Johann Georg Adam Forster (November 27 1754 – January 10 1794) was a German naturalist, ethnologist, travel writer, journalist, and revolutionary. At an early age, he accompanied his father on several scientific expeditions, including James Cook's second voyage to the Pacific. His report from that journey, A Voyage Round the World, contributed significantly to the ethnology of the people of Polynesia and remains a respected work among both scientists and ordinary readers. 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 towards 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 Kassel (1778-1784), and later at Academy of Vilna (Vilnius University) (1784–1787). He then (1788) 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 travels and explorations, 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 Jacobin Club there 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.
The report from this journey, which included sharp criticism of the governor of Saratov, was not well-received at court, and the Forsters did not obtain 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. The young Forster, only thirteen years old, 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 Johann 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 (1772–1775). Georg Forster joined his father in the expedition again and was appointed as a draughtsman to his father. Johann Forster's task was to work on a scientific report from the journey that was to be published after their return.
They embarked on the HMS Resolution on July 13 1772 in Plymouth. The route led first to the South Atlantic, then through the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean to the island of Polynesia and finally around Cape Horn back to England, where the expedition arrived 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 took up the studies of 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 approved even to this day, as they show Forster's endeavours to describe the habitants of the southern islands with empathy, sympathy and largely without Western or Christian prejudices.
Unlike Louis Antoine de Bougainville, whose reports from a journey to Tahiti a few years earlier had initiated uncritical noble savage romanticism, Forster had a very sophisticated picture of the societies of the South Pacific islands. He described various social structures and religions that he encountered on the Society Islands, the 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 are quite similar. About the habitants 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 ethnographical items that were collected by Georg and Reinhold Forster are currently 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.
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 botanizing and other scientific observation. Cook refused scientists on his third journey after his experiences with the Forsters.
Forster wrote well-polished German prose, which was not only scientifically accurate and objective, but also exciting and easy to read. This was different from conventional travel literature of the time, insofar as it present 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 the observations. His main focus was always on the people he encountered: their behaviour, their customs, habits, religions and forms of social organisation. 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 there.
Both Forsters also published descriptions of their South Pacific travels in the Magazin von merkwürdigen neuen Reisebeschreibungen ("Magazine of strange new travel accounts") in Berlin, and Georg published a translation of "A Voyage to the South Sea, by Lieutenant William Bligh, London 1792" in 1791–1793.
However, by 1783 Forster saw that his involvement with the Rosicrucians not only led him away from real science, but also deeper into debt (he had never been very good at managing his own expenses); for these reason 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 travelled to Halle where he submitted his thesis about the plants of the South Pacific for a doctorate in medicine. Back in Vilnius, Forster's ambitions to build a real natural history scientific centre 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 given him an offer to take part in a journey around the world 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 his friend Johannes von Müller had held before, 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 the scientific and discovery expeditions of his times 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 the private scholar 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,Dezember 1786), a remarkably prescient essay on the future prospects of the English colony founded in New South Wales in 1788.
Another field of his interest 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.
Forster's main interest, however, was again focused on the social behaviour of people, as 15 years earlier in the Pacific. The national uprisings in Flanders and Brabant and of course 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 sort out his own political judgements. From that time on he started to be a confident opponent of the ancien régime. Similarly to 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.
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.) The freedom did not last too 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.
Yet before the reign of terror reached its climax, Georg Forster died of a stroke after a rheumatic illness in his small attic apartment at Rue des Moulins in Paris in January 1794, at the age of thirty-nine.
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 civilisations. According to him it is obvious that the culture on Tierra del Fuego is at a lower level of development than the 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 prejudices 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 people of 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.
Among all those authors of prose who are justified in laying claims 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.
Remembering Forster was ostracised 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 Forster was interpreted as a champion of class struggle. The GDR research station in Antarctica that was opened on 1987-10-25 was named after Forster. In West Germany, the search for democratic traditions in German history also lead to a more diversified picture of him in the 1970s. A scholarship program of the Alexander von Humboldt foundation for foreign scholars from developing countries is named after him. His reputation as one of 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.