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Observations Made During A Voyage Round the World Forster, Johann Reinhold. (Edited by Nicholas Thomas Harriet Guest and Michael Dettelbach) 1996


Carr 1983Observations Made During A Voyage Round the World

By Johann Reinhold Forster. (Edited by Nicholas Thomas Harriet Guest and Michael Dettelbach), and published in 1996 by University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-1725-7.

This edition of Forster's book (first published in 1778) includes lengthy introductory material by the editors focusing on Forster's ethnological writings, his observations on South Pacific women, and his place in 18th century natural science. Appendixes include Forster's place names and Polynesian linguistics. The editors' notes, bibliography and index, complete the book's 440 pages.

His son George Forster published a narrative of Cook's Second Voyage (A Voyage Round the World) in 1776, two years before his father's Observations was published. Johann had not been allowed to publish a narrative of the Second Voyage but there was no restriction on him writing, in 18th century terminology, a "philosophical" inquiry into natural phenomena. This concept is shown in Forster's organization of his text into six sections, the major portion of which focuses on ethnology, a comparative study and observations of peoples. The sections include:

  • Remarks on the Earth and Lands, their Inequalities, Strata, and Constituent Parts
  • Remarks on Water and the Ocean
  • Remarks on the Atmosphere and its Changes, Meteors and Phenomena
  • Remarks on Changes of our Globe
  • Remarks on the Organic Bodies
  • Remarks on the Human Species in the South-Sea Isles

Forster assumed he would write the official account of the Second Voyage. However, a series of negotiations among the Admiralty (principally the First Lord, the Earl of Sandwich), Cook, Forster, and others eventually led to the decision that Cook would write the official history of the Second Voyage and Forster would prepare the philosophical observations, a "philosophically informed travel narrative," focusing on natural history and related matters. In particular, Cook alone was given access to prints and other illustrative material from the voyage that was denied to Forster, significantly reducing the scope of, and potential interest in, his work.

Forster's Observations appeared in 1778 organized as an account of the natural and scientific and human phenomena encountered during the voyage.

Forster (begrudgingly) observed the restrictions placed on his book and, by "command of the Admiralty", avoided comments on tides, magnetism, or longitude. He also ended his book with an assertion that it is not enough to merely send out "men versed in science" to "remote parts of the world" but to support and encourage their endeavors which "may prevent their fellow creatures in future from becoming sacrifices to their own ignorance."

This book is of great interest to the modern geographer, botanist, zoologist, astronomer, oceanographer, and other scientists, as well people interested in history and literature. The acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, seen in the descriptions of these phenomena, plants, animals, birds, sea life, etc., is one of the notable achievements recorded in publications about Cook's voyages and eagerly sought by contemporaries.

The significance of Observations is not only that it was an 18th century Enlightenment travel book and an account of observations during Cook's Second Voyage, but also, most importantly, it was a study of peoples of the Pacific. Ethnology, the comparative study of societies, constitutes half of the book. Forster's conclusions were based upon "environmentalism," or what might be termed geographical determinism. Forster held to the unity of the human species but also classified groups into varieties and species, much as Linnaeus classified animals and plants.

For example, Johann Forster classified the Tahitians and their neighbors in the Society Islands (French Polynesia) as the "highest rank among these nations." He sees the "cannibals of New Zealand" superior to inhabitants of New Holland (Australia) and these far superior to "the most unhappy wretches of Tierra del Fuego." Similarly, those of Tanna (Vanuatu) and Mallicolo (New Hebrides) are superior to those of New Caledonia who in turn stand higher of those of the Friendly islands (Tonga), and so on. In reaching these conclusions he drew upon observed physical characteristics and factors such as climate, and close geographical location of peoples or "nations", common languages, the systems of government, regulations, and religion. Forster concluded that people of warmer climates are more favorably disposed toward progress than those of colder, more extremes. While environmentalism is today rejected as an explanation for human or societal development, Forster's specific observations about the human population he encountered are still of great interest and value.

Co-editor Michael Dettelbach writes "the whole work advertised the 'philosophical' natural historian's insight into the economies of nature, the forces that shaped the globe, its productions and its human inhabitants, and how they might best be disposed to fulfill the moral advancement of the human species". Forster held to the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of mankind. He wrote, "Providence has wisely made a provision for preventing the perpetuity of misery and wretchedness in a nation, by infusing originally in the human soul, such faculties and powers, that when unfolded, or set in motion by unforeseen accidents, shall at last invigorate the minds of men and supply them with the necessary means and strength for emerging from their debased condition and enable them to resume gradually a higher rank in the scale of rational beings".

For Forster, contact with Europeans or contact with other peoples could lead to such improvement even though his son observed in his book that contact with European sailors corrupted the morality of South Sea peoples. The breadth of Forster's observations testifies to a significant effort to understand, classify, and explain the information he collected during the three year circumnavigation of the globe.

Captain Cook is referred to in Forster's book in a positive light, usually as a source of information or confirmation of phenomena observed during the First Voyage. He uses references such as "kindly communicated by that great and experienced navigator, Captain Cook" or "according to the kind informations [sic] of Capt. Cook." Cook is the source of confirmation about fogs observed in the Southern Ocean, seasonal variations, the Maori, and population density of New Zealand, opinions about Australian aborigines, the Fugeans, etc. He notes with approval Cook's gifts of cattle, rams and ewes to Tahitians as well as Cook's refusal to assist Tahitians in tribal warfare.

The final section of the book is a detailed analysis of Cook's experimentations and efforts to improve the health of seamen. Forster analyzes the various methods utilized to prevent or cure "sea-scurvy." He discounted the antiscorbutic value of lemons and oranges in place of wort of malt, "the best prophylactic against the scurvy," a relatively inexpensive solution favored by the Admiralty. Forster approvingly notes the award of the Copley Gold Medal to Cook (1776). Captain Cook promoted both citrus fruit, wort of malt, as well as ship cleanliness to safeguard the health of mariners and Forster's analysis, although (now) flawed in interpretation, serves as an interesting conclusion to this book.

Forster's Observations has a useful place in the literature relating to Captain Cook's voyages, as an 18th century travel book and as a study of peoples of the South Seas. Some conclusions are invalidated by subsequent developments in scientific knowledge or anthropology, but the author's descriptive observations remain of interest today.

Reviewer: James C. Hamilton

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 45, volume 33, number 4 (2010).

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