Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forster, Johann Georg Adam

FORSTER, JOHANN GEORG ADAM (1754–1794), commonly known as George, naturalist, descended from a Yorkshire family which left England on the death of Charles I and settled in Polish Prussia, eldest son of Johann Reinhold Forster, also known as a traveller, naturalist, and writer, and a minister of the reformed church, was born in his father's parish of Nassenhuben, near Danzig, on 27 Nov. 1754. Reinhold Forster, who had become a minister at the desire of his father, was by inclination a student and a naturalist, and under his teaching George's talents were early developed in the same direction. In 1765 Reinhold accepted an invitation to Russia, and from that time, throwing off his clerical capacity, devoted himself entirely to scientific and literary pursuits. George was placed at a school in St. Petersburg, where he acquired a knowledge of Russian, and again accompanied his father when he went to England towards the end of 1766. Here Reinhold was from 1768 tutor of French, German, and natural history in the Warrington academy, and George, pursuing his general studies, was also acquiring a remarkable mastery of English. In 1770 the family removed to London, on a proposal from Alexander Dalrymple [q. v.] to employ Reinhold in the service of the East India Company. The plan fell through, and for the next two years the father supported his family by translating, in which work he was assisted by George, and especially, it is said, in the translation into English of Bougainville's voyage, published under the father's name in 1772. Reinhold Forster accompanied Cook in his second voyage as naturalist [see Cook, James], taking George with him as his assistant. On their return in 1775 the two in concert published ‘Characteres Generum Plantarum quas in Itinere ad Insulas Maris Australis collegerunt, descripserunt, delinearunt, annis mdcclxxii-mdcclxxv, Johannes Reinhold Forster et Georgius Forster’ (fol. 1775). A second edition, really the same with a new title-page, was issued in 1776. The publication obtained for George his election as fellow of the Royal Society, an honour which had been conferred on the father before the voyage. The Forsters, however, were in want of money; Reinhold was always in difficulties, and of the 4,000l. which had been paid him for the services of himself and son during the three years' voyage, much had been swallowed up in necessary expenses. He had expected to have to write the narrative of the voyage, and to reap a large profit; but Cook determined to write it himself, and as Reinhold would not submit to any compromise he was ordered by the admiralty not to write at all. He complied with the letter of the order, but set George to do it instead, and a few weeks before the publication of Cook's narrative George Forster's was published under the title, ‘A Voyage round the World in his Britannic Majesty's sloop Resolution, commanded by Captain James Cook, during the years 1772–5’ (2 vols. 4to, 1777). A translation into German was published in 1779. The circumstances of this publication naturally drew down on the Forsters the ill-will of the admiralty on the one hand and of Cook's friends on the other; and Wales, the astronomer of the expedition, published as a pamphlet, ‘Remarks on Mr. Forster's Account of Captain Cook's last Voyage …’ (8vo, 1778), in which Forster and his father and his book were criticised with more ill-nature than good judgment. Forster answered in much better taste with a ‘Reply to Mr. Wales's Remarks’ (4to, 1778), and a few months later published ‘A Letter to the Right Honourable the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty’ (4to, 1778), in which he accused his lordship of going back from his agreement, of forfeiting his plighted word, and of persecuting his father in order to gratify the spite and malice of Miss Ray [see Montagu, Edward, fifth Earl of Sandwich]. The statement, however, was unsupported by proof, and Sandwich was too well accustomed to such charges to take them to heart. Reinhold Forster had meantime been imprisoned for debt, and George, who in October 1777 had gone to Paris for a short time, apparently in the hope of getting some assistance, now, in October 1778, crossed over to Germany, where he found influential friends. This was the end of his connection with England. He obtained a post as teacher in the gymnasium of Cassel, and was afterwards professor of natural history in the university of Wilna, an appointment which he relinquished on the invitation of the empress of Russia to take part in a Russian voyage of discovery. The outbreak of the war with Turkey put an end to the plan, and Forster became librarian at Mainz, where he continued from 1788 to 1792. During this time, in 1790, he accompanied Alexander von Humboldt on a three months' tour down the Rhine, and through Belgium and Holland, the account of which he afterwards published as ‘Ansichten vom Niederrhein u. s. w.,’ perhaps the most popular of his many writings. Forster had married in 1783 Therese, the daughter of Heyne, the celebrated critic and philologist. The marriage seems to have been one of mutual attachment; but in the course of years love grew cold, and Therese, who is described as having imbibed the communistic views of the marriage tie, did not feel herself bound to a husband for whom she no longer felt a passion. Forster, though he still loved her ardently, seems to have been willing to take measures for a divorce. He entered with enthusiasm into the schemes for a democracy and a republic, and early in March 1793 was sent by the citizens of Mainz as their representative and deputy to the national convention of Paris. He was still there when, on 10 Jan. 1794, he died of a scorbutic fever. He left one child, a daughter, who in 1843 published a collected edition of his works in nine volumes. These, however, are but a small part of what he wrote, for his translations, on which he laboured almost incessantly, have no place among them, except, indeed, the German version of the ‘Voyage round the World.’ The style of his English writings, which have been already named, is uncommonly pure and good, and Germans speak most highly of the charm and polish of his writings in his mother-tongue (Knigge, Briefe auf einer Reise … geschrieben, 1793, p. 58). He is spoken of as a man capable of inspiring feelings of warm affection, and loved by all who knew him (Monthly Review, 1794, xiii. 544). But his life was a continual hard struggle with penury, and the breakdown of his domestic happiness seems to have unhinged his mind during the last two years of his life.

His English works bear on the title-page the name of George Forster, as, indeed, do most of his German publications. In consequence of this he is frequently confused with his namesake, George Forster [q. v.], who died in 1792, the confusion being sometimes most insidious and puzzling; as, for instance, in Chalmers's ‘Biographical Dictionary,’ where he is said to have been, about 1790, studying the oriental languages with a view to travelling in Thibet and India. His linguistic attainments were remarkable, but it does not appear that they included any of the languages of Asia.

[Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, art. by Alfred Dove.]

J. K. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.129
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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15 ii 10-12 Forster, Johann G.A.: for for some years teacher . . . .in a school in Warrington read from 1768 tutor of French, German, and natural history in the Warrington academy