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Henry Ogg Forbes (1851–1932)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

Henry Ogg Forbes (1851-1932), scientist and explorer, was born on 30 January 1851 at Drumblade, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of Rev. Alexander Forbes and his wife Mary, née Ogg. From Aberdeen Grammar School, he went to study medicine at Aberdeen and under Lister at Edinburgh but an eye injury ended his studies and he went to Portugal as a scientific collector from 1875 to 1877. In 1878-84 he was collecting in the East Indies where in 1881 he married a fellow Scot, Anabella Keith.

In 1884 the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Geographical Society appointed Forbes to lead an expedition to New Guinea. He left London on 1 April 1885 and while engaging carriers in the East Indies lost £800 worth of equipment when a lighter sank. Delayed by this disaster and bureaucratic obstruction, he did not reach Cooktown till August and was immediately invited to travel to New Guinea with Sir Peter Scratchley. He left Port Moresby for the interior with three Europeans and twenty-two Malay carriers on 25 September and since the rainy season was imminent established a base camp at Saminumu, near Sogeri, to acclimatize his carriers and to become acquainted with the natives. On 7 November he joined Scratchley on his fatal visit to the north coast. Forbes then ran short of money but, with no written statement of Scratchley's verbal promise of financial support, could get no immediate funds from the new commissioner, John Douglas. In April he induced Rev. James Chalmers to join him in an attempt to climb Mount Owen Stanley but was forced back by deserting guides and regretfully went to Cooktown in May to pay off his Malay carriers. Promised support from Douglas provided that other colonies contributed, he returned to New Guinea with his wife and while waiting for funds took up duty on 21 June as acting government agent at Dinner Island where he led a punitive expedition against the murderers of Captain J. C. Craig at Joannet Island.

The scant results from Forbes's well-publicized activities had seriously damaged his reputation in Australia and in spite of personal representations he was unable to secure colonial support. However, Douglas appointed him as meteorological observer in Port Moresby. On 1 October 1887 Forbes began his last attempt to reach the main range. With two old New Guinea bushmen and two South Sea Islanders he struggled through difficult country for a month but his carriers deserted, his base camp was plundered and he returned to Port Moresby on 5 November. He failed to win compensation for his private losses and prepared a map which was later declared completely unreliable. Bitter and disgruntled he left for England in February 1888. In 1890-93 Forbes was director of the Canterbury Museum, New Zealand, and then returned to England to enjoy a distinguished scientific career. In 1911 he became consulting director on museums in Liverpool and held that post until he died on 27 October 1932.

Forbes's failure in New Guinea was entirely due to bad luck. Had he been able to do further work his scientific ability and his civilized attitude to natives would undoubtedly have contributed to the opening up of new territory.

Select Bibliography

  • British New Guinea, Annual Report,1886-89
  • A. Wichmann, Nova Guinea, Uitkomsten der Nederlandsche Nieuw-Guinea-Expeditie, vol 2, part 2 (Leiden, 1910)
  • G. S. Fort, Report on British New Guinea, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1886, 2, 939
  • J. M. Hennessy, ‘A Few Months' Experience in New Guinea’, Proceedings of the Queensland Branch of the Geographical Society of Australasia, vol 1, 1885-86, pp 106-16
  • W. Macgregor, ‘Journey to the Summit of the Owen Stanley Range, New Guinea’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, 12 (1890)
  • Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, New South Wales Branch, vols 3-4, 1885-86) p 165
  • Scottish Geographical Magazine, 1885-88
  • Australasian, 23 Apr 1887
  • newspaper clippings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • protectorate papers (National Archives of Papua New Guinea).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Forbes, Henry Ogg (1851–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 January, 1851
Drumblade, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


27 October, 1932 (aged 81)
Liverpool, Merseyside, England

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