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Forster, (Johann) Georg Adamlocked

(1754–1794)
  • Graham Jefcoate

(Johann) Georg Adam Forster (1754–1794)

by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud, exh. RA 1781) [The Forsters [left to right]: Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798) and (Johann) Georg Adam Forster (1754–1794) ]

by permission of the National Library of Australia / The Rex Nan Kivell Collection

Forster, (Johann) Georg Adam (1754–1794), traveller and naturalist, was born on 27 November 1754 in Nassenhuben near Danzig in Polish Prussia, the eldest of the six children of Justina Elisabeth, née Nicolai, and Forster, (Johann) Reinhold (1729–1798), the local Lutheran pastor. Forster's family appears to have been of British origin, though long settled on the Baltic coast. Forster's father, a somewhat reluctant cleric, sought opportunities to prove his abilities as a man of science to a wider world. In 1765 he travelled to St Petersburg in search of suitable employment, accompanied by Georg, then aged only eleven, who learned Russian and later attended school there. Reinhold Forster was commissioned to undertake an extensive tour of southern Russia during which his son assisted him in scientific observations for the Imperial Academy of Sciences and in the preparation of maps. In the following year the pair travelled to London in a further search for an appropriate position. On their arrival, the elder Forster established contact with other German-speaking clergy and intellectuals in London, and especially with Carl Gottfried Woide, the Lutheran preacher and man of letters, who helped them find lodgings in Denmark Street. (The rest of the family rejoined them only later.) Georg quickly mastered English to add to his knowledge of Russian; his translation work, though mostly attributed to his father alone, was probably the family's principal source of income while Reinhold Forster sought regular employment, built his reputation, and established contacts within the British scientific and scholarly communities. The latter was engaged from 1768 as a tutor at the nonconformist Warrington Academy, which Georg also attended briefly as a student, but returned to London in 1770 in pursuit of a more challenging post. In 1772 he was engaged as naturalist on James Cook's second circumnavigation of the globe in the Resolution, again taking his son along as his assistant.

The voyage took the Forsters round the Cape of Good Hope to New Zealand, Tahiti, Tonga, and south beyond the Antarctic circle. Georg Forster's later reputation was based largely on the descriptions of the voyage he published after their return in 1775. The first of these was a botanical work, Characteres generum plantarum, quas in itinere ad insulas maris Australis, collegerunt, descripserunt, delinearunt, annis MDCCLXXII–MDCCLXXV, published together with his father, which earned him election to the fellowship of the Royal Society. A Voyage Round the World, in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop, Resolution (1777), which Forster published after his father had been denied the opportunity to write the official account of the voyage, had much greater impact. In particular Forster's German translation (Reise um die Welt, Berlin, 1778) not only introduced the newly discovered, almost utopian cultures of the south Pacific to the German reading public but was acclaimed for a prose style of great freshness and clarity. In his preface to the German edition, Forster emphasized the subjective nature of description and evaluation in travel writing. The work was praised by many of the leading German literary figures of the day and was held by Alexander von Humboldt, for example, to be the first truly modern account of scientific exploration. Following the publication of the London edition, the Forsters were embroiled in much controversy about the expedition and the role of its members, which gave rise to a minor pamphlet war. Georg's Reply to Mr. Wales's Remarks is an elegant riposte to a pamphlet attack by William Wales, the astronomer to Cook's expedition. A letter to the right honourable the earl of Sandwich, first commissioner of the Board of Admiralty (1778) sets out his father's case. From 1775 to 1778 the family lived in Percy Street near Tottenham Court Road. In 1780 Reinhold was invited to Halle as professor of natural history and inspector of the botanic garden, and as this post was connected with the faculty of medicine he was made MD. The early death of his son Georg affected him deeply and early in 1798 he described himself as a dying man. He died at Halle on 9 December 1798.

In October 1778 Georg Forster moved to Germany, presumably seeking advantage from his literary celebrity there. In the following year he was appointed professor of natural science at the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel. He married Therese (1764–1804), the daughter of Christian Gottlob Heyne, professor of rhetoric and university librarian at Göttingen, on 3 September 1785. Forster took up a post at the University of Vilna, then in Poland, in 1784, but after several unhappy years accepted an appointment by the elector of Mainz as university librarian in 1788. From April to June 1790 he undertook a further journey, accompanied by Alexander von Humboldt, this time along the Rhine, through the Low Countries, and on to London, returning through revolutionary France. Forster's account of the journey (Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich, Berlin, 1791) was held in almost as much esteem by contemporaries as Reise um die Welt itself.

Forster remained in Mainz after the occupation of the city by French revolutionary forces in 1792, becoming active in Jacobin circles. A supporter of the incorporation of the west bank of the Rhine into the French republic, in early 1793 Forster was elected deputy for Mainz to the national convention in Paris. His writings about the revolution were significant, if highly contentious, contributions to its reception in the German-speaking world. He died suddenly in Paris on 10 January 1794; the failure of his marriage had caused him much personal unhappiness towards the end of his life, adding to the strain of continual financial difficulties.

Although he was of somewhat unpersonable appearance, contemporaries nevertheless testified to Forster's attractive and open personality and considerable moral courage. Despite his birth in Polish Prussia and upbringing in Russia and England, he clearly felt a close affinity with the German language and culture. Nevertheless he maintained quite close ties with England after his move to Germany in 1778. He was invariably referred to in contemporary English sources as George Forster, a style which has occasionally led to his being confused with the contemporary traveller–writer of the same name, an East India Company servant. His regular correspondents included Sir Joseph Banks and, in the 1790s, Charles Heydinger (presumably Charles William Heydinger (b. 1769), the son of the London-based German bookseller Carl Heydinger). Heydinger supplied Forster with English books and maps, apparently sent via Heyne, his father-in-law at Göttingen, with the diplomatic mails of the Hanoverian legation in London. Neither his familiarity with the country nor mastery of the language appear to have made Forster particularly well disposed towards the English themselves. In a letter to Heyne written during his last visit to London and dated 24 May 1790, he wrote: 'The English are, however, too guarded, too mistrustful, too indifferent towards anything from abroad, or indeed any foreign undertaking, for me to have achieved anything during my short sojourn that might further my literary undertakings'. Despite these reservations, Forster should be regarded as a key figure in the reception of English culture and sensibility in eighteenth-century Germany, especially through the English influence on his prose style and approach to scientific writing. The lack of a significant modern biography of Forster in English is unaccountable.

Sources

  • Georg Forsters Werke: Sämtliche Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe (1958–93)
  • C. V. Klenker, ed., Georg Forster in interdisziplinärer Perspektive: Beiträge des Internationalen Georg-Forster-Symposions in Kassel (1994)
  • J. Aikin and others, General biography, or, Lives, critical and historical of the most eminent persons, 10 vols. (1799–1815)
  • G. Steiner, ‘Forster, Johann Georg(e) Adams’, Neue deutsche Biographie, ed. Otto, Graf zu Stolberg-Wernigerode (Berlin, 1953), 301–2
  • R. Mahlke and R. Weiss, Faszination Forschung: Johann Reinhold Forster (Berlin, 1998)

Archives

  • NL Aus., letters to Sir Joseph Banks

Likenesses

  • J. H. Tischbein, oils, 1782, Museum für Völkerkunde, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
  • D. Beyel, engraving (after J. F. Rigaud, exh. RA 1781), NL Aus. [see illus.]