Early New Zealand Botanical Art
Before the voyage
Before the voyage
Johann Reinhold Forster was born in Dirschau (Tczew) in Poland, thirty kilometres south of Danzig (Gdańsk), on 22 October 1729. A great-greatgrandfather, George Forster, a Yorkshireman, had settled in the region in the 1640s and his descendants were proud of their British ancestry. Johann showed an early aptitude for languages and, it is said, became proficient in seventeen of them. When fifteen years old, he entered a famous institute in Berlin, the Joachimsthal-Gymnasium, and studied a variety of subjects ranging from classics, theology and languages to ethnology, cosmology and ancient geography. In 1748 he enrolled in the theological faculty at Fried-richs University, Halle. Forster concentrated on studying classical and Oriental languages, but is known to have received some tuition in natural history. He developed an interest in the methods of Linnaeus. By 1751, probably prompted by an ailing father, Johann had returned to Dirschau as a curate in the Reformed Church. In 1754 he married a cousin, Justina, who seems to have been an ideal wife. J. R. Forster was ordained and became a parish priest in Nassenhuben near Danzig in 1753. He remained there until 1765, by which time the Forsters had seven children (an eighth died at birth).
During these twelve years, Forster devoted much of his time to scholarship and correspondence. He spent most of an inheritance from his father on one of his greatest passions, books. Johann took a keen interest in his parishioners, especially the peasants, but as his secular interests grew, his sermons became last-minute efforts and he often fell asleep in the pulpit during services. His interest in natural history was rekindled by the keen interest his son George (born in Nassenhuben, 26 November 1754) took page 35 in the plants and animals of the district. During the Seven Years War (1756-63), when the Hochzeit-Nassenhuben parish was periodically occupied by Russian troops, Forster spared no effort to protect the rights and property of his parishioners, and his courage and dedication earned the Russians' respect.
After the war Johann's career altered radically. In March 1765 he left with George for Russia and was appointed Catherine the Great's commissioner to the Volga. Earlier, in 1764, he had made his disappointment known to the Russian Resident in Danzig, when he was overlooked for an unfilled position as German pastor for a Reformed Church at Archangel 'sk, Russia. When Catherine the Great, a German, took over the throne of Russia from her husband, Czar Peter, in 1762, she had encouraged, with promises of various concessions, the migration of Germans to the Volga region. Thousands made the journey, but rumours filtered back of the poor conditions and treatment the settlers were subjected to. Catherine appointed Forster to report (favourably!) on the Volga colonies to dispel the rumours. The Forsters went from St Petersburg (Leningrad) to the Volga. Johann made meteorological observations and maps during their travels, using instruments supplied to them by the St Petersburg Academy of Sciences. George, only ten years old, collected and identified plants. (Their observations on the natural history of the Volga region were published in England in 1767.) Johann Forster's report would not have pleased Catherine, for it was highly critical of the Russian administration of the region. He did not receive the salary promised, and, after some months in St Petersburg, the Forsters returned to their family in mid-1766. In the interim, Johann had been forced to resign his position in Nassenhuben because of his absence.
Leaving the rest of the family behind once more, Johann and George set off for England to seek their fortune there. They arrived in London, almost penniless, in October 1766. For a time they stayed with a boyhood friend of Johann's, Karl Woide, a leading scholar of the Coptic language. They sold artefacts from their Russian travels to obtain some funds. J. R. Forster made some useful contacts by attending meetings of the Royal Society of London and the Society of Antiquaries, and presented a series of papers in Latin on a wide variety of topics. He earned a reputation as an impressive scholar, knowledgeable in antiquities and even agriculture and animal husbandry. He met Dr Solander, then working as an assistant at the British Museum. George, though only twelve, translated into English and edited a book by the Russian Lomonosov: A Chronological Abridgement of the Russian History (London, 1767). Then, in May 1767, to the great relief of Woide, who had been giving considerable financial support, Forster obtained the position of tutor in modern languages and natural history at Warrington Academy. This institution was renowned for its liberal, nonconformist teaching and modern curriculum. Forster replaced the great Joseph Priestly, a tutor in classics and literature, who had been able, while at Warrington, to conduct his experiments in chemistry and physics. For page 36 a few months that summer Forster and Priestly were together at Warrington. The rest of the Forster family left Danzig and George escorted them from London to Warrington. George became a student at the academy in the following year. The manuscripts of Forster's Warrington lectures are now in Berlin and, in Michael Hoare's words, "There was . . . nothing in any English and few European educational institutions to compare with the scope, depth and critical approach of Forster's lectures in mineralogy and natural history."
Problems developed for Forster at Warrington Academy. He had become unpopular with the secretary of the academy for using "violent disciplinary measures" against one of the pupils, and the academy was receiving complaints from Warrington tradesmen about unpaid debts of Forster's. He left the academy in June 1769, then taught languages at Botelier Grammar School, Warrington, for a year. During this time, Johann and George Forster worked on translating into English the travels of Kalm (North America), Loeffling (Spain and South America) and Osbeck (Asia). The translated versions appeared before the second voyage and made the Forsters well known to the general public. In November 1770 Forster left Warrington for London, renting a house next door to Woide. Employment he had hoped for did not materialise. The two Forsters continued with their translations and attended meetings of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society (J. R. Forster was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in February 1772). In 1771 Johann Forster joined the staff of The Critical Review, a periodical specialising in reviews of foreign books, and with 500 roubles, a fraction of the sum promised, finally arriving from the Russian Government, the family eked out an existence. J. R. Forster's translation from the French of Bougainville's A Voyage round the world. . . 1766, 1767, 1768 and 1769, with some 500 pages of text, appeared in 1772 and received a glowing review in The Critical Review — the possibility exists that Forster wrote the review himself!
By the time of the second voyage, Johann Forster had established himself as "one of the best-read, most discerning and leading naturalists in Britain" (M. E. Hoare). He had, through correspondence, established contact with Linnaeus, the father of modern biological taxonomy. Yet in 1961 the famous Cook scholar, the late Professor J. C. Beaglehole (in The Journals of Captain James Cook, vol. II, Introduction) had written:
For ocean voyaging no man was ever by physical or mental constitution less fitted . . . there is nothing that can make him other than one of the Admiralty's vast mistakes. From first to last on the voyage, and afterwards, he was an incubus. One hesitates, in fact, to lay out his characteristics, lest the portrait should seem simply caricature. Dogmatic, humourless, suspicious, pretentious, contentious, censorious, demanding, rheumatic, he was a problem from any angle.