage to Timor, but a few days after arriving he spent a day botanising in the mountains, caught a cold, and died.