Forster, George (edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof, assisted by Jennifer Newell).
A Voyage Round the World.
University of Hawai`i Press.
In two volumes.
George Forster's account of Cook's Second Voyage, first published in 1777, has been beautifully republished in two volumes and over 830 pages of text and appendixes. The editors' introduction covers Forster's and Cook's writings, Forster's ethnological observations, and the book's reception when it was first published in the 18th century. The text contains drawings by the author, and engravings or paintings by artists such as William Hodges, as well as maps of the voyage.
The valuable appendixes include Forster's introduction to the German edition (Reise um die Welt, 1778), extensive commentary by William Wales (astronomer on the Second Voyage) about disagreements with Forster's interpretation of events, acrimonious letters exchanged by George and Johann Reinhold Forster and Wales, a letter by George Forster to the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, regarding authorized publication of material, and a table summarizing names given by Forster to Pacific islands. There is also a bibliography of works cited by the editors, and an extensive index.
This book serves as a complementary account to Cook's journals of the Second Voyage, and as a study of oceanic culture and society. Forster's narrative contains a preface and is divided into three books. The first two books appear in Volume I of this version. They summarize the voyage through mid-July 1774. The third book is contained in Volume II. The editors provide a useful table providing chronology of the voyages of Resolution and Adventure, which became separated off the coast of New Zealand.
Forster's original book has been cited as an example of Enlightenment era travel books, said to be the favorite genre of contemporary German literature. It compares favorably to the Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks's useful additional account of Cook's First Voyage.
As you might expect, Forster's account focuses far more on the scientific and ethnological aspects of the voyage than does Cook's account. Forster wrote detailed descriptions of seascape and landscape, weather and oceanic conditions, sea life, plants, animals, and especially people and societies, interactions between sailors and natives, living conditions, food, clothing, various material objects, and assessments and judgments about South Seas people and society. The editors cite Forster's observations on Pacific peoples as the most valuable aspect of the account. Cook's journals contain some of these observations, but in much less detail. Cook, the scientists, and others on his voyages would have shared their observations during the journey, and often integrated their observations as they compiled their individual journals.
Forster took great pains in his preface to point out that he was little concerned with "nautical details", or "victualling and refitting the ship", or "how often we reefed, or split a sail in a storm, how many times we tacked to weather a point". He also observed that the navigator "who has been bred on the rough element" may observe certain matters far differently from "the landman" who is the product of "different branches of science." William Wales later interpreted these words as an effort to prejudice readers against Cook's account.
Forster and Cook both wrote assessments of peoples of the Southern Oceans that today are out of fashion. For example, both authors offered observations of people of the Pacific Islands compared to those encountered at Tierra del Fuego. Cook found the Fugean native peoples (the Pecheras) who appeared mostly naked in a harsh climate, living more in bark canoes than on land, concluding they "are certainly the most wretched" among all the nations he visited: "they are doomed to live in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world, without having sagacity enough to provide themselves with such necessaries as may render life convenient."
Forster's comments parallel those of Cook's, similarly citing the stench associated with the mostly naked, forlorn appearing Fugeans: "these wretched natives of a most dreary country", in the face of inclement weather, "were yet too stupid, too indolent, or too wretchedly destitute of means to guard against it. They seemed totally insensible of the superiority of our situation, and did not once, with a single gesture, express their admiration of the ship, and its many great and remarkable objects." Forster's conclusion is that people living in warmer climates were of higher intelligence and industry than those living in more rigorous, colder, and extreme climates, an interpretation based upon geographical determinism that is unacceptable to modern scholars and readers.
On occasion, Forster's sober account employs a measure of humor. In January 1773, as the voyage approached the Antarctic Circle, Forster recalls the ship's company, after great effort, bringing on board large blocks of floating ice which eventually melted to provide weeks of fresh water supply. Forster noted some of the crew were frightened that the melting ice would expand and explode the water casks until Captain Cook demonstrated that melted water took less space than frozen ice. Forster acidly observed, "Ocular demonstration always goes farther than the clearest arguments; but reasoning never has less weight than with sailors."
Forster offers observations about the impact of European visitors on Pacific Islanders, especially "corrupting their morals", including spreading sexually transmitted disease. He finds little "real benefit" provided to the native peoples and that contact, especially that of uncouth seamen, has been "wholly disadvantageous to the nations of the South Seas", and that those who "kept aloof" from the visitors were the better for it. Forster does refer to Cook's efforts to keep infected sailors from contact with natives. He similarly abhorred New Zealand Maori offering daughters and wives to sailors for "infamous commerce" in trifles but he concludes that it was the Europeans, first the Dutch and now the English, who corrupted the natives to behave as such only after their arrival. He notes the prevalence of thievery among native peoples, especially theft of objects belonging to the European visitors.
Forster's narrative includes numerous laudatory references about Cook, "the greatest navigator of his time", with his "indefatigable pursuits after discoveries." Forster recognizes Cook's multiple experiments and achievements to safeguard and improve the health of seamen and, in particular, cites advice to Cook by surgeon James Patten regarding scurvy. He positively recounts Cook's attempts to establish friendly relationships with native peoples. Forster recounts Cook's illnesses during the voyage and efforts undertaken to restore his health, including feeding Cook boiled meat taken from his father's Tahitian dog.
Readers who wish to explore the contentious controversy between the Forsters and astronomer William Wales (as well as the Admiralty) will thoroughly enjoy the appendixes to this book. Wales is quoted citing page after page of inaccuracies in George Forster's narrative of the Second Voyage. He suggests that Johann Reinhold Forster had the "principal" hand in writing the book and, furthermore, the observations were not borne out by the facts. Wales presents a devastating description of J. R. Forster's disagreeable nature from the moment he stepped aboard Resolution. Forster's censure of the behavior of the ship's company in particular raised Wales's ire. Hostile letters flew between Wales and both Forsters over assertions that Wales allowed a chronometer to stop working in June 1773. The acrimonious exchanges included in the appendixes provide interesting, if irresolvable, commentary for readers even today.
George Forster's enjoyable narrative serves as a valuable record of the Second Voyage and a useful reference for persons interested in Captain Cook. The editors, specialists in anthropology and literature, are to be congratulated for providing useful while unobtrusive commentary on Forster's writings, and for compiling an easily readable, interesting text.
James C. Hamilton
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 41, volume 33, number 3 (2010).