La Nouvelle Cythère, Well-Intentioned Savages and the Birth of the Modern Travelogue - Georg Forster

27 November 1754, the German-speaking naturalist, ethnologist, travel writer and revolutionary Georg Forster was born in the Pomeranian town of Nassenhuben, now Mokry Dwór, 6 miles south-east of Gdańsk.

“The triumph of science was reserved to later periods of time. Three voyages of discovery, from the most liberal motives, had already been performed, when a fourth was undertaken by order of an enlightened monarch, upon a more enlarged and majestic plan than ever was put in execution before. The greatest navigator of his time, two able astronomers, a man of science to study nature in all her recesses, and a painter to copy some of her most curious productions, were selected at the expence of the nation. After completing their voyage, they have prepared to give an account of their respective discoveries, which cannot fail of crowning, their employers at least, with immortal honour. The British legislature did not send out and liberally support my father as a naturalist, who was merely to bring home a collection of butterflies and dried plants. That superior wisdom which guides the counsels of this nation, induced many persons of considerable distinction to act on this occasion with unexampled greatness. So far from prescribing rules for his conduct, they conceived that the man whom they had chosen, prompted by his natural love of science, would endeavour to derive the greatest possible advantages to learning from his voyage. He was only therefore directed to exercise all his talents, and to extend his observations to every remarkable object. From him they expected a philosophical history of the voyage, free from prejudice and vulgar error, where human nature should be represented without any adherence to fallacious systems, and upon the principles of general philanthropy; in short, an account written upon a plan which the learned world had not hitherto seen executed.“ (Georg Forster, Preface to “Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World“)

William Hodges: "Resolution and Adventure with fishing craft in Matavai Bay" (1776), showing the two ships of James Cook's Second Voyage at anchor off Tahiti.

Few real-world places have fuelled Western imagination like Tahiti. Since Bougainville stumbled across the place back in 1768, euphorically named it “La Nouvelle Cythère“ after Aphrodite’s island of love and left an enthusiastic report in his travelogue, Tahiti summarised an earthly paradise, inspired Rousseau’s theme of the noble savage, instigated seafarers to revolt and run, from “Breadfruit” Bligh’s “Bounty” mutineers to Herman Melville and, of course, became the vanishing point for artists like Gauguin. Those who were actually there usually couldn’t close their minds to Tahiti’s enchantments, neither stern Bligh himself nor his mentor James Cook and much less a starry-eyed teenaged idealist with his head full of scientific zeal, ideas of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment and the metaphysics of morals. The latter, Georg, shipped on board of HMS “Resolution” in 1772, accompanying his father Johann Reinhold Forster who was hired by the Royal Society to serve as naturalist under James Cook on his Second Voyage. Actually, the Forsters were a replacement for Joseph Banks and Samuel Johnson who both had declined to sail around the world in a cockleshell like the converted merchant collier the “Resolution” was and while the old Forster was a somewhat unspectacular naturalist with quite conservative views, the young one would leave a testament that was to have a significant influence on the 19th century, scientific as well as romantic, of how to view the world and tell the tale of it.

The Forsters, father and son, in Tahiti, as imagined by Jean Rigaud in 1780

Draughtsmen played an important role in scientific expeditions well into the 19th century, capturing the images of discoveries and that was young Georg’s job on Cook’s Second Voyage. Sketching unknown plants and a bit of wildlife, collecting and preserving the finds, comparing, speculating, guessing, the two Forsters did remarkably well on their three years journey and Georg had ample opportunity to pursue his particular interests, such as ethnography and ethnology, especially among the Polynesians they met all across Oceania. He learned the languages spoken on the islands and while Bougainville with Rousseau in his wake repotted a veritable new Arcadia from the Great South Sea into the Western mindscape, Forster approached the local societies deliberately without the prevalent Christian prejudices and pre-Romantic wishful thinking, but with an attempt of being unbiased and empathic as well as scientifically precise as possible while delineating his perceptions and conclusions in his journal. A phenomenon in ethnography that was a long time in the coming elsewhere. But while Forster took good care to avoid idealisations, a remarkable enough feat for an 18–year-old, the disappointment of an ageing lover resonates faintly from his narrative with the insight that a paradise is already lost as soon as it is discovered. None the less or maybe just because of that, in 1777 Forster published a travelogue, “Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World“, well-written, immensely readable, highly praised by the German-speaking muses’ sons as soon as it was published in his mother tongue, a cornerstone of modern travel literature. And then the great revolution broke out, “and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world“, as Forster’s admirer Goethe put it, and Georg was indeed present at its birth in the German States when the Republic of Mainz was founded in 1793. And he probably knew already how the story would end, but there he stood. He could not do otherwise.

A drawing by Goethe from 1793 of a German liberty tree based on the French model.
The inscription reads:  “Passans, cette terre est libre“ (travellers, this land is free)

the Great Russian South Sea expedition with Forster as designated leader was finally cancelled after war broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1787, Forster vacated his professorship in Vilnius and went to Mainz as head librarian. “Finally, there is freedom of the press within these very walls where printing was invented”, he wrote after French troops under General Custine had occupied the town in October 1792. Forster became a founding member of the local Jacobin Club and laid the ground for the Republic, sovereignty of the people and Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité and all that, proclaimed as the first democratic state on current German territory in March 1793. Forster immediately went to Paris to plead with the National Convent for an integration of “Mayence”, Mainz, into the French Republic and ran straight into the climax of the Reign of Terror. Unlike other German supporters of the Revolution he did not immediately withdraw his support. “The Revolution is a hurricane”, he wrote, “Who can obstruct it? Man, brought into action by it, might do things of a direness posterity cannot comprehend.” And the German-speaking posterity did not weave garlands for Forster either. The Republic of Mainz was occupied by Prussian troops six months after its proclamation, Forster was put under the ban of the still existing Holy Roman Emperor and decided to stay in Paris where he died of Pneumonia at the age of 39 in January 1794. His legacy was, by and large, ignored for the decades of restauration to come when everything Francophile was regarded as high treason in the German-speaking states after the Wars of Liberation. Allegedly, Forster had planned a voyage to the east after the end of the Republic, a few months before he died, a passage to India that never took place.

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