Home > Epilogue

Epilogue

 

As the decade waned, so at last did Reinhold's dream of another voyage, and he consoled himself with being an old relic from Resolution. From time to time the Forster clan would gather at the rented house on Kleine Steinstrasse for a reunion. As Justina watched fondly, Reinhold would tell his grandchildren of the great voyage of a quarter century before, and at times he would gaze into the distance. Antonia would be there from one of her jobs as a governess; George and Billy would come with their wives, Virginia and Miny with their husbands. They would wonder where Carl was; in Liverpool, someone thought. Reinhold seemed not to have eyes to see. He never quite gave up the dream that just one more publication, another edition of a travel book, perhaps, would bring him the affluence and the better life he craved.

All the while little Justy was there, in her mid-twenties, helping her mother wait on him and look after his sciatica. He went on translating and annotating, keeping the German reading public up-to-date on the voyages and expeditions that followed in Cook's wake. One of these projects was his translation of the narrative of the voyage to the northwest coast of North America, undertaken in 1785 to 1788 by Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon, who had sailed on Cook's third voyage. As the decade closed, Reinhold no longer was able to work half the night by candle light. "I cannot even guess how [he] does it, producing so much and that so rapidly," George wrote in 1790.61

During the Mainz years George achieved his greatest literary fame as an accomplished essayist and prose stylist. Because of his influence, themes from the Cook voyage were entering the literature of the day in escapist literature, novels, plays, poetry, and even in school textbooks. In his Voyage George had drawn upon biblical and classical sources readily accessible to his German readers; in his essay, "Cook the Discoverer," the hero-figure became an embodiment of George's own enlightenment. The traveler on the sea of life, the myth of a distant paradise, Ulysses in search of himself--such themes became for his readers the vessels for new self-understanding. Following his journey down the Rhine with the wealthy, young nobleman, Alexander von Humboldt, in 1790, proceeding thence to London where von Humboldt met Banks, George continued to work on his Icones Plantarum which held promise of embellishing his already established reputation as a Cook expert. He also translated the account of the mutiny on the Bounty. Although George never had any formal training in school, he was acclaimed for his academic accomplishments.62

A measure of quietness and order, if not contentment, had settled over the Forster family. The children were pursuing their own lives. Their father continued to publish his articles and books, and he still had his debts. Occasionally the old relic would flare up at a new target. He published a vehement denunciation of the slave traders "who degrade the blacks." At least one Englishman he did admire: William Wilberforce, who was emerging as a leader of the abolitionist movement. The aging mother and father could both take pride in the way their children had turned out. But as the new decade opened, trouble visited again, this time to stay. William, the youngest son, at age twenty-eight with high promise as a physician, died in a smallpox epidemic while treating the infected. When the news arrived Justina collapsed and Reinhold fell silent. At least they did not know what was happening over in Mainz.

On arriving home from London, with everything going for him, George found that his wife Therese had taken a lover--a stylist blade from the local diplomatic set who brazenly moved in with them. It seemed that Therese needed a little more spice in life than her dull George could provide with his books and Latin. George could write botanical essays in Latin and turn out exquisite water colors of oceanic birds; he could correspond learnedly as he did with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, and he could describe the Gothic architecture of the Cologne and Strasbourg cathedrals; but suddenly finding his life undermined and seeing his accomplishments of a decade turning to ashes in his hands, he could not summon the will to throw the bounder out of his own house. Reinhold and Justina, who were not the sort to comprehend a ménage à trois, rejoiced but for a short time at the news of a new grandson.

Although Reinhold admired Franklin and the American Revolution, he thought that revolutionary fervor in France was going too far. Possibly he believed that God had ordained the social order, and therefore on no account should revolution be allowed to upset the status quo. When war clouds gathered, he warned George about the "most wretched rabble, the sans culotte" that had come to power in Paris. To his warning he added a timeless and unanswerable question of regret and self-reproach. Why was it, he yearned to know, that "my children, with so many talents & knowledge, will thrive no where, & must drudge hard thro' life in order to get a little bread? And others with not half so many qualifications get the best places & wealth & ease." As he watched in anguish from Halle, the French captured Mainz in October of 1792, forcing his friend and patron the Duke of Brunswick to flee.

Father and son had a falling-out when George, desolate and confused, joined the provisional government and gave speeches in favor of the French Republic. When Reinhold remonstrated, George's reply made the break complete: "You can say that you are not responsible for my opinions and actions."63 George felt free at last.

Who was this George Forster? For one thing, he was an unsettled man. The second voyage had seen to that. He was never at ease in Kassel, Wilna, Göttingen, or Mainz. What was he looking for? Part of the answer is that he was seeking refuge for his drifting life in the new ideas of humanity and rationality that were enlivening the age, in the ideas that indeed made him--in a way his father could never be--an exemplar of the German enlighten-ment. Unlike his father, he was not fettered by the past. Or was he? Although George was nurtured in a parsonage, it is possible that neither the church nor religious precepts nourished his ultimate concerns; it is certain that scholarship and publications were among his household gods. His life and work, like his father's, augured the coming age of secularity. For all that, he was down to earth and unflagging in his devotion to his parents and his brothers and sisters; he loved them to a fault. He was a good man. But notwithstanding his prolific writing, he remains an elusive figure, standing in contrast, not only to the vivid Banks who published nothing, but also to his father who published much.

German readers for almost a generation knew him as an honored citizen. For them, he drew aside the veil from a far-away world of hitherto unknown shores whose inhabitants were strange yet human like themselves, and he introduced them to a world of discovery and heroism. But for a later age, the imagery and motifs by which he enriched their lives in a sense shrouds his personality. He was most at ease on the seas of thought, and at last he sought refuge in the liberation of the human spirit he believed was bursting out of Paris.

Elected a representative to the French National Assembly and having put aside his unfinished Icones Plantarum, George traveled to Paris but with a price on his head for treason. When Mainz was recaptured by the Germans, he was left stranded. Disillusioned by what he had seen of the terror and shattered by the break-up of his marriage, publicly reviled in his homeland as a traitor and condemned by the poet Friedrich Schiller, he died at age forty alone and penniless in a Paris attic, probably of pneumonia, on January 10, 1794. His landlady paid his burial expenses in an unmarked grave in Père Lachaise.64

"For what I owe to the son," wrote von Humboldt, "I can now, alas, only thank his excellent father." Reinhold struggled to find the meaning of his long association with George; "I was his sole guide and teacher, the one who fanned in him the sleeping spark of divinity and educated him to be Germany's greatest light." He began to dwell on the past. When Catherine the Great died in 1796, he published a memorial essay, and wrote to Czar Paul asking compensation for his work of thirty-four years before. Wormwood filled his cup again in January of 1798: "For all my hard-won reputation and despite a life which has been active until now, I cannot raise credit for a crust at the bakers or the butchers or the bar." In April he complained that no longer could he get about as he once did because of hardening of subclavian and carotid arteries. Von Humboldt, who was then preparing to sail for Colombia, South America, on hearing the news wrote at once to cheer him up: "Is that engine which bore tot labores really to be broken in pieces? No! May Heaven preserve you for science and your admirers."65

Reinhold Forster was a reluctant disciple of the Enlightenment. His early years were informed and shaped by the German Pietism that emphasized the inward elements of personal belief. But his life work, infused as it was by the rationalism of the day, helped to erode and displace the religious patterns of thought that had guided European society since the time of St. Augustine. The Sturm and Drang of his personality reflected this tension between the old and the new; just as, similarly, the Cook voyages represented a moving away from the faith of the past to herald the secular age of the future.

Yet for Reinhold, the pietism of his youth in large measure energized his self-expression and invested his scientific accomplishments with an aura of splendor; this unconscious residue of an earlier day therefore accounts for his devoting fully one-third of his Observations to humanity, to the islanders of the South Seas, in a pioneering study that pointed to anthropology and ethnography. He had greatness in him. His were the zeal and confidence of eighteenth century rationalism. He venerated the future.

Having given his life to natural philosophy, he understood quite well the price he would have to pay to achieve his goals, and while complaining all the way, he paid that price. His bequest was the identification of numerous scientific problems that found a place high on the agenda of the nineteenth century. In his disenchantment with the French Revolution, he saw that unfettered reason led inevitably to chaos. But he failed to see that scientific orthodoxy is not a sufficient guide for life.

Exhausted by the struggles of a lifetime and haunted to the end by the ghosts of his youth, Reinhold died on December 9, 1798, at age sixty-nine. At his side were Justina and little Justy. The autopsy revealed, as he had foreseen, a hardening of the abdominal aorta and an aneurism at the left ventricle. His library of 7,000 volumes and the South Seas collections including the herbarium went to the Berlin Academy for 13,300 Taler, or about £4,400. Some of the artifacts went later to Göttingen. Today the Forster collections are dispersed in libraries and museums across Europe and in St. Petersburg.

Banks wrote that he would cancel the twenty-one year-old debt. Over the years Reinhold had earned at least £1,600 from the sales of his Observations and of George's Voyage. Justina was free of debt for the first time in almost forty-four years. Little Justy was at her mother's side when she died at age seventy-eight in 1804. In London, Elizabeth Cook, a widow of twenty-five years, had an Admiralty pension of £300 per year; she would outlive Justina by thirty-one years to die at age ninety-three. Carl was last heard of in Baltimore.66 No grandson bearing the name Forster is known to have survived infancy.

In 1844 the Latin edition of the Descriptiones Animalium Quae in Itinere ad Maris Australis Terras was published in Berlin, sixty-nine years after father and son all but finished the huge manuscript aboard Resolution. In the Preface, the editor, M. H. K. Lichtenstein, wrote:67

If this work had been completed, it would have outshone all other efforts of a most talented and diligent writer at that time, and today it would be enjoying a great reputation in zoological literature,...and nothing would be detracted from the glory of a great man, glory which many decades later English and French zoologists have won with easy labour.

The 424-page work dealt with birds, fish, insects, and mammals--a summary of all the zoological work done by the two Forsters on the second voyage. But the work came too late, for zoology had already moved on.

It is not to the credit of the British political and academic establishments that the Forsters were obliged to leave London. If provision had been made for them to stay and the way cleared for prompt publication, George and Reinhold surely would have brought honor to the Admiralty and the Royal Society, and in George Forster the English-speaking world would have had a first-class writer of English prose. Yet it is obvious that if this had been done, Cook's fame would not have fanned out across the continent in the manner that in fact resulted from the rupture between Sandwich and the elder Forster. While Reinhold's bitterness toward the British government is understandable, it is curious to notice that, on the whole, his bitterness was not directed also to the British academics, who, after all, had done nothing to help him find employment.

Granted that Sandwich unknowingly insured that Cook would become celebrated on the continent, the question remains whether his instincts were correct in rejecting Reinhold as a writer for the general public. The answer is immediately apparent when we examine the three publications of 1777 and 1778: the official account by Cook, Voyage Toward the South Pole; and the two unofficial accounts, George's Voyage and Reinhold's Observations. While Cook's and George's were narrative in character, Reinhold's was primarily "philosophical," that is to say, scientific. Reinhold clearly could not reach the general public; though his work had a profound effect on the future development of science, he simply could not write like George, and when it comes to the point, he could not match Cook's sense of immediacy and straight forward simplicity.

Sandwich, for all his bullheadedness, acted wisely. When in effect he drove the Forster family out of London, a vigorous Cook industry sprang up on the continent. The prolific publications of father and son easily swept the scientific and literary fields and had no competition, for Banks and Solander failed to publish. George and Reinhold succeeded in the face of great adversity. In this lay the supreme triumph of the triumphant second voyage.

THE SECOND VOYAGE, A WORK OF ART

It is easy to agree with Beaglehole that the second voyage was the greatest "in the history of the world."68 The voyage did fail of its avowed purpose--the discovery of the great southern continent. But the voyage brought the Polynesian and Melanesian peoples into the light of knowledge, added substantially to the natural history of the Pacific, vindicated the use of chronometers in navigation, and constituted an extraordinary first chapter in Antarctic exploration.

Reading Cook's journal and his Voyage Toward the South Pole with constant reference to the bottom half of a globe is not unlike experiencing a work of art. The voyage began with his initial conception of a circular passage, and the absolute necessity to plan months ahead in order to meet favorable winds and rest stops. He divided those thousands of miles of unknown seas at the bottom of the world into three seasonal segments, and separated them by two huge arcs into warm latitudes for refreshment and further discovery. Of Cook's three voyages the second stands out as the most elegant in conception and most brilliant in execution. The reading public acquired new themes and images by which to perceive a world beyond the seas. For this, the voyage of Endeavour was the necessary prologue.

ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT

One of the most far-reaching effects of the second voyage was the influence exerted by George and Reinhold Forster in launching the career of the great Alexander von Humboldt. Certainly father and son, for their part, exerted no greater influence. The second voyage entered Humboldt's life one day in 1789 when as a student at the University of Göttingen he met George, who had come from Mainz for a visit. He heard first-hand of travel overseas, and he was especially enthralled by what the famous savant of Halle had accomplished. As the wealthy nineteen year-old nobleman read the Bermerkungen, he caught the vision of his life's work--of going beyond the mere cataloguing of facts to comprehend the interrelationships among botany, ethnography, and geography that obtain across large areas of the Earth. In 1790 he sent Reinhold a copy of his first published article to which he appended his compliments--"the very profound respect which I harbour for your learning and great merits in promoting human knowledge."69

The shadow of James Cook extended into the nineteenth century most dramatically in the life and work of Alexander von Humboldt. Fifty-eight years after George told him of the heroic deeds of Cook and introduced him to his father's Observations, the humane von Humboldt in publishing his book, Cosmos, paid a grateful tribute to "the intelligent George Forster, to whom I am indebted for the lively interest which prompted me to undertake distant travels."70 Moreover it was the essential humanity implicit in the work of the elder Forster that early on fired the scientific imagination of the young nobleman who became the great explorer and statesman of science. Von Humboldt's Cosmos is a fulfillment of Reinhold's Bermerkungen, just as the thirty volumes of his Voyage aux Régions Equinoxiales du Nouveau Continent, published from 1805 to 1845, are a fitting epitaph to the cantankerous naturalist who so often troubled the sleep of Cook.

Thus it was the science of Reinhold the father that entered the threshold of the new century. But of all the writers who sailed with Cook, it was given to George the son to express most fully the essential meaning and even mystery of the Cook voyages; to George who was not an Englishman, who already at age twenty-three could write English prose as could few Englishmen; to the wandering and unsettled George, when he sat down to write, not in a long-established center of learning, nor in London nor Halle nor Göttingen nor Mainz, but in a setting least likely to engender an eloquent statement of all that Cook represented: the small town of Wilna on the far-off plains of Poland, where in 1787 he gazed across Europe to reflect on the father figure who he knew had become far more than "Cook the Discoverer":71

What Cook has added to the mass of our knowledge is such that it will strike deep roots and will long have the most decisive influence on the activity of man.

No comments

Unsolicited e-mail warning

It has come to our attention that spam mailers (senders of bulk unsolicited e-mail) have been forging their mail with this domain as the point of origin. As a matter of policy, we do not send out e-mail from our domain name. If you have received an email that appears to be from "@CaptainCookSociety.com" it was forged and sent without our consent, knowledge, or the use of our servers.