Johann Georg Adam Forster (German pronunciation: [ˈɡeːɔʁk ˈfɔʁstɐ]; November 27, 1754 – January 10, 1794) was a German 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.
Around the world with Captain Cook
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.
Founder of modern travel literature
These conflicts continued after the journey with the problem of who should write the official account of the travels. Lord Sandwich, although willing to pay the promised money, was irritated with Johann Reinhold Forster's opening chapter and tried to have it edited. However, Forster did not want to have his writing corrected "like a theme of a School-boy", and stubbornly refused any compromise. As a result, the official account was written by Cook, and the Forsters were deprived of the right to compile the account and did not obtain payment for their work. During the negotiations, the younger Forster decided to release an unofficial account of their travels. In 1777, his book A Voyage Round the World in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Resolution, Commanded by Capt. James Cook, during the Years, 1772, 3, 4, and 5 was published. This report was the first account of Cook's second voyage (it appeared six weeks before the official publication) and was intended for the general public. The English version and his own translation into German (published 1778–80) earned the young author real fame. The poet Christoph Martin Wieland praised the book as the most important one of his time, and even today it remains one of the most important journey descriptions ever written. The book also had a significant impact on German literature, culture and science, influencing such scientists as Alexander von Humboldt and it inspired many ethnologists of later times.
Forster wrote well-polished German prose, which was not only scientifically accurate and objective, but also exciting and easy to read. This differed from conventional travel literature of the time, insofar as it presented more than a mere collection of data – it also demonstrated coherent, colourful and reliable ethnographical facts that resulted from detailed and sympathetic observation. He often interrupted the description to enrich it with philosophical remarks about his observations. His main focus was always on the people he encountered: their behavior, customs, habits, religions and forms of social organization. In A Voyage Round the World he even presented the songs sung by the people of Polynesia, complete with lyrics and notation. The book is one of the most important sources concerning the societies of the Southern Pacific from the times before European influence had become significant.
Both Forsters also published descriptions of their South Pacific travels in the Berlin-based Magazin von merkwürdigen neuen Reisebeschreibungen ("Magazine of strange new travel accounts"), and Georg published a translation of "A Voyage to the South Sea, by Lieutenant William Bligh, London 1792" in 1791–93.
Forster at universities
The publication of A Voyage Round the World brought Forster scientific recognition all over Europe. The respectable Royal Society made him a member on January 9, 1777, though he was not even 23 years old. He was granted similar titles from academies ranging from Berlin to Madrid. These appointments, however, were unpaid.
In 1778, he went to Germany to take a teaching position as a Natural History professor at the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel, where he met Therese Heyne, the daughter of classicist Christian Gottlob Heyne. She later became one of the first independent female writers in Germany. They married in 1785 (which was after he left Kassel) and had three children, but their marriage was not happy. From his time in Kassel on, Forster actively corresponded with important figures of the Enlightenment, including Lessing, Herder, Wieland and Goethe. He also initiated cooperation between the Carolinum in Kassel and the University of Göttingen where his friend Georg Christoph Lichtenberg worked. Together, they founded and published the scientific and literary journal Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften und Litteratur. Forster's closest friend, Samuel Thomas von Sömmering, arrived in Kassel shortly after Forster, and both were soon involved with the Rosicrucians in Kassel.
However, by 1783 Forster saw that his involvement with the Rosicrucians not only led him away from real science, but also deeper into debt (it is said he was not good at money); for these reasons Forster was happy to accept a proposal by the Polish Komisja Edukacji Narodowej (Commission of National Education) and became Chair of Natural History at Vilnius University in 1784. Initially, he was accepted well in Vilnius, but he felt more and more isolated with time. Most of his contacts were still with scientists in Germany; especially notable is his dispute with Immanuel Kant about the definition of race. In 1785, Forster traveled to Halle where he submitted his thesis on the plants of the South Pacific for a doctorate in medicine. Back in Vilnius, Forster's ambitions to build a real natural history scientific center could not get appropriate financial support from the Polish authorities. Moreover, his famous speech on natural history in 1785 went almost unnoticed and was not printed until 1843. These events led to high tensions between him and the local community. Eventually, he broke the contract six years short of its completion as Catherine II of Russia had offered him a place on a journey around the world (the Mulovsky expedition) for a high honorarium and a position as a professor in Saint Petersburg. This resulted in a conflict between Forster and the influential Polish scientist Jędrzej Śniadecki. However, the Russian proposal was withdrawn and Forster left Vilnius. He then settled in Mainz, where he became head librarian of the University of Mainz, a position held previously by his friend Johannes von Müller, who made sure Forster would succeed him when Müller moved to the administration of Elector Friedrich Karl Josef von Erthal.
Forster regularly published essays on contemporary explorations and continued to be a very prolific translator; for instance, he wrote about Cook's third journey to the South Pacific, and about the Bounty expedition, as well as translating Cook's and Bligh's diaries from these journeys into German. From his London years, Forster was in contact with Sir Joseph Banks, the initiator of the Bounty expedition and a participant in Cook's first journey. While at the University of Vilnius he wrote the article "Neuholland und die brittische Colonie in Botany-Bay", published in the Allgemeines historisches Taschenbuch (Berlin, December 1786), an essay on the future prospects of the English colony founded in New South Wales in 1788.
Another interest of his was indology – one of the main goals of his failed expedition to be financed by Catherine II had been to reach India. He translated the Sanskrit play Shakuntala using a Latin version provided by Sir William Jones; this strongly influenced Herder and triggered German interest in the culture of India.
Views from the Lower Rhine
In the second quarter of 1790, Forster and the young Alexander von Humboldt started from Mainz on a long journey through the Southern Netherlands, the United Provinces, and England, eventually finishing in Paris. The impressions from the journey were described in a three volume publication Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich im April, Mai und Juni 1790 (Views of the Lower Rhine, from Brabant, Flanders, Holland, England, and France in April, May and June 1790), published 1791–94. Goethe said about the book: "One wants, after one has finished reading, to start it over, and wishes to travel with such a good and knowledgeable observer." The book includes comments on the history of art that were as influential for the discipline as A Voyage Round the world was for ethnology. Forster was, for example, one of the first writers who gave just treatment to the Gothic architecture of Cologne Cathedral, which was widely perceived as "barbarian" at that time. The book conformed well to the early Romantic intellectual movements in German-speaking Europe.
Forster's main interest, however, was again focused on the social behavior of people, as 15 years earlier in the Pacific. The national uprisings in Flanders and Brabant and the revolution in France sparked his curiosity. The journey through these regions, together with the Netherlands and England, where citizens' freedoms were equally well developed, in the end helped him to resolve his own political opinions. From that time on he was to be a confident opponent of the ancien régime. With other German scholars, he welcomed the outbreak of the revolution as a clear consequence of the Enlightenment. As early as July 30, 1789, shortly after he heard about the Storming of the Bastille, he wrote to his father-in-law, philologist Christian Gottlob Heyne, that it was beautiful to see what philosophy had nurtured in people's minds and then had realized in the state. To educate people about their rights in this way, he wrote, was after all the surest way; the rest would then result as if by itself.
Life as a revolutionary
Foundation of the Mainz Republic
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.
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.
Death in revolutionary 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.
Views on nations and their culture
Forster had partial Scottish roots and was born in Polish Royal Prussia, and therefore was by birth a Polish subject. He worked in Russia, England, Poland and in several German countries of his time. Finally, he finished his life in France. He worked in different milieus and traveled a lot from his youth on. It was his view that this, together with his scientific upbringing based on the principles of the Enlightenment, gave him a wide perspective on different ethnic and national communities:
All peoples of the earth have equal claims to my good will ... and my praise and blame are independent of national prejudice.
In his opinion all human beings have the same abilities with regard to reason, feelings and imagination, but these basic ingredients are used in different ways and in different environments, which gives rise to different cultures and civilizations. According to him it is obvious that the culture on Tierra del Fuego is at a lower level of development than European culture, but he also admits that the conditions of life there are much more difficult and this gives people very little chance to develop a higher culture. Based on these opinions he was classified as one of the main examples of 18th-century German cosmopolitanism.
In contrast to the attitude expressed in these writings and to his Enlightenment background, he used insulting terms expressing prejudice against Poles in his private letters during his stay in Vilnius and in a diary from the journey through Poland, but he never published any manifestation of this attitude. These insults only became known after his death, when his private correspondence and diaries were released to the public. Since Forster's published descriptions of other nations were seen as impartial scientific observations, Forster's disparaging description of Poland in his letters and diaries was often taken at face value in Imperial and Nazi Germany, where it was used as a means of science-based support for a purported German superiority. The spreading of the "Polnische Wirtschaft" (Polish economy) stereotype is most likely due to the influence of his letters.
Forster's attitude brought him into conflict with the people of the different nations he encountered and made him welcome nowhere, as he was too revolutionary and antinational for Germans, proud and opposing in his dealings with Englishmen, too unconcerned about Polish science for Poles, and too insignificant politically and ignored while in France.
After Forster's death, his works were mostly forgotten, except in professional circles. This was partly due to his involvement in the French revolution. However, his reception changed with the politics of the times, with different periods focusing on different parts of his work. In the period of rising nationalism after the Napoleonic era he was regarded in Germany as a "traitor to his country", overshadowing his work as an author and scientist. This attitude rose even though the philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel wrote about Forster at the beginning of the 19th century:
Among all those authors of prose who are justified in laying claim to a place in the ranks of German classics, none breathes the spirit of free progress more than Georg Forster.
Some interest in Forster's life and revolutionary actions was revived in the context of the liberal sentiments leading up to the 1848 revolution. But he was largely forgotten in the Germany of Wilhelm II and more so in the Third Reich, where interest in Forster was limited to his stance on Poland from his private letters. Interest in Forster resumed in the 1960s in East Germany, where he was interpreted as a champion of class struggle. The GDR research station in Antarctica that was opened on October 25, 1987, was named after him. In West Germany, the search for democratic traditions in German history also lead to a more diversified picture of him in the 1970s. The Alexander von Humboldt foundation named a scholarship program for foreign scholars from developing countries after him. His reputation as one of the first and most outstanding German ethnologists is indisputable, and his works are seen as crucial in the development of ethnology in Germany into a separate branch of science.
The ethnographical items collected by Georg and Johann Reinhold Forster are now presented as the Cook-Forster-Sammlung (Cook–Forster Collection) in the Sammlung für Völkerkunde anthropological collection in Göttingen. Another collection of items collected by the Forsters is on display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
- A Voyage Round the World in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Resolution, Commanded by Capt. James Cook, during the Years, 1772, 3, 4, and 5 (1777)
- De Plantis Esculentis Insularum Oceani Australis Commentatio Botanica (1786) available online at
- Florulae Insularum Australium Prodromus (1786) available online at
- Essays on moral and natural geography, natural history and philosophy (1789–97)
- Views of the Lower Rhine, Brabant, Flanders (three volumes, 1791–94)
- Georg Forsters Werke, Sämtliche Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, G. Steiner et al. Berlin: Akademie 1958
- Werke in vier Bänden, Gerhard Steiner (editor). Leipzig: Insel 1965. ASIN: B00307GDQ0
- Reise um die Welt, Gerhard Steiner (editor). Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1983. ISBN 3-458-32457-7
- Ansichten vom Niederrhein, Gerhard Steiner (editor). Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1989. ISBN 3-458-32836-X
- Georg Forster, Briefe an Ernst Friedrich Hector Falcke. Neu aufgefundene Forsteriana aus der Gold- und Rosenkreuzerzeit, Michael Ewert, Hermann Schüttler (editors). Georg-Forster-Studien Beiheft 4. Kassel: Kassel University Press 2009. ISBN 978-3-89958-485-1