Reise um die Welt: Illustriert von eigener Hand. Forster, Georg. 2007

Reise um die Welt: Illustriert von eigener Hand. Forster, Georg. 2007

Forster, Georg.
Reise um die Welt: Illustriert von eigener Hand.
Eichborn Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. 
ISBN 978-3-8218-6203-3.

This folio sized volume first attracts the eye with its pacific blue cloth cover, silver title and nice typography. For the first time this famous book has been published complete, true to the original and fully illustrated with a selection of about 80 items from 572 paintings, drawings and sketches (with an emphasis on then newly discovered species as well as animals and plants having become extinct by now). Four of the images are so large they are on fold-out pages.

The book begins with a 28-page biographical essay by Klaus Harpprecht (who wrote a detailed biography about Georg Forster in 1990 titled "The Adventure of Freedom and the Love for the World"). It is followed by the reproduction of Georg's original text - using his typical punctuation and spelling - including his preface, introduction and footnotes. At the end of the book there are helpful notes on the text, eight copperplate engravings by Georg, who refers to them in his journal, and a chronological table. In his eleven-page epilogue Frank Vorpahl explains the circumstances surrounding Forster's drawings, their relation to the text and his own representative selection from 301 botanical and 271 zoological drawings and paintings. There is also an index of persons, animals, plants and places rounding off the whole work.

Georg wrote: "It was a morning, more beautiful than any poet has ever described it, when we saw the island of O-Tahiti appearing 2 miles ahead of us. The easterly wind which had been our companion all the time had calmed down; a breeze from the shore fanned the most refreshing and most wonderful fragrances towards us..." Such literary portrayals made people like Heyne and Wieland fall into raptures. Georg Forster was a contemporary of Schiller, Goethe, Kant, Johnson, Buffon and Humboldt, but is nowadays regarded as the secret, repressed and withdrawn classic writer of German literature.

There's no grave for him. There's no birthplace cottage. On November 27, 1754 Johann Georg Adam Forster was born in Nassenhuben near Danzig (Prussian Poland). From poor and humble origins he became an explorer and writer devoted to the world of the enlightenment, and endeavouring to meet the peoples of the south seas with empathy, sympathy, few Christian prejudices and avoiding an idealisation of the "noble savages".

Georg Forster wasn't yet 18 years old when he joined his father Johann Reinhold Forster on Captain Cook's Second Voyage. After 1111 days they had seen more of the world than any German before them. The circumstances of the voyage were as unfavourable and adverse as the publication of the journal afterwards. Georg's paintings and drawings were supposed to serve as the basis for the copper engravings of the official report written by Georg's father whose well-known quarrels with Cook and the Admiralty ended at court.

Cook wrote his own description of the voyage illustrated by engravings based on William Hodges's paintings. Georg, whose father's hands were tied, was forced to write his own book with the intent of publishing it before the official account came out; he succeeded by one month. He wrote an English and German version at the same time, the English edition being published in March 1777, the German edition in 1778/80 in Berlin by Haude and Spener. It would be interesting to compare both versions and find out how they differ. Both appeared without illustrations. His paintings had to be sold in order to finance the printing of the books. In fact the water colours and drawings were bought by Joseph Banks and Georg had to watch his treasures disappear. They came to rest in the archives of the Natural History Museum in London where they lay quite unnoticed for more than 200 years.

At long last a fraction of the collection has come back to light again in this magnificent book. Averil Lysaght's wrote about the "Birds painted by Georg Forster on Cook's Second Voyage, 1772-75" in 19591 and P.J.P. Whitehead wrote about his zoological drawings in 19782.

All former editions of Reise um die Welt (A Voyage Round the World) were published without illustrations. The first German edition of 1778 contained one copper engraving, a chart. 1784 followed the next edition. A complete edition of Forster's works was published in 1843 in Leipzig. Between 1958 and 1967 (and newly edited in 1983 and 1989) Gerhard Steiner produced a new, historically-critically edition of the complete works of Georg Forster including, of course, Reise um die Welt, on which this text is based upon. At least five other editions in hardcover and paperback were published between 1998 and 2008.

However, I feel this fully illustrated edition pays tribute to a "great German" whose achievements will now, hopefully, come to the awareness of more people. Georg Forster deserves to be remembered and his life looked at more closely. Considering his youth and his circumstances writing this book and producing the images that accompany it makes this book even more remarkable. It is a gem about which a German critic said: "This book seems to have a magical force, its sheer sight enchants a whole room with, as pathetic as it may sound, beauty and perfect tranquillity. Or as the French would put it: a book pour tout la vie."

A highly recommendable 648 pages!

Anke Oberlies


  1. Lysaght Averil. Some Eighteenth Century Bird Paintings in the Library of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series Vol. 1 No. 6. 1959.
  2. Whitehead, P.J.P. The Forster Collection of Zoological Drawings in the British Museum (Natural History). Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series Vol. 6 No. 2. 1978.

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 31, number 2 (2008).

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