Georg Forster – Naturalist and Revolutionary

Forster and his father at Tahiti

On November 27, 1754, German naturalist, ethnologist, travel writer, journalist, and revolutionary Georg Forster was born. At an early age, he accompanied his father on several scientific expeditions, including James Cook‘s second voyage to the Pacific. His most famous work ‘A Voyage Round the World’ is considered as the beginning of modern scientific travel literature, which also made him a member of the famous Royal Society.

At only 10 years of age, Georg Forster was taken to journeys around the world, beginning with a tour to the Volga. The young boy was already part of the scientific experiments, performed during their stay and learned speaking Russian fluently. The family moved to London in 1766, where Georg studied English and even published his first translation of a book on the Russian history in English. Due to his father’s great scientific reputation, he was asked by James Cook to join his second voyage, and of course, young Georg should not miss this journey either. His father was supposed to make scientific reports during and after the expedition and his son was taken with as an illustrator. The adventure lasted three years and together, they explored New Zealand, Tahiti, and New Caledonia and proceeded towards the south as far as no explorer did before them. Father and son enjoyed discovering the flora and fauna together, finding several new species of which one was even named after them. But even though the young explorer Forster knew much about botany, he developed a greater interest in ethnology. Quickly, he studied the Polynesian languages and described their life standards and believes as detailed as no one could before. Even until this day, his descriptions are read and studied. Critics often admired his works, because Forster used to differ the societies of the South Pacific in their religious views, living conditions and social orders in contrast to earlier studies. On this day, some of his ethnographic findings from the Cook expedition are displayed in Göttingen, Germany.

Back home, Georg Forster immediately started writing his famous book ‘A Voyage Round the World’, which was published in 1778. The work depicted a great milestone in the history of literature and marked the beginning of modern scientific travel books. Forster became famous and his work counts up to this day as one of the most read and most influential travel descriptions. His influence reached as far as Alexander von Humboldt, who deeply admired Forster and later became famous for his travel literature himself. Forster’s writing style was known to be scientific exact as well as exciting and fascinating with numerous philosophical reflexions.

Cook’s Second Voyage

Due to his fame and his enormous reputation, the 23 year old Georg Forster became a member of the Royal Society. He moved back to Germany and started teaching in Kassel, where he enjoyed the exchange of knowledge with important figures of the German Enlightenment, Kant, Lessing and Goethe. He kept publishing further influential books and started working on his dissertation on botany. In 1790, he started a journey around Europe with the about 20 year old Alexander von Humboldt. His scientific works published during and after the journey were again read often and he received admiring letters from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

During the political uproars in these years, Forster moved to Paris and could not return to Germany. Georg Forster passed away in January 1794 in Paris, suffering from pneumonia. Due to his commitment to the French Revolution, many of his scientific works were forgotten shortly after his death. The German Democratic Republic then started to honor the scientists once in a while, bringing his achievements and discoveries back to people’s minds. On this day, his reputation as a brilliant ethnologist and his ability to establish ethnology as a stand alone scientific field in Germany is undeniable.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the Georg Forster lecture on ‘The Aesthetics of Singularity: Time and Event in Postmodernity‘ by Frederic Jameson.

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