Georg Forster sailed with his father Reinhold Forster on Cook’s Second Voyage, 1772-1775. He later visited Paris under quite different circumstances in 1777 and 1790, returning for the final time in 1793.
Living in London in 1777, after their circumnavigation with Captain Cook on his Second Voyage to the Pacific, the financial situation of Georg and his father Reinhold Forster deteriorated, especially as they had to support the rest of the family.
After the publication that year of his account of the voyage, “A voyage round the world”, Georg planned a French translation, and in October travelled to Paris to join the inspector of the Naturalists cabinet in Dresden, Karl Heinrich Titus. Forster also wanted to sell some of the South Sea artefacts and drawings he had collected during the voyage. He was unsuccessful in doing so, but had two interesting encounters. He met the writer and politician Benjamin Franklin, who had been sent from the American Congress to Paris to work on an alliance with France. He also met the Count de Buffon, the famous naturalist and intendant of the Royal Botanical Garden, and the author of the monumental literary work of the natural history.
Forster gave Buffon a herbarium of 220 plants, which Georg had collected during his voyage with Cook. The herbarium is now in the archive of the Natural History Museum in Paris, at the “Jardin des Plantes”, established in 1626 in the 5th Arrondissement.
After Georg Forster’s death, parts of this inheritance ended up in the hands of his wife Therese, who gave his natural scientific writings to the French Republic in 1796. Today this legacy is kept in the central library of the “Muséum national d’histoire naturelle”, but is not available for the public.
Amongst the manuscripts is a collection of charts, lists, notices, descriptions, sketches and drawings, all annotated with the archive number Ms 189. They are divided as follows.
Ms 189 (1). Observations during Cook’s circumnavigation, July 1772 – September 1773.
“Observationes historam naturalem spectantes, quas in navigationes ad terras australes instituere coepit G.F.”
Natural scientific notes on board Resolution. 92 pages, with drawings of plants, birds and islands.
Ms 189 (2). A handwritten copy of the list for Buffon: Catalogue d’un herbier raporte des Isles de la mer australe pour M. Forster et cedé á M. Le Compte de Buffon pour le Cabinet du Roy en Novembre.
The index is being grouped in four sections
Ms 189 (3). Bestiae Linn.: Description of animals and plants of the South Seas (in Latin) (Recorded during the voyage)
Ms 189 (4). Zoological notes. Loose collection of papers, convolut (Recorded before and after the voyage)
Ms 189 (5). (Recorded before and after the voyage)
Ms 189 (6). “Notes Géologie, Chimie, Minialogie”
Extract of Bones nautical guide book with terms like launch, unrig, rig
Listing of nautical definitions (in German)
Probably this list was made in preparation for the Russian Expedition planned for 1787, which did not take place. Georg Forster would have been the leader of the expedition.
Ms 189 (7). Summary of minerals (in Latin)
After teaching in Kassel (Germany) and Vilnius (Lithuania), Forster became the chief librarian at the University of Mainz (Germany). The freedom-loving Forster acclaimed the French revolution, when it began in 1789.
His second stay in Paris was a short one. In March 1790, he began a journey to England, accompanied by Alexander von Humboldt, the younger brother of his good friend Wilhelm von Humboldt. During the trip they wanted to try new experiences. After three months they went via Dover and Calais to Paris, where they stayed for three days. They had little time for visits, but they were impressed by the preparations taking place for the annual celebration of the storming of the Bastille, in which every class of people took part with great ostentation. Excited by the atmosphere, Humboldt even carted sand for the construction of the freedom temple on the “Champ de Mars”, a former parade-ground. Today the place of the “Champ de Mars” lies at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
In October 1792 the French revolutionary army occupied Mainz. After initial hesitation, Forster became politically active and joined the Jacobin Club. Consequently he participated in the founding of the Republic of Mainz, the first democratic state on what is now German territory. The Republic of Mainz existed from March until July 1793.
Meanwhile, Forster’s wife Therese (who he had married in 1785) left him taking their children.
Forster was elected vice president of the Jacobin club and elected to the Rhenish German National Convention. He set off with two other delegates to Paris to demand Mainz become part of the French Republic. The national convention in Paris held their meetings at the “Salle du Manège”, the former royal riding school next to the Louvre. The building was demolished in 1803.
In the meantime, the French vacated their emplacements at Bingen and Kreuznach, leaving Mainz isolated from France, and Forster was unable to return to Mainz. Furthermore, foreigners were being forbidden to leave France. Along with his companions he took lodgings in the “Hotel des Patriotes Hollandais” in the Rue des Moulins. It was the same place where Napoleon Bonaparte stayed with his Corsican deputies two years later.
The Rue des Moulins is one of the oldest streets in Paris where windmills once whirled. It is said that Jeanne d’Arc was there in 1429. In 1793, the street was much longer than it is today. To give the city a better road network, nearly all quarters in the 1st Arrondissement were demolished for the construction of the Avenue d’Opera in 1878, as well as the extension of the Rue des Moulins, where Forster’s house was located. The “Hotel des Patriotes Hollandais” was situated in the middle of a block of buildings, where the old extension was led through.
Forster, lonesome, without his family, without his belongings, and without employment, passed the time with friends who he got to know there, especially other foreigners from Britain, Germany and Poland living there in exile. Visits to taverns, theatres, operas and walks in the Palais Royal were his recreational activities. On one occasion he visited the Panthéon with the former church of St. Geneviève.
Although separated from his wife Therese he had an active friendly correspondence with her. He accepted her relationship with Ferdinand Huber, wishing they could all be together.
On 22 July, Mainz was reconquered by the Prussians. Only a few Jacobins escaped; most were captured and badly abused. Forster was banned from the Empire of his homeland. In France the regime’s use of terror as its main instrument became evident in September 1793, with the passing of the Law of Suspects. Suspects who were said to have counter-revolutionary endeavours were imprisoned. Many executions took place, including Queen Marie Antoinette. Resigned to his fate, Georg Forster regretted he had ever joined the Jacobins. For a short time he was able to escape from the events by being given the job of mediating an exchange of prisoners in the north of the country with England, and sounding out the potential for a peace agreement. However, he was not successful.
He wrote “Parisian Contours”, a compilation of letters that contain his political principles and describe the political situation of Europe during the Republic of Mainz.
After an absence of three months, he returned to Paris to find some of his acquaintances of the Mainz’ Jacobins’ club. His brother Karl, a merchant, was also in Paris, conducting some business, and became imprisoned as a suspect. Georg was able to obtain his discharge.
At the beginning of November, he met Therese with his children and her paramour Huber at the Swiss border. Together they spent a few happy days, and planned their divorce.
He returned to Paris by the end of November. Whilst walking in the chilly fog without a coat he caught a cold. After another evening visit he had to walk home as no coaches were available, wearing unsuitable clothes for the cold night. His cold got worse, and he ended up confined to bed.
On 10 January, 1794, Georg Forster died in his attic in Paris, not yet 40 years old. The former privy counsellor of Mainz, Philipp von Haupt, who fled from Mainz two months earlier, and now resided in the “Hotel des Patriotes Hollandaise”, was with him during the last moments, and closed Forster’s eyes after his dying breath. Distraught, he immediately informed Huber in a letter. Forster was buried in a pauper’s grave. No further information is known about the circumstances, nor location, of the grave.
Which burial ground could it be? The cemeteries used today can be excluded as they are so recent. Amongst the crowded graveyards there was a huge problem of hygiene in Paris at the end of the 18th century, as graves were closed prematurely. Residents living near the “Les Halles” cemetery were said to have choked to death from the bad smell. From 1786 to 1788 all of the burial grounds were closed, and the remains taken to the catacombs that were once used as a stone quarry by the Romans.
As a result, during the time of the French Revolution, only a few cemeteries were in use. Due to its close proximity, the “Cimetiere de la Madeleine”, opened in 1721, was often used as the last resting-place of the victims beheaded at the “Place de la Revolution”, known today as the “Place de la Concorde”. Close to the famous church “La Madeleine”, this burial ground was the nearest to the Rue des Moulins.
Why should a destitute person be carted through half of the city to a cemetery far away? It was easy to find as the chapel Expiatoire was built here. It also had the remains of the royal couple Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette after their executions.
The “Cimetiere de la Madeleine” was closed in March 1794. In 1859, all the skeletons were transferred to the catacombs, where all of the bones of the ancient graveyards are kept. The ground in the chapel’s inner courtyard lies considerably higher than elsewhere, because during the chapel’s construction from 1816 to 1826 the soil and the bones dug out of the mass graves were deposited here.
If Georg Forster did not find his last resting place at the “Cimetiere de la Madeleine”, you’ll possibly be closest to his remains at the Parisian catacombs.
Sources of information
Uhlig, Ludwig. Georg Forster: Lebensabenteuer eines gelehrten Weltbürgers (1754–1794). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. 2004.
Popp, Klaus-Georg et al. Georg Forsters Werke, Sämtliche Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe [Georg Forster’s works, all writings, diaries, letters]. Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR. 1989.
Nicolson, Dan H. and Fosberg, F. Raymond (ed). The Forsters and the Botany of the Second Cook Expedition (1772-1775). Königstein, A.R.G. Gantner Verlag. 2003. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 36, vol. 28, no. 1 (2005).
Vorpahl, Frank. “Forsters Pariser Skizzen” in Georg-Forster Studien XIX, edited by Stefan Greif and Michael Ewert. Kassel University Press. 2014.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 18, volume 40, number 3 (2017).
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