Johann Reinhold Forster and the Making of Natural History on Cook’s Second Voyage, 1772-1775.
At first glance the Introduction to this book on Johann Reinhold Forster contains a surprising statement. “The role of the Forsters in Cook’s second voyage and thus, their part in the scientific exploration of the Pacific and its adjacent regions, has been underestimated by the history of science in general and the scholarship on Cook’s voyage in particular”. This dismissive remark should be set against fairly recent English-language scholarship on the Forsters, and on Johann Reinhold in particular, all listed by Anne Mariss, beginning with Michael Hoare’s fine biography,1 followed by Hoare’s four-volume edition of Forster’s manuscript Resolution Journal.2 These seminal works, which aimed to correct J.C. Beaglehole’s judgment that Johann Reinhold Forster was “one of the Admiralty’s vast mistakes” opened the flood-gates of scholarship on the Forsters, including a scholarly edition of A Voyage round the World by the younger Forster, Georg,3 and another on Johann Reinhold’s Observations Made during a Voyage round the World,4 together with numerous articles, including a couple by the present reviewer. What then is left to say?
This book’s two hundred pages provide a compelling answer, beginning with one of the author’s fundamental arguments that the gains in natural history knowledge began, not in Europe after the return of an expedition from the Pacific, but “immediately on board the ship, transforming it into a floating natural history collection”.
In the so-called Age of Enlightenment long-distance travellers from Europe opened up new areas of the world, bringing almost overwhelming amounts of exotic flora, fauna and peoples to scholarly attention. At the time of Cook’s voyages Linnaeus and Buffon were outstanding in their attempts to categorize the host of natural history specimens brought to their cabinets. On Cook’s second voyage Johann Reinhold Forster was a particular admirer of Linnaeus and his system of plant and animal classification as set out in the Systema Naturae. Supported by his son, Georg, as the artist who drew most of the plants collected and by the Linnaeus “apostle” Anders Sparrman, who helped with the process of classification, Johann Reinhold put his ungainly frame through every kind of hardship and danger in his collecting efforts, often to be thwarted by the shortage of specimens because he was on shore in the wrong season. Another problem was the conflict between the interests of the naturalists, desperate for time on land, and Cook’s priority to chart the unknown coasts as quickly and safely as possible. As Anne Mariss puts it, for the naturalists, “the ship was anything but an optimal workplace”.
Not all on board was conflict. The naturalists recognized that many of the seamen on board had already travelled extensively and had a wide if not deep knowledge of the nature and culture of the areas being approached. In assessing and recording Polynesian society Johann Reinhold was helped by the linguistic knowledge of some of those on board who had sailed on Cook’s First Voyage. He also gained much from the specimens shot or caught by the seamen, passed on to him, often for money. In Antarctic waters Johann Reinhold benefitted in his discussion on the formation of icebergs from two seamen who had sailed in the Arctic. Relations between seamen and the naturalists were rarely easy, but the practical knowledge of the former often complemented the learning of the latter. The “Experimental Gentlemen”, as the seamen called the Forsters and Sparrman, was not necessarily a term of respect. As the gunner’s mate, John Matra, wrote to Joseph Banks, “We have got many Experimental Men For Our Ship that pretend to know What Was Never Known. Not Yet Never Will be Known”. Matters were not helped by the fact that Johann Reinhold, for all his impressive scholarly attributes was prickly and awkward in his personal relationships, and these defects were magnified in the claustrophobic quarters of Resolution.
Prominent among the competing interests of seamen and naturalists on board ship was the collecting of “curiosities” or artifacts. At home there was a growing demand for natural history items and artifacts from the Pacific, and wealthy individuals such as Banks turned their homes into South Sea museums. Knowledge of this demand, and its pecuniary implications, had its effect on Cook’s seamen, who collected items ranging from Tahitian bark cloth to Polynesian weapons, with an eye for their sale in England. Shells from the Pacific had a particular value, and shell collectors waited at the dockside for returning ships from the East. This shipboard activity was at odds with how the Forsters regarded their collecting activities, for they insisted on the scholarly importance of collecting. They were careful to record all the available details of items such as weapons and jewellery—name, place and time of acquisition, and usage. In contrast to the collecting habits of the seamen they argued that their collecting was scientifically motivated, and they became increasingly angered when they were outbid by seamen. As Johann Reinhold wrote, if one was “but a mere Collector… it was not worth while to pursue this so extensive branch of Learning, to trifle away time, Money & Trouble in collecting”.
An essential element in the collecting and classifying activities of the Forsters was the contribution of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, described in an important chapter on the knowledge of local informants. Older interpretations that emphasised the overbearing dominance of European naturalists in little-known areas of the Pacific are no longer regarded as valid, for as Anne Mariss puts it, “they depended heavily on the mutual understanding and collaboration with local informants and interpreters”. The best-known individuals among these informants were Tupaia on Cook’s First Voyage, and Mai and Hitihiti on the Second, the latter leaving Ra`iatea to sail for nine months in Resolution. During his time on ship, Hitihiti was able to furnish the Forsters with a great deal of information about the names of islands, plants and animals, though linguistic difficulties prevented much useful communication on the social and spiritual aspects of life on the Society Islands. More generally islanders played a crucial role in the physical efforts needed to collect specimens in a terrain that was often difficult for Europeans as well as helping to identify items’ specific characteristics. There were, however, limits to this collaboration, sometimes through deliberate local decision, sometimes through genuine misunderstanding on one side or the other. A source of frequent irritation for the naturalists were the indigenous demands for material reward in return for specimens or information, a tension that often led to accusations of “thieving” and violent conflicts between seamen and islanders.
After surveying the collecting activities of naturalists in distant parts of the world Anne Mariss turns to the classifying, preserving and drawing of the specimens they collected. By the time of the Forsters the Linnaean binominal system had been accepted as the universal way of naming plants. As Mariss puts it, despite its limitations it “accompanied and indeed promoted European expansion in the eighteenth century”. Each plant was named with two words in Latin, the first denoting its genus, the second its species. Johann Reinhold had the advantage of taking on board Resolution a comprehensive library (here listed in an Appendix) of books on natural history and travel. This enabled him to check whether the species or genus of a plant he had just collected was already known – an essential part of the naturalist’s task – and, if not, gave him licence to name it after a patron, friend or powerful individual. To avoid being overtaken by a rival naturalist early publication was crucial, and Forster was continually afraid that his Pacific findings had already seen the light of day in the publications of Banks and Solander after Cook’s First Voyage. At sea he was not to know that Banks in England had other priorities, and that details of his Pacific collection would only be published posthumously.
For the voyage-naturalists on board Cook’s ships collecting specimens was one thing, preserving them on the long voyage back to Europe quite another. They faced persistent problems in fending off the ravages of insects, maggots and rodents, and protecting specimens from the disruptive effects of saltwater and climatic changes. As far as plants were concerned specimens could be pressed and kept in sheets of paper, though only as long as dry accommodation was available. Seeds were more difficult to preserve, and live plants, which needed plenty of fresh water, presented the greatest challenge of all. Dead animals, fish and birds needed specialist treatment, and one of Johann Reinhold’s many talents was his skill in taxidermy. The year before Resolution sailed, he had published “Short Directions for Collecting, Preserving, and Transporting All Kinds of Natural History Curiosities”.5 Alongside the physical remains of plants and animals, images were crucial in the process of transmitting knowledge, for as Anne Mariss puts it, they “could escape time and pin down the ephemerality of the moment”. In Resolution a total of 572 drawings and water colours were made, most by the younger Forster, Georg. They were not only attractive artistically, but they were important working tools for naturalists, with their detailed representations of plants, usually brought on board before they could wither. Plant features identified by Linnaeus received particular pictorial attention, even when the originals were in different stages of development. Some of Georg’s pieces were drawn or painted on shore, that is if the later painting of the two Forsters by John Francis Rigaud is to be trusted—it forms the cover image of Anne Mariss’s book. In a New Zealand setting it depicts Georg Forster about to draw a dead bird held for him by his father, a sign of their collaboration that was so important during and after the voyage.
Anne Mariss’s brief Epilogue stresses that at the time of Cook’s voyages natural history knowledge of the Pacific was transformed “on the move” rather than being simply written up in the cabinets of Europe. As she has shown, observations by the Forsters and Sparrman on or near the ship were made with help, sometimes of islanders, sometimes of officers and seamen, and invariably with reference to the natural history works kept on board. Animals, fish and birds were taxidermically preserved while plants were carefully dried, all to accompany written observations, often made on a daily basis. This change of emphasis from European studies to shipboard cabins is elegantly expressed in Anne Mariss’s book.
This book is an essential complement to earlier edited works by, and on, the Forsters, and a final note by this reviewer would call attention to the remarkable number of helpful endnotes, in some cases citing works published only in the last year.
- Hoare, Michael E. The Tactless Philosopher: Johann Reinhold Forster, 1729-1798. Hawthorn Press. 1976.
- Hoare, Michael (ed.). The Resolution Journal of Johann Reinhold Forster, 1772-1775. Hakluyt Society. 1982.
- Forster, George. A Voyage Round the World. Edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof. University of Hawai`i Press. 2000.
- Forster, Johann Reinhold. Observations Made During a Voyage round the World. Edited by Nicholas Thomas, Harriet Guest and Michael Dettelbach. University of Hawai`i Press. 1996.
- Forster, Johann Reinhold. A catalogue of the animals of North America. Containing, an enumeration of the known quadrupeds, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, crustaceous and testaceous animals; many of which are new, and never described before To which are added, short directions for collecting, preserving, and transporting, all kinds of natural history curiosities. B. White. 1771.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 12, volume 43, number 1 (2020).