Georg Forster

27 Nov 1754
10 Jan 1794
Writer
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Johann Georg Adam Forster (November 27, 1754 – January 10, 1794) was a naturalist, ethnologist, travel writer, journalist, and revolutionary.

At an early age, he accompanied his father, Johann Reinhold Forster, on several scientific expeditions, including James Cook’s second voyage to the Pacific.

His report of that journey, A Voyage Round the World, contributed significantly to the ethnology of the people of Polynesia and remains a respected work. As a result of the report, Forster was admitted to the Royal Society at the early age of twenty-two and came to be considered one of the founders of modern scientific travel literature.

After returning to continental Europe, Forster turned toward academia. He traveled to Paris to seek out a discussion with the American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin in 1777.

He taught natural history at the Collegium Carolinum in the Ottoneum, Kassel (1778–84), and later at the Academy of Vilna (Vilnius University) (1784–87).

In 1788, he became head librarian at the University of Mainz. Most of his scientific work during this time consisted of essays on botany and ethnology, but he also prefaced and translated many books about travel and exploration, including a German translation of Cook’s diaries.

Forster was a central figure of the Enlightenment in Germany, and corresponded with most of its adherents, including his close friend Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. His ideas and personality influenced Alexander von Humboldt, one of the great scientists of the 19th century.

When the French took control of Mainz in 1792, Forster became one of the founders of the city’s Jacobin Club and went on to play a leading role in the Mainz Republic, the earliest republican state in Germany.

During July 1793 and while he was in Paris as a delegate of the young Mainz Republic, Prussian and Austrian coalition forces regained control of the city and Forster was declared an outlaw. Unable to return to Germany and separated from his friends and family, he died in Paris of illness in early 1794.

Georg Forster was born in the small village of Nassenhuben (Mokry Dwór) near Danzig (Gdańsk), in the province of Royal Prussia, in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He was the oldest of seven surviving children of Johann Reinhold Forster and Justina Elisabeth (née Nicolai).

His father was a naturalist, scientist and Reformed pastor. In 1765, the Russian empress Catherine II commissioned the pastor to travel through Russia on a research journey and investigate the situation of a German colony on the Volga River. Georg, then ten years old, joined him.

On the journey, which reached the Kalmyk steppe on the lower Volga, they discovered several new species, and the young Forster learned how to conduct scientific research and practice cartography. He also became fluent in Russian.

The report of the journey, which included sharp criticism of the governor of Saratov, was not well received at court. The Forsters claimed they had not received fair payment for their work and had to move house. They chose to settle in England in 1766.

The father took up teaching at the Dissenter’s Academy in Warrington and also translation work. At the age of only thirteen, the young Forster published his first book: an English translation of Lomonosov’s history of Russia, which was well received in scientific circles.

In 1772, Forster’s father became a member of the Royal Society. This and the withdrawal of Joseph Banks resulted in his invitation by the British admiralty to join James Cook’s second expedition to the Pacific (1772–75).

Georg Forster joined his father in the expedition again and was appointed as a draughtsman to his father. Johann Reinhold Forster’s task was to work on a scientific report of the journey’s discoveries that was to be published after their return.

They embarked HMS Resolution on July 13, 1772, in Plymouth. The ship’s route led first to the South Atlantic, then through the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean to the islands of Polynesia and finally around Cape Horn back to England, returning on July 30, 1775. During the three-year journey, the explorers visited New Zealand, the Tonga islands, New Caledonia, Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands and Easter Island.

They went further south than anybody before them, almost discovering Antarctica. The journey conclusively disproved the Terra Australis Incognita theory, which claimed there was a big, habitable continent in the South.

Supervised by his father, Georg Forster first undertook studies of the zoology and botanics of the southern seas, mostly by drawing animals and plants. However, Georg also pursued his own interests, which led to completely independent explorations in comparative geography and ethnology.

He quickly learned the languages of the Polynesian islands. His reports on the people of Polynesia are well regarded today, as they describe the inhabitants of the southern islands with empathy, sympathy and largely without Western or Christian bias.

Unlike Louis Antoine de Bougainville, whose reports from a journey to Tahiti a few years earlier had initiated uncritical noble savage romanticism, Forster developed a sophisticated picture of the societies of the South Pacific islands. He described various social structures and religions that he encountered on the Society Islands, Easter Island and in Tonga and New Zealand, and ascribed this diversity to the difference in living conditions of these people.

At the same time, he also observed that the languages of these fairly widely scattered islands were similar. About the inhabitants of the Nomuka islands (in the Ha’apai island group of present-day Tonga), he wrote that their languages, vehicles, weapons, furniture, clothes, tattoos, style of beard, in short all of their being matched perfectly with what he had already seen while studying tribes on Tongatapu.

However, he wrote, “we could not observe any subordination among them, though this had strongly characterised the natives of Tonga-Tabboo, who seemed to descend even to servility in their obeisance to the king.”

The journey was rich in scientific results. However, the relationship between the Forsters and Cook and his officers was often problematic, due to the elder Forster’s fractious temperament as well as Cook’s refusal to allow more time for botanical and other scientific observation. Cook refused scientists on his third journey after his experiences with the Forsters.

The French revolutionary army under General Custine gained control over Mainz on October 21, 1792. Two days later, Forster joined others in establishing a Jacobin Club called “Freunde der Freiheit und Gleichheit” (“Friends of Freedom and Equality”) in the Electoral Palace.

From early 1793 he was actively involved in organizing the Mainz Republic. This first republic located on German soil was constituted on the principles of democracy, and encompassed areas on the left bank of the Rhine between Landau and Bingen.

Forster became vice-president of the republic’s temporary administration and a candidate in the elections to the local parliament, the Rheinisch-Deutscher Nationalkonvent (Rhenish-German National Convention). From January to March 1793, he was an editor of Die neue Mainzer Zeitung oder Der Volksfreund (The new Mainz newspaper or The People’s Friend). In his first article he wrote:

Die Pressefreiheit herrscht endlich innerhalb dieser Mauern, wo die Buchdruckerpresse erfunden ward.

The freedom of the press finally reigns within these walls where the printing press was invented.

This freedom did not last long, though. The Mainz Republic existed only until the retreat of the French troops in July 1793 after the Siege of Mainz.

Forster was not present in Mainz during the siege. As representatives of the Mainz National Convention, he and Adam Lux had been sent to Paris to apply for Mainz – which was unable to exist as an independent state – to become a part of the French Republic.

The application was accepted, but had no effect, since Mainz was conquered by Prussian and Austrian troops, and the old order was restored. Forster lost his library and collections and decided to remain in Paris.

Based on a decree by Emperor Francis II inflicting punishments on German subjects who collaborated with the French revolutionary government, Forster was declared an outlaw and placed under the Imperial ban; a prize of 100 ducats was set on his head and he could not return to Germany.

Devoid of all means of making a living and without his wife, who had stayed in Mainz with their children and her later husband Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, he remained in Paris. At this point the revolution in Paris had entered the Reign of Terror introduced by the Committee of Public Safety under the rule of Maximilien Robespierre.

Forster had the opportunity to experience the difference between the promises of the revolution of happiness for all and its cruel practice.

In contrast to many other German supporters of the revolution, like for instance Friedrich Schiller, Forster did not turn back from his revolutionary ideals under the pressure of the terror. He viewed the events in France as a force of nature that could not be slowed and that had to release its own energies to avoid being even more destructive.

Before the reign of terror reached its climax, Forster died after a rheumatic illness in his small attic apartment at Rue des Moulins in Paris in January 1794, at the age of thirty-nine. At the time, he was making plans to visit India.

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