Today George Forster (1754-94) is not exactly a household name, although interest in him has been growing in recent years. This contrasts very much with his own time, when he was the writer of a well-known book about James Cook's Second Voyage round the world. He made major contributions to the natural sciences, philosophy and politics of his time. It was his involvement with the French Revolution that made him a much resented figure in late 19th century Germany and caused him to be excluded from the pantheon of German Enlightenment thinkers.
Forster was born in a small village near Gdansk, Poland. His father was Johann Reinhold Forster, a reformed pastor with a partially Scottish family background and an interest in the sciences. At the age of 11, George joined him in a research expedition to Russia. In 1766, the family moved to England, and George contributed to their income by translating scientific books into English.
From 1772 to 1775, the Forsters took part in James Cook's Second Voyage to the Pacific. George undertook research in the zoology, botany and ethnology of the South Seas and produced a large number of drawings of animals and plants. His descriptions of the people they encountered in the South Seas are marked by an open-minded anthropological approach, based on his knowledge of the Polynesian languages. His ethnological work is remarkably free both from the naive romanticism and from the racial prejudice that can be found in other travel reports.
Because of Johann Reinhold Forster's conflicts with Cook and the British admiralty, the permission to publish the official record of the voyage was withdrawn from him. George in his stead undertook to write an unofficial account, which was published in 1777 as A Voyage Round the World. Both the English version and George's own translation into German became a major success and made the author famous. Vividly written and precise, the book remains a seminal work of eighteenth-century travel literature and an important source for ethnologists to this day.
As a scientist, Forster was recognised all over Europe and became a member of the Royal Society at the age of 23. A continuing problem however was his poor management of his own finances. Despite the fame and income he earned from his prolific writings and translations, he was in permanent debt. In search of a steady income, he became a professor of natural history in Kassel, Germany and later in Vilnius. Eventually he became the head librarian at the University of Mainz in 1788. During these years, he met and corresponded with the major figures in German Enlightenment, including Goethe, Herder and Wieland. From 1791, he published his second major travel report, Views from the Lower Rhine, about his journey to the Rhineland, the Netherlands, England and France.
Like many German intellectuals, Forster showed considerable interest when the French revolution broke out in 1789. He had long been an admirer of the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of England and the Netherlands, and when a French army occupied Mainz in October 1792, Forster readily joined the local Jacobin Club. In the Mainz Republic, which existed from March to July 1793, Forster became the Vice-President of the temporary administration. He was sent to Paris as the representative of the Rhenish-German National Convention, where he witnessed Robespierre's reign of terror. While this caused many German intellectuals to abandon their support, Forster saw the terror as a regrettable, but unavoidable consequence of the forces unleashed by the Revolution. Unable to return home after the Prussian armies had re-taken Mainz, Forster died in Paris in 1794, probably of pneumonia.
Forster's cosmopolitanism, his commitment to liberty and democracy and his involvement in the French Revolution have strongly influenced his later reputation. He was an anathema to German nationalists in the late 19th and early 20th century, who branded him as a traitor, while he was held in high regard by many liberals in the revolution of 1848 and afterwards. After World War II, the German Democratic Republic portrayed him as a revolutionary and forerunner of German socialism. Because of his controversial politics, Forster's scientific achievements were often ignored.
Since the 1970s and especially since the end of the Cold War, interest in the many fascinating facets of his biography and work has been growing. He was rediscovered as an early German democrat and cosmopolitan thinker, and various new biographies have drawn a more diversified picture of his life. A recent edition of A Voyage Round the World, which includes many of Forster's drawings, has been a bestseller.1 A complete edition of his writings was begun in East Germany in the 1950s, and is approaching completion.
The Georg-Forster-Gesellschaft (George Forster Society)2 was founded in 1989 and has sought to provide a forum for the research undertaken on Forster by various academic disciplines. There is a yearly colloquium, focusing on different aspects of his work and attracting speakers from all over the world. The lectures are later published in the Georg-Forster-Studien by Kassel University Press. Longer studies are published in separate volumes. The Society has an international membership of about 80. It supports activities connected with Forster like research or exhibitions, and aims to further increase the awareness of George Forster as an important figure in the history of science and politics.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 5, volume 31, number 4 (2008).
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