Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Eighteenth century visitors to New Zealand and the South Pacific

The composition of Captain James Cook's second expedition to the South Pacific (1772-75) in search of the mythical Great Southern Continent (Terra Australis) included a remarkable last minute replacement. When the eminent naturalist Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Cook on his first voyage, became dissatisfied with arrangements for the second voyage and decided not to sail he was replaced by an almost unknown foreigner, Johann Reinhold Forster, who brought along his 17 year old son Georg. While the Forsters had some Scots heritage and considered themselves German, they were also citizens of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (having been born in northern Poland) who had been living in England for only a few years.

While en route to the South Pacific, the expedition's two ships, the Resolution and the Adventure, became separated in thick Antarctic fog and only met again 3 months later in New Zealand. In the interim, the Adventure under the command of Lt Furneaux had mapped the southern and eastern coasts of Tasmania (Adventure Bay on Bruny Island was named for her) and Cook had explored more Antarctic waters before resting the Resolution in New Zealand's waters. The Forsters, who sailed with Cook, had several weeks in which to collect specimens and describe in detail the flora, fauna and natural environment of the South Island before the two ships met off Queen Charlotte Sound in May 1773. Several sweeps of the South Pacific were then undertaken without any indication of a Great Southern Continent; after another stop in New Zealand the expedition headed back to England.


Cook's Second voyage
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_voyage_of_James_Cook#Voyage, viewed 22/2/2016

On the expedition's return a series of arguments arose regarding the publication rights for the voyage and in the end Forster snr was banned from publishing anything about the expedition. He sought to circumvent that by publishing A voyage round the world under his son's name and in 1779 was able to take up a professorial appointment at the University of Halle, in Germany. The publication of the book also launched Georg Forster's career as a scientist; he was appointed to the Royal Society and took up a post as teacher of natural history in Kassel, Germany.  Unsatisfied with a minor teaching post and hoping to achieve a similar status to his father, Georg jumped at the opportunity when he was offered in 1783 the position of Professor of Natural History at Vilnius University.
Johann Reinhold Forster and Georg Forster in Tahiti, by John Francis Rigaud, 1780 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Forster, viewed 22/2/2016

Georg was at Vilnius University from 1784 to 1787, but these were not happy years for an ambitious young scientist wishing to be a force in the Age of Enlightenment. Laimonas Briedis in Vilnius; City of Strangers outlines Forster's experiences and some of the reasons for his disillusionment. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was in decay; whereas 100 years previously Vilnius had 80,000 inhabitants, in 1784 there were around 20,000.  Georg's language skills also placed him at a disadvantage; he was expected to lecture in Polish, but could not, so Latin was the next option. However neither he nor his students were proficient in Latin. The intellectual isolation was profound; Forster wrote that there was not a single bookstore in Vilnius, while in Warsaw there were only one or two 'who trade only in indecent novels'. While the academic authorities were progressive thinkers and actively sought to entice other European academics to Vilnius, financial resources and political will were lacking.  In addition, young Georg Forster was poorly trained to meet the expectations of the university; as well as teaching, his duties included the establishment of a botanical garden and an agronomy program and researching the industrial and mining potential of local natural resources.

Georg Forster left Vilnius in 1787, glad to be off. Nevertheless, his disillusionment followed him; a proposed Russian expedition to the Pacific with Forster as chief scientist did not eventuate, his wife left him, and he was declared an outlaw in Germany for having collaborated with the French Revolution. He died of pneumonia in Paris in early 1794 aged 39.  

A more detailed examination of Georg Forster's time in Vilnius can be found in a 2009 paper by Dalia Å vambarytÄ—Georg Forster in Vilnius: Reverberations of the great age of ocean navigation


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