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Discovering The Forsters



This short article about Johann Reinhold and George Forster is based on a paper I gave in March 2007 at the Linnean Society in London as part of a lecture programme to mark the tercentenary of Carl von Linné's birth.1 The lecture was sponsored by three organisations: the William Shipley Group for RSA History,2 the Society of the History of Natural History and the Linnean Society itself. I began by recalling my work with the Linnean Society and with international colleagues on the Linnaeus Link project during the later 1990s (about which, see below). I noted that it was about the same time that I had begun to be seriously interested in the Forsters. I hoped that their relevance to the celebrations of Linnaeus's life and work might become apparent in the course of the lecture and, of course, I hope the same might apply to readers of Cook's Log!

My title obviously played on a number of aspects of the word "discovery". As readers will certainly know, Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798) and his eldest son Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794), christened "George", are best known in many countries for their association with James Cook, whom they accompanied as naturalists on the Second Voyage. With a British audience of predominantly non-specialists, however, I needed to begin by establishing exactly who the Forsters were and why they were worthy of our attention. Setting them in their historical context and capturing something of their achievement was therefore an important aspect of my lecture and this was clearly implied by the title, "Discovering the Forsters". Obviously their role in the process of "discovery", and especially the scientific exploration of the Pacific region, presented a further aspect of "discovery". Here I set a particular emphasis on the collections they made during the voyage of Resolution, the records the Forsters kept, the accounts they published, and the problems presented by the wide dispersal of this material during their lifetime and following their deaths. As a third aspect of "discovery", I addressed the potential of tools developed in recent years by information technology that could help us to solve some of the problems I had alluded to, for example by tracking and linking collections and sources related to the Forsters through the World Wide Web.

I ould acknowledge immediately that in each case my use of the term "discovery" is problematic. The "age of discovery" like "the age of Enlightenment" is not, of course, a term we favour much nowadays. We are quite aware that European voyagers of the Pacific between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries discovered very few places that had not already been located, and quite often settled, by Melanesian and Polynesian peoples before them. Pioneers of the World Wide Web in the early to mid-1990s quite naturally turned to the analogy of the voyage of "discovery" when they used imagery of navigation to describe the location of material in cyberspace. But in this case, too, the analogy is hardly exact; the Web's search engines and "discovery tools" are after all intended to help us locate and above all to bring together information about specific topics. In searching the Web, we are generally looking for what Donald Rumsfeld might call "known unknowns", which is surely rather different from setting off on a true voyage of discovery. Finally, in introducing my lecture, I admitted that I was neither a professional historian nor an expert in any of the subject fields with which the Forsters are generally associated. Rather, as a librarian with an interest in special and historic collections, I was concerned about the need to open up access ("discover"?) information, for example by using the tools and resources of the World Wide Web. In addition, as a specialist in 18th century bibliography and Anglo-German cultural relations, I had become interested in the Forsters as important figures in the process of intercultural exchange.

My argument in the Linnean Society lecture was as follows. The Forsters were Enlightenment polymaths whose achievement are largely encompassed in their legacy of material collections, archival records and published works. I needed to describe in some detail the particular problems associated with that legacy. It was my assumption that locating and "discovering" these collections would be of considerable benefit to those concerned with aspects of the Forsters' intellectual and material legacy, including of course Cook experts, enabling them to make connections across institutional and disciplinary boundaries. Librarians tend to want to organise things in ways they think might be convenient for users. That is as true of the digital world as it was for library shelves.

Do the Forsters need discovering?

You might ask why the Forsters need discovering at all? After all, library shelves groan under the weight of books of all kinds about George Forster, from scholarly monographs to plays written for children about "the boy who went around the world with Captain Cook". Those groaning shelves, however, are mostly to be found in the libraries of German-speaking countries; in the English-speaking world the Forsters remain little known outside specialist circles and not a single biography of either Forster, scholarly or popular, is currently in print in English, despite their importance as key figures in the European Enlightenment and their close personal links with Britain and New Zealand. I am aware of only one full biography of Reinhold, and only one monograph that might be described as a biographical treatment of George published in English since the Second World War, although as we shall see the situation has begun to improve in recent years.

Locating the Forsters in mental maps of the eighteenth century has always been rather difficult. They defy convenient categorisation, challenging as they did throughout their lives, boundaries of geography, of language and culture, of academic discipline and social convention. They believed strongly in what they held to be right but they rarely understood what was prudent. Their refusal to make compromises, to conform to - let alone to seek advantage in - social proprieties and conventions, made them what they were. Ultimately it also contributed to Reinhold's long misfortunes and was certainly the major factor in the tragedy of George Forster's final year. Needless to say, it was also a root cause of their problems with shipmates on Resolution.

English-speaking writers have generally disparaged Johann Reinhold Forster's role, or at least until quite recently. Although he was clearly a difficult travelling companion, his was also quite certainly the most considerable scientific mind to accompany Cook on any of his voyages to the Pacific. Much of the very personal criticism directed at him by English authors is unfair or overdone, indeed a caricature, as his modern biographer, Michael E. Hoare, has demonstrated.4 More recent writers on the voyage of Resolution appear to have abandoned the traditional prejudices about the Forsters, including for example the Pacific historian Nicholas Thomas, who has written extensively on Cook's voyages and co-edited a modern edition of George Forster's English version of A voyage round the world (1777).5

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that George Forster was the most significant single individual to come into contact with Cook during his lifetime, one that observed him and his reactions to the challenges he faced as a commander on almost every day over three years. Cook, der Entdecker ('Cook, the discoverer'), the preliminary essay to his German translation of Cook's journals published in 1786, shows that Forster had the measure of Cook's greatness as a navigator, as a leader and as an exemplary man of the Enlightenment. Until very recently, no English translation of this key (and indeed very moving) text was available, although one has recently appeared as an occasional publication of the Australian Maritime Series with an introduction by the maritime historian Nigel Erskine.6 Welcome as this is, the translation has been printed only in a very expensive limited edition. Forster's essay, surely the most important contemporary assessment of Cook by a considerable writer and intellect in close contact with Cook, was known until now to many, if not most, Anglophone biographers of Cook only at second hand. For those that cannot read German, it still remains difficult to access.

Documentary evidence and material preserved relating to the Forsters

To return to my theme in the Linnean Society lecture. Having tried to establish the Forsters' importance in a wide variety of fields, I turned to the question of their documentary and material legacy. In my judgement, their reputation is built on two foundations: on their importance as scientific enquirers and Enlightenment theorists, and on their publications, unpublished papers and correspondence and the collections they made of natural history specimens and cultural objects. The major part of my lecture covered this topic, and I should like to summarise some of the main points here.

First I needed to distinguish a number of categories, for example:

  • collections made by the Forsters themselves
  • original works created by them; and,
  • contemporary works by others relating to them.

The first category encompasses cultural objects and natural history specimens from the Pacific region and elsewhere, and also printed books, as both Forsters had considerable personal libraries. The second includes their own printed publications, unpublished papers and correspondence, and, in the case of George, original art works. The final category includes published and unpublished accounts and iconographic works, particularly portraiture.

I assumed that everyone in the audience at the Linnean Society would recognise the significance or potential significance of this material; certainly many members of the audience would have been better able than I to explain that significance in various fields. As with Linnaeus's own collections, the Forsters' natural history specimens, and especially any type specimens among the hundreds of newly recorded plants and animals, may well continue to be important for modern taxonomists. The Forsters' records probably also tell us about the distribution of species before European settlement. George's drawings will presumably often be the earliest representation of the plants and animals discovered. The cultural objects too may well also be the earliest known examples of their types. Needless to say, much controversy rages around the authenticity of such objects and its provenance, especially as systematic collection only began in the early nineteenth century when Pacific society and culture had already experienced profound change after several decades of European contact. With Forster material, perhaps, we can be reasonably sure course of the circumstances of its collection, and we may well find verifiable information about its original context in the Forsters' publications and notes. We may also be reasonably confident of its significance for our understanding of pre-contact use. In addition, Pacific peoples have traditionally invested inherited objects with particular cultural and spiritual meaning. For their descendants, these objects may retain some immanent significance in connecting them with ancestors.7

Problems relating to the Forster material

Taken together, this is a quite extraordinary quantity of material in a wide range of media and, not surprisingly, it presents a considerable number of difficulties.

The first and most obvious point to make is that there is neither a single "Forster Collection" nor many primary "Forster Collections" in the different categories of material. The Forsters presented collections of items they accumulated on the Pacific voyages to prestigious institutions in order to gain favour or to impress with their scholarly generosity. Other material was sold by them quite simply to raise cash or was dispersed by their executors at auction after their deaths for the benefit of their families. In general, material retained by Johann Reinhold Forster is marginally easier to trace than material taken to Germany or acquired there by George. The circumstances of George's final years meant that much material owned by him at the time of his death was inevitably dispersed into private ownership, including his considerable library. In general, however, a very high proportion of the Forsters' collections appear to have been preserved in public institutions and relatively little has been lost or destroyed, for example, during the Second World War.

Perhaps Reinhold's own very considerable library of over 7,000 volumes, including manuscripts, is a convenient place to start a very brief survey of Forster collections. This was acquired after his death by the Prussian Royal Library, complete apart from some duplicates retained at Halle. It is preserved at the Berlin State Library where it has been comprehensively catalogued, described in publications, and made the subject of an exhibition on the 200th anniversary of Reinhold's death. The case of the cultural objects also appears relatively straightforward. Reinhold first donated a large quantity of objects to the Ashmolean Museum in 1776, soon after being awarded an honorary degree by the University of Oxford. This collection of about 181 objects, which was transferred to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in 1886, was accompanied by Reinhold's autograph list of the objects donated.8 Further material was purchased in 1799 from Reinhold's estate by the University of Göttingen where it was listed by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. It supplemented material already acquired from Cook's expeditions in the early 1780s. The so-called Cook-Forster Collection is administered by the University's Ethnographical Department; it has been comprehensively catalogued and has been the basis for an extensive programme of publications and exhibitions, most recently in Australia and Hawaii.9

But the story of the cultural objects does not end there. George is said to have been in the habit of presenting his hosts at dinner with objects pulled out of his pocket. Individual items, and accumulations of items, are to be found in a number of collections, for example at Schloss Wörlitz in Sachsen-Anhalt. Many must have been sold privately and dispersed with their provenance lost. In using Pacific artefacts as curiosities for presentation as gifts, George was in some way imitating other members of Resolution's crew who traded or gave away acquired exotic objects across the Pacific and on their return home. By doing this they distorted traditional modes of production and exchange, thus creating one of the problems of the "authenticity" surrounding post-contact Pacific objects. By dispersing items haphazardly and without adequate documentation, George was inevitably adding to the confusion.

If the story of the cultural objects is not without its complexities, then that of the natural history specimens is surely a nightmare. Johann Reinhold Forster presented and sold hundreds of zoological specimens to a variety of institutions, including the British Museum, and also to individuals, including most famously to Banks and Linnaeus. A recent account of botanical specimens from Forster's collections compiled by curators of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC lists over 20 institutions holding significant amounts of authentic material in institutions, in four continents ranging from the Natural History Museum in London to the Smithsonian itself.10 Indeed it would almost be easier to list the world's major natural history collections that have no items of Forster provenance. Again, much of this material was originally presented or sold by Johann Reinhold, but a considerable number of items was sold by auction and dispersed after his death. Information about some of these was apparently quite difficult to obtain by the compilers of the list and then only through personal enquiries sent to individual curators. Institutional folklore seems to play as important a part in some museums as formal inventories or records of provenance.

Closely related to the specimens are George's natural history drawings, watercolours and copperplate engravings. The primary collection of these, preserved at the Natural History in London, was originally purchased from the Forsters by Banks.11 Further examples are held by the former ducal library at Gotha, in Germany, some acquired from George in 1781. The particular value of many of Forster's drawings apparently lies in their being exactly dated and marked with a location.

As for works written by the Forsters themselves, Michael Hoare lists some 79 original works or translations published by Reinhold alone and 27 major repositories of Forster manuscripts. As one might expect, editions of the Forsters' printed works in English and German are held by most, if not all, of the world's major research libraries. Many of these also hold unpublished papers and correspondence. The Kalliope portal to German archives, for example, lists 24 major collections of George's papers but mostly excludes holdings abroad.12

Finally, contemporary material created by others but relating to the Forsters should be mentioned here. Again, relevant printed works and manuscripts are held by a variety of institutions in different countries. One category - early Forster portraiture - has its own particular complexities, described in some detail in an interesting document to be found on the Web but much too involved to be described here.13

In addition to these difficulties of provenance and dispersal is the related problem of interpretation. Different academic disciplines will inevitably place their own emphasis on aspects of their collections. The Natural History Museum website, for example, provides through its excellent collections navigator biographical information about George Forster, quite reasonably emphasising his early work as a natural history artist. Not much attempt is made to relate the collection to other Forster collections, however, or to provide a wider context for the Museum's own holdings. The Forsters, we are told in a final sentence, went on to have "distinguished careers" in Germany after their return from the circumnavigation of the world. Some might regard this as rather like describing Winston Churchill as a war correspondent who went on to have distinguished career in politics; it's not actually untrue, but it hardly does full justice to the subject. And the entry would not help anyone to locate other Forster artwork, for example at Gotha, in St Petersburg or at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Thomas Saine, on the other hand, an American professor of German who wrote a book in English in the 1970's concentrating on George Forster's contribution to the reform of German prose style, fails to mention his early work as an artist at all.14 Indeed, Saine compresses his account of the circumnavigation into a short preliminary chapter, devoting much more space later on in the book to Forster's second great travel book about the Lower Rhine, the Low Countries and England. In the late and unlamented German Democratic Republic, Forster was regarded as a radical forerunner of communism; the author or authors of the American Wikipedia entry for Forster, however, make great play of his derogatory remarks about Poland, the country of his birth, not intended for publication, which they point out, was an aspect of Forster that appealed to the Nazis (indeed, the only one). To each, his or her own Forster.

As we have seen, Forster collections are not only scattered across a wide geographical area, they are also to be found in a great variety of holding institutions, including libraries, archives, museums, learned societies and historic houses. These various "memory institutions", as they are now sometimes called collectively, each have their own professional principles which they will apply to material in the different physical formats in their care (or even, in some cases, to material in the same format). Librarians, for example, typically register items in catalogues individually, whereas archivists prefer to record groups of items. Museum curators traditionally prefer to compile inventories of items rather than catalogues; for them, recording the provenance of items and the context in which they were found is much more important than, say, for librarians cataloguing books. Different Forster collections will be recorded according to the curatorial traditions and principles of the institutions that hold them. And each will register material according to his or her own acknowledged metadata standards, the cataloguing codes and conventions applied by the various curatorial disciplines. In other words, Forster collections will be recorded and described in very different ways according not only to the principles of different subject disciplines but also to whether they are held by libraries, archives, museums or other memory institutions.

Possible solutions

I suspect you've worked out by now the theme of my concluding remarks in the Linnean Society lecture. The Forsters' documentary and material legacy is scattered over a wide range of institutions, including museums, archives and libraries in at least three continents. Registration of the material and access to this material is dependent on a variety of national, curatorial and even institutional traditions. Communication across professional, let alone across linguistic and cultural boundaries, has often been difficult, owing largely if not exclusively to a varying emphasis in professional training and practice. In addition, Forster collections will be of interest to scholars and curators in a number of different disciplines, many of who will view different kinds of material, and even related material, in various contrasting ways.

There is a wide range of information about these collections already available on the Web, not only in electronically accessible catalogues and inventories but also descriptions of collections. Many institutional websites, however, provide information only about local holdings and all too often little or no reference is made to relevant material in other collections. Also, websites in English-speaking countries often tend to provide a lot more information about their collections, and present it much more imaginatively, than websites in Germany. At best, the potential of the Web to present important collections and to link disparate or related material is still being only very partially fulfilled.

But there is good news. In recent years there has a strong interest in using the tools provided by the Web to "discover" and link collections. In general special, historic and heritage collections of all kinds have become of much greater interest to cultural administrators, the scholarly community and the general public over the past few decades. There is special interest in revealing the "hidden collections" in the stacks and vaults of our great libraries, archives and museums as well as linking them via the web.

Essentially there are two possible approaches to this particular challenge. The first is to devise tools that will enable users to access material in catalogues and inventories in different kinds of memory institution. A good example of this approach is provided by the German "BAM" portal (Bibliotheken, Archive und Museen).15 I quote:

"The main objective of the BAM project is to present the variety of cultural and scientific traditions and to develop a nation-wide cultural heritage portal that presents information from archives, libraries and museums on the level of individual items (record, book, object) and of collections, in order to show the relations between and to connect the different strands of cultural knowledge".

Participating institutions are offered "a common, cross-institutional access to their digital catalogues, repertories, and inventories".

In order to achieve the necessary platform for data exchange, BAM has used Encoded Archival Description (EAD), a format developed by the archival community as an XML standard structure for online finding aids. As we shall see, this highly successful new format has begun to be used across curatorial boundaries. In order to exchange data successfully between different platforms, a controlled vocabulary is necessary. In the case of BAM, an authority file developed by libraries has been used, even though this doesn't provide for many technical terms used by archives and museums.

Library catalogues and museum inventories generally provide access to material at the item level and BAM is an attempt to link them at this level. A library catalogue, for example, has traditionally been a sequence of records each of which relates to a particular book. An alternative approach to linking existing catalogues and inventories through a single interface is to link holdings at the collection level. This was indeed our approach when we set up the Linnaeus Link project in the 1990s, a collaboration between a number of international memory institutions with significant Linnaeus collections.16 We devised a simple questionnaire about Linnaean holdings and dispatched it to institutions across the globe, presenting the results in a simple but uniform format, and accessible through a single online service. Needless to say, things have become a little more complex since then, and various standards and formats have been developed to allow disparate collections to be described in a usefully uniform manner. Most of these are at least inspired by Encoded Archival Description standard, including the collection-level description standard developed for the projects funded by the excellent Research Support Libraries Programme (RSLP) a few years ago.17

You will hardly be surprised if I now reveal that as a final flourish in my lecture, I advocated a similar web-based service for Forster-related collections. A project to create such a service would need to be based on international cooperation between major Forster collections in libraries, archives (such as the RSA) and museums, and other stakeholders in the academic community, including presumably the Georg-Forster-Gesellschaft and the Linnean Society itself. I envisaged a site providing access to various levels of structured and harvested information based on international standards for information exchange, for example a suite of collection descriptions based on EAD as a format, a single interface linking relevant online catalogues and inventories and so on. It would ideally combine these services with platforms enabling interaction and exchange between scholars working in the field.

Such services go beyond the familiar portals or discovery tools. Lorcan Demspey, for example has described them as "recombinant" services, services that bring together "research and learning materials across institutions for creative use", making collections both more "visible" and more "valuable". He calls them "learning exchanges, venues for collaboration and display".18 In some ways, Dempsey's "recombinant library" is a rather better framework for representing the topics I have been discussing than the more usual analogies of navigation and discovery. After all Cook's voyages were in a sense "recombining" strands of the evolutionary record and bringing back together long divided branches of the human family. In their first contacts with unfamiliar peoples, individual and communities on either side were being forced to challenge basic assumptions about human nature and human culture.

Beyond drawing conclusions about leadership and the importance of Cook's principles in interacting with native peoples, Forster's writings about the nature of man draw on actual experience about the varied populations and cultures of the Pacific region remain of considerable interest today. His essay on Cook ends with 20 theses about the historical significance of the man and his discoveries. The final three theses affirm the essential oneness of mankind and state that all human societies possess language and culture, that none lives in a state of animal nature, and that customary behaviour in different societies cannot be expected to be any more uniform than physical characteristics associated with ethnicity. Inspired by his youthful association with James Cook, the exemplar of Enlightenment heroism, George Forster was arguing for our common humanity in all its variety and complexity. The impact of his theses in the eighteenth century must be obvious, but they surely remain powerful statements, indeed challenges, today.

Graham Jefcoate


  1. See Cook's Log, page 9, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007).
  2. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) was founded as the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1754. The RSA's historical archives include material on a wide range of topics broadly relating to Cook and his circle, including manuscript proposals by J. R. Forster (on the husbandry of bees) and by William Bligh (on the breadfruit scheme).
  3. Patrick O'Brian, for example, refers to Reinhold as "learned but unscrupulous and disagreeable" and George as "only slightly less disagreeable" in his Joseph Banks: a life, Chicago 1997, p. 156, originally published in 1987.
  4. Hoare, Michael. The Tactless Philosopher, Johann Reinhold Forster. Melbourne, Hawthorn Press. 1976.
  5. Forster, George. A Voyage Round The World. Edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof. Honolulu, University of Hawai'i Press. 2000.
  6. Forster, Georg. Cook, The Discoverer. Sydney, Hordern House. 2007.
  7. See for example Karen K. Kosasa's review of the recent exhibition "Life in the Pacific in the 1700's: The Cook/Forster Collection of the George August University of Göttingen" (Honolulu 2006), in: The Contemporary Pacific (2007), pp. 344-345, available on the internet at: http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/contemporary_pacific/v019/19.1kosasa.html
  8. http://projects.prm.ox.ac.uk/forster/home.html
  9. http://www.nma.gov.au/cook/
  10. 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. See on the web: http://www.nmnh.si.edu/botany/projects/forster.html
  11. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/online-ex/art-themes/drawingconclusions/more/penguin_more_info.htm
  12. http://www.kalliope-portal.de/
  13. http://www.rainstone.com/Portraits-Forster.2.htm
  14. Saine, Thomas P. Georg Forster, New York, Twayne Publishers Inc. 1972.
  15. http://www.bam-portal.de/
  16. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/projects/linnaeus-link/
  17. http://www.rslp.ac.uk/
  18. http://www.oclc.org/research/staff/dempsey/dempsey_recombinant_library.pdf

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 16, volume 31, number 1 (2008).

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