Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Peter Bacos: Georg Forster - Around the World with Captain Cook

Sir Joseph Banks wanted to take on board two French horn players for his entertainment on Cook’s second voyage of discovery. The Admiralty declined this absurd request and instead offered the post as naturalist to the German polymath (Johann) Reinhold Forster who accepted on condition that his 17 year old son (Johann ) Georg accompany him. 

Dame Patsy Reddy, in her retiring address as governor – general said that one of the highlights of her period in office was Tuia 250 which commemorated the amazing voyages across the Pacific of the Polynesian navigators. 

No mention was made of Cook and certainly not the savant father and son who accompanied him. Our history is now being re-written by propagandists and every effort is made to downgrade the discovery of New Zealand by Europeans. 

Cook does get an occasional mention, but we are meant to look away in embarrassment. The Forsters are never mentioned. Oscar Wilde said, there is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. I would like to give the younger Forster the recognition he deserves.

The Forsters were descended from Scottish Royalists who had fled their homeland in the mid-17th century to settle near Danzig in what was then Polish Prussia. Reinhold was a Calvinist minister who had many interests, such as, philosophy, linguistics, ethnology, agriculture and natural history, but definitely not theology. He was the parish minister at Nassenhuben (now Mokry Dwor in present day Poland) where his son Johann (Georg) was born in 1754. Educated by his father at home his son had inherited his linguistic talent, because at the age of 11 Georg spoke French, Latin, German and Russian and understood the principles of biology and botany; later he would become adept at distinguishing the dialects of the South Pacific. Despite the flattering portraits we have of him as an adult his face was pockmarked and covered with scars because of childhood smallpox, very common in that era. Scurvy, which he contracted on his epic voyage of discovery had discoloured the whites of his eyes and would entirely ruin his teeth.

Catherine 11 wanted to develop the extensive, undeveloped southern area of Russia suitable for the cultivation of grains and other cereals. To this end she wanted to encourage German immigrants to settle the region around the Lower Volga. She promised the colonists travel money, professional and religious freedom, tax exemption for 30 years, freedom from military service and choice of their own place of residence. Reinhold Forster was commissioned by the Tsarina to do a report on how the settlement plans were progressing; he insisted on taking his 11-year-old son with him. After an arduous journey which took five months, they arrived in St Petersburg where Reinhold must complete his report. While there Georg attended for 8 months the only school he would ever go to, mastering Russian to add to his linguistic arsenal.

In 1766 father and son moved to London, because Reinhold could not take back his parsonage at Nassenhuben, leaving behind the rest of the family. In 1767 Georg appeared before the Antiquarian Society of London and presented to them his translation of Lomonosov’s, Short History of Russia, which he had brought up to date. Shortly afterwards father and son moved to Warrington, Cheshire where Reinhold accepted a post to lecture at the Dissenting Academy in German, French and natural history. By this time, they had been joined by the rest of the family; wages were modest however, and father and son must supplement them by translations. Reinhold also took in six of his students as boarders so one can imagine how overcrowded the family home was. As mentioned in the introduction Banks had declined to accompany Cook on his second round the world trip because the Admiralty would not grant his ridiculous request to accommodate two French horn players. As a result, the Admiralty made overtures to Reinhold to accompany Cook as the expedition’s naturalist. He was offered, orally, 4000 pounds and a promise of a supplement if he would write up the official travel report at the conclusion of the voyage. Reinhold accepted but insisted his 17-year-old son accompany him as assistant and draughtsman.

Their accommodation on board the Resolution was appallingly narrow, they each had a cabin 4m square, not heated and not waterproof; in good weather wastewater, with an unbearable stench, which had collected in the lower decks of the ship, was forced out from the pump mouth which lay close to their cabins. The journey lasted just over three years and not a single man died of scurvy, despite all suffering terribly with rotting mouths, loose teeth, and swollen limbs. Georg died at the age of only 39 and one could think that his early demise could have been due to the deprivations he suffered at such a young age on this journey. Both father and son kept a travel diary during this historic voyage, and I will go into this in greater detail in the second half of the article. On 16 August 1775, a month after arriving in England Reinhold and Georg were received by the king and queen to whom they handed over zoological curiosities such as an antelope from the Cape, 2 eagles and some smaller birds. In vain they waited for the promised payment. Reinhold was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford, and in November of that year appeared their first scientific work about the South Seas, which was dedicated to the king, a heavy volume with illustrated plant descriptions by Georg, whose cost of 500 pounds Reinhold stood.  Georg wrote up the history of the voyage from his and his father’s notes. He worked tirelessly on it till it was published in 1777, which immediately brought recognition to its youthful author. The Royal Society awarded membership to the not yet 23-year-old savant; other awards followed from scientific academies in Madrid and Berlin. Unfortunately, they did not come with money attached and in 1778 he returned to Germany. In Berlin he was a celebrity attending over 60 social events in 5 weeks; everyone wanted to meet the savant who had travelled around the world and seen more of it than any other personality of the German Enlightenment. His father Reinhold had debts which kept him in England, but once these were cleared he departed in 1780 to take up a professorship in Halle which he held until his death in 1798, four years after his son’s.

Georg’s first position on the continent was at the prestigious scientific institution, the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel where he taught natural history. From 1784 he taught at what is now the University of Vilnius in what was then Polish Lithuania. He found the atmosphere of the country stultifying and the attitude of the people backward; he commented that men blew their noses with their fingers. He went to Vilnius with his wife and young family; he had met his wife Therese Heyne, the daughter of a professor of Antiquities at Gottingen University when he was visiting the town. The father was opposed to the match and only grudgingly consented to the engagement, insisting that any correspondence between the betrothed before marriage should be through him. To a friend Georg confessed, “Alone I have no desire for marriage, and especially not to her.” What a charming declaration of love!  He obviously wanted a housekeeper, and a wife was a necessary evil.  The marriage would not be a success, for many reasons not least of which was the fact that  Forster may have been  a homosexual. Therese confided to a close friend that the marriage was consummated only 4 weeks after the ceremony because nature had decreed they should not be man and wife. He had a very close friendship with Alexander von Humboldt, the famous naturalist and explorer, who never married. I say if the cap fits wear it. In 1790 both of them undertook an extensive Rhine journey which took in Holland, England and Paris; the results of this were written up in a 3 – volume work, considered one of the earliest examples of modern travel literature. Before taking up his appointment in Vilnius Georg travelled through Europe and was received by the Emperor of Austria, his chancellor Kaunitz and Stanislas Poniatowski, king of Poland, who only wanted to talk to him about Tahiti, dazzled by Bougainville’s account of the sensual paradise he had depicted from his visit there only a few years before Cook’s. Passing through Weimar Goethe wanted to meet him and invited him to supper along with the philosopher Johann Herder and the poet Christoph Wieland.

In 1788 Forster accepted a position as senior librarian at the University of Mainz. Mainz was an ecclesiastical state where political and religious power was held by one man, the archbishop. Forster was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and revolutionary troops occupied Mainz in 1792. Forster joined the Jacobin Club which was formed in November, and the following year when the Mainz Republic was declared he became vice – president of the new republic. It could not survive on its own and it sought adhesion to France. As a deputy of the National Convention, the first democratic parliament on German soil, he was sent to Paris as its delegate and on 30 March 1793 he addressed the National Convention in Paris asking for the incorporation of the Rhineland in the new French Republic, which was granted. However, within little more than six months events changed dramatically. The Mainz Republic was short – lived, Prussian troops reoccupied the Rhineland, and Forster was now an outlaw threatened with execution if he returned.

He was now alone in Paris. His wife Therese was seeking a divorce, as she wanted to marry her lover, Forster’s friend, Ludwig Ferdinand Huber; Forster had no objection to the relationship whatsoever and hoped they could form a menage-a-trois, but she rejected this. Forster suffered ill – health through a generally weak constitution and years of over work, and died in Paris, 10 January 1794 in his attic room in the Rue des Moulins as the result of a lung infection, aged only 39. Three months later Therese married his friend Huber, and had a successful career as a writer, novelist and journalist. In 1843 Forster’s daughter, Marie Therese (1788-1864) brought out the entire edition of his works to ensure its survival.

Part B; Voyage of Discovery to Tahiti and the South Seas, 1772 – 1775

Forster writes that sailors are always looking for pastimes because the boredom of long sea voyages is crushing. At the Cape Verde Islands they took on 20 monkeys, most smaller than cats; they provided a lot of amusement to the sailors but unfortunately only 3 were still alive when they reached the Cape. Cock fighting was another dubious pastime the crew engaged in; they took on a lot of these birds at Huahine, and the sailors succeeded daily in tormenting them and urging them to fight. Forster claimed that some of them were the equal of the best English fighting cocks. When they anchored at Easter Island, they had been 103 days without sight of land so one can only imagine the monotony of the voyage. The Resolution took on many animals for the long journey, not only for their own subsistence but to release them into the wild; they would be a source of food for future settlers, the native population as well as shipwrecked sailors. Leaving the Society Islands in 1773 the Resolution had on board 209 pigs, 30 dogs and 50 chickens; the pigs were so cramped that the only solution was to slaughter those who appreciated least the lack of space, salt them and store them in casks. Almost half of the collection of animals that Reinhard had purchased at the Cape of Good Hope died on the journey, many maliciously killed by other sailors. At Goose Bay they released 5 geese they had brought from the Cape in the hope that they would, “increase, multiply and fill the earth.” They also tried to plant herbs and vegetables, but it didn’t always work out. The natives did not understand animal husbandry and killed the birds before they could breed, and the gardens Cook created on his first journey had become a wilderness.

There were ever present dangers. Forster describes the near miss his father had. Sailing towards the Antarctic Circle Reinhold and the ship’s astronomer William Wales took the opportunity to get into a small boat to measure the warmth of the sea at various depths. The fog became so thick that they lost both ships from sight; their boat had neither mast or sails, nor any supply of food, but only two oars, and one can only imagine the fear that must have gripped both men. They stayed still for some time and shouted until they were hoarse. Eventually they heard the ship’s bell in the distance and were reunited, relieved to have escaped a slow, agonizing death. Terrible storms, in which the crew feared for their lives were an occupational hazard. On the way to Easter Island just such a one happened. A mountain high wave hit the ship and flooded the decks; it filled Reinhold’s cabin so much so that his bed was soaked through. His rheumatism, from which he had been suffering from for 14 days became so painful that he could barely touch any of his limbs. Only 4 men died on the journey, 3 the result of accidents. Forster said he could not praise the ship’s doctor and surgeon enough for the care and attention they devoted to the crew and Cook himself for trying every remedy which would ensure their health. But tragedy was ever present; the ship’s carpenter, working on an upper deck was swept overboard. Was his family ever notified what happened to him, or was he immortalized in A E  Housman’s A Shropshire Lad?

Forster’s observations on cultural differences and the conclusions he draws from them are worth noting. One of the dogs they had purchased at the Cape threw a litter of ten, one of which was born dead. Immediately the dog they had brought from New Zealand threw itself upon the carcass and devoured it. In NZ dogs were fed on human and animal remains, something European dogs were not habituated to and had a horror of. From this Forster concluded that changes like this can become an instinct with an entire species. He also noticed the differences between a civilized life and a rudimentary one. At Dusky Bay they had cut down trees and loaded them on the ship in a matter of days, what 50 Maoris with their stone tools could not have accomplished in three months. The technological gulf between the Maori and the European was a chasm.  The higher science had also brought honour to this bleak place as an observatory had been put up provided with the best instruments. “Everywhere one saw the arts blooming and science take root in a country which up till then had been covered by a long night of ignorance and barbarism.

On the celebration of St George’s Day, April 1775 back in Tahiti it seems that every sailor had on board a Tahitian woman who spent the night. However, Forster did not think that Tahitians were any more promiscuous than some Europeans who spent their days in sexual indulgence. When they left the Society Islands almost half the crew was infected with venereal disease. The Maoris traded greenstone, refined, carved clubs for nails, axes, ironware, cloth, ribbons and coloured coral glass. They also handed over their struggling sisters and daughters to the sex trade with sailors; despite their repulsive odour and appearance the crew were not deterred. Looking on at the behaviour of his countrymen Forster wondered whether contact with so – called civilized Europeans had improved or worsened the behaviour of the natives. Travelling from the Cape there was not a single sailor who had venereal disease and yet they contracted it in NZ. Forster concluded that it must have been established here already and had not been brought by any European.

“The captain, Mr Wales, and my father went in the afternoon to Motu – Aro to visit the vegetable gardens and collect seeds. The first thing that struck them were the entrails of a human being which lay piled up in a heap on the shore. Hardly had they recovered from the shock of this sight, when the Maoris showed them pieces of the corpse, and gave to understand with words and gestures that they had eaten the rest. Among the body parts was a head and to judge from it the victim must have been a 15/16-year-old youth. What we up till that time had only suspected, we could now confirm with our own eyes, and there remained no further doubt, that the New Zealanders, which Captain Cook had suspected on his first voyage, really were cannibals.” Lieutenant Pickersgill wanted to purchase the skull and take it back to England as a souvenir. He bought it for a nail and displayed it on the ship. The Maoris seeing it wanted to eat it and led the sailors to believe it had an excellent taste. He cut off a piece of the cheek, but they were squeamish about eating raw flesh (!) so he grilled it over the fire. Forster concluded that the Maoris did not eat their enemies because there was a food shortage, which other examples in history prove when humans are faced with starvation, but because it was the ultimate insult to one’s enemies. However, he thought that with the introduction of cattle breeding and agriculture society would become more sociable and this practice would die out.

Forster regretted the violence exercised by the European towards the natives. The cause of it was theft, which was common among all Polynesians. On Easter Island the native carrying Georg’s sack of plants ran off with it and was shot. Although this was the only case of a shot being fired on the island Forster thought Europeans were too hasty to exercise a summary punishment over people, completely unknown to their laws. In the Marquesas the natives started to steal rails from the ship without exchanging breadfruit and bananas. An officer came on deck, saw what was going on and was so enraged that he shot dead the native. “It was very much to be regretted that the fury of one of our companions had cost so unnecessarily the life of one of the natives. The first discoverers and conquerors of America have often rightly been accused of cruelty to the unhappy people of this earth because they have not treated them as brothers but as unreasoning animals whom they were entitled to shoot. But who would have believed in our enlightened times, that prejudice and anger should be exercised so detrimentally towards the natives of the South Seas.”

Captain Furneaux and the Adventure got separated from the Resolution in wild seas in October 1773 and made their way back to England alone in July 1774, not after a terrible misadventure in Grass Cove ( Wharehunga Bay )  in Queen Charlotte Sound. The crew of Cook’s Resolution learnt the grim details of this when they made a refueling stop so to speak at the Cape of Good Hope on the return journey to England. Captain Furneaux sent a boat to Grass Cove to collect herbs and celery. Lt Rowe was put in command of this expedition, but according to Georg he had still not abandoned the prejudices of the seaman. He looked upon all inhabitants of the South Seas with disdain and believed to have the same rights over them that in previous centuries the Spaniards had exercised over the life of the American Indian. His posse began to collect shrubs and had, supposedly taken off their jackets. A native stole one and they fired on him till they had no shot left. When the other Maoris standing around saw this they rushed into the fray and clubbed the seamen to death, of whom there were ten in the party. Two days later a search party was dispatched, worried at the non – appearance of their comrades; they came across a large number of Maoris feasting on the remains and shot a lot of them. Forster went on to say that the Maoris had always been the most dangerous enemies to those Europeans who had come amongst them. He recounts the 4 dead from Tasman’s encounter and the much more recent massacre just a few years before in 1771 in the Bay of Islands of Marion du Fresne and 28 of his crew who had had extremely amical relations with the local Māori up till that point. (I have read secondary source material which say only 17 were killed).  The atrocity was completely unprovoked whereas the Grass Cove one was not. It is the cannibalism associated with the slaughters which has always attached a horror to these massacres.

The Grand Tour was a leisurely journey undertaken by English aristocrats in the 18th century to take in the culture of the classical world, which took them principally to Italy and Greece. It could not be more different from the voyages of discovery of savants undertaken at the end of that period which were fraught with danger and usually involved loss of life, or misadventure at any stage. The knowledge brought back, of plant and animal life and the culture of the inhabitants of the South Seas was immense. George Forster had a thirst for knowledge and his circumnavigation of the globe should be celebrated as a quest for it without falsely attributing ulterior motives to it.  

Main Sources:

Georg Forster, Weltumsegler und Revolutionar, by Ulrich Enzensberger
Entdeckungsreise nach Tahiti und in die Sudsee 1772 – 1775, Georg Forster
Grosse Geographen, by Hanno Beck

Peter Bacos is a retired teacher living in Wellington, a self-confessed auto-didact with a love of history; he has had lengthy assignments in the UK, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. 





Anna Mouse said...

Thank you for the very interesting read.

CXH said...

Thanks, a part of history I never knew.

Robert Arthur said...

Tuia 250 was a travesty. Despite NZ being a nation of yachties there seemed to be no report of sailing in the replica Endeavour. Instead we were regaled with the wonders of the accompanying sham plastic waka fleet, the orchestrated concern of the local tribes at Cook's response to attempted capture of his crew, the fanciful navigation prowess of Tupia etc. If Tupia had not translated the violent threats by maori, they may have been treated more respectfully