"But who is going to envy John Reinhold Forster? We have come to one of the awkward beings of the age, the patently conspicuous phenomenon of the voyage... There is nothing that can make him other than one of the Admiralty's vast mistakes. From first to last on the voyage, and afterwards, he was an incubus. One hesitates, in fact, to lay out his characteristics, lest the portrait should seem simply caricature. Dogmatic, humourless, suspicious, pretentious, contentious, censorious, demanding, rheumatic, he was a problem from any angle."
This is how Beaglehole described Johann Forster in Cook's journal of his Second Voyage and in the biography. And this theme has been taken up by many others.
But was Forster really like this?
Not according to Michael Hoare, THE expert on Forster.
To find out what he was really like one needs to read Forster's biography and his journal of the Second Voyage. We turn to Dr. Hoare for both of these.
In 1976 Hoare's biography of Forster was published by Hawthorn Press under the title "The Tactless Philosopher".
In 1982 the Hakluyt Society published "The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster, 1772 - 1775", edited by M. E. Hoare.
And, if we want to, we can read "Three Men in a Boat". This was the title of a lecture given, in 1975, by Hoare to the Royal Society of New Zealand. It was published by Hawthorn Press.
The Forster family originally came from Britain. A George Forster was dispossessed in the 1640's by Parliamentary forces after the family supported the Royalist cause during the English Civil War. George, like many others, went to Danzig. His son Adam had a son called Georg, who had a son called Georg Reinhold, whose son is THE Johann Reinhold (1729 - 1798).
Forster began his career as a reluctant pastor and theologian. After twelve years he went to Russia and worked as a commissioner in the service of Catherine the Great - he was an honourable unrepentant disaster. However, he did lead an expedition 2,500 miles to the Volga.
In 1766 he went to England with his 11 year old son Johann George Adam Reinhold Forster (1754 - 1794).
Here he became the first person ever to publicly teach natural history in England, in one of the country's most progressive educational establishments, Warrington Academy. He was consulted by Oxford philologists, patronised by leading politicians, scientists and antiquaries. His intellectual accomplishments stood out. He reputedly mastered 17 languages, living and dead; he was learned in philology, ancient geography and Egyptology; he knew much about man, civilised and primitive.
In 1771 his translation of Bougainville's journal around the world was published. Upon the return in that year of the Endeavour from Banks' voyage round the world, Forster decided that he, like many others, would like to go on Banks' next South Seas expedition. He frequently visited both Banks and Solander to improve his chances; and indeed they were two of the gentlemen who proposed that he be made a Fellow of the Royal Society (which he became in 1772).
When Banks had his row with the Admiralty over the alterations to the Resolution they considered Forster as a replacement. After several weeks of activity it was done. Forster had his chance to repay his employers with a wealth of scholarship and science from three years of voyaging and hard work.
As Hoare puts it: "He was an eighteenth-century man of scholarship. But he did not, alas, understand eighteenth-century men."
The scientific fare was delivered, living, dried, drawn, preserved and described, but was scarcely savoured by those for whom it was intended. Forster was reduced, largely by his own efforts, to penury and despair.
Upon returning in 1775, and finding later that the Admiralty were not prepared to accept any of his contributions, Forster gave his manuscripts to his son, who published his own account of the voyage some six weeks before the official version. Forster found himself ostracised and condemned by the most influential members of the establishment. Any hope of patronage and preferment in England had to be abandoned.
In 1778 he published his "Observations made during a Voyage round the world". It was not a description of the voyage but the sum of his findings on "physical geography, natural history and ethnic philosophy".
The two books did not sell well, and the Forsters were forced to return to the continent. Johann went in triumph to Germany, to become professor of natural history, mineralogy and medicine at the University of Halle.
At the time of his death he was called the 'patriarch' of geography in Europe and was widely recognised as one of the most able naturalists. His influence on German science and scholarship was considerable. There was not one continent to which he did not devote some scholarly work.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 368, volume 8, number 3 (1985).
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