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Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754–1794)

by Leslie Bodi

This article was published:

Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [right, with his father Johann Reinhold Forster] , 1781?

Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [right, with his father Johann Reinhold Forster] , 1781?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9455835

Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794), German writer, traveller and revolutionary, was born on 26 November 1754 at Nassenhüben, near Danzig. In 1765 he accompanied his father, Johann Reinhold Forster, on a voyage of scientific exploration to Russia. Then the family settled in England, living in Warrington and London. At 12 Georg Forster was already translating French, Swedish and Russian books into English and German, and for a time he taught languages. In 1772-75 he was his father's assistant on Captain James Cook's second voyage. Because of J. R. Forster's quarrel with the Admiralty, A Voyage Round the World in His Britannic Majesty's Sloop Resolution … (1777) had to be written by Georg Foster. Its scientific as well as literary merits soon made it one of the most popular travel-books of the time. Forster was made a fellow of the Royal Society and became a member of other learned bodies. He went to Germany in 1778, where he was received with enthusiasm and met many outstanding writers, philosophers and scientists. From 1779 to 1784 he was a professor at the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel. He then held the chair of natural history at the University of Vilna in Poland, and in 1785 married Therese Heyne, daughter of the professor of classics at Göttingen. Frustrated by the lack of research facilities, he was happy to accept the position of a university librarian in Mainz in 1788. Accompanied by Alexander von Humboldt, he travelled down the lower Rhine to the Netherlands and England in 1790; his description of this voyage, Ansichten vom Niederrhein … (Berlin, 1791-94), is one of the most accomplished works of German classical prose.

When Mainz was taken by the troops of the French Republic in October 1792, Forster, after some hesitation, joined the Jacobin Club. He soon became a high official in the provisional administration and the editor of a revolutionary newspaper. He went to Paris in March 1793 on an official mission, but could not return to Mainz any more. He was outlawed by the German sovereigns, forsaken by his wife and friends and, after the fall of the Gironde, regarded with some suspicion by the Jacobins. He was, however, still entrusted with smaller diplomatic tasks and wrote a series of articles in support of the Revolution. Lonely and friendless, he died in Paris on 10 January 1794.

Georg Forster's books and essays cover a wide range: travel, botany, geography, ethnography, literature, aesthetics, philosophy and politics. Elegant and thorough, his writings are imbued with the open-minded humanistic spirit of German classicism and an activist, radical philosophy. More than anyone else, he and his father were instrumental in conveying to their countrymen the new and ever increasing knowledge gained by the scientific voyages of discovery. He had always planned to write an encyclopedic work on the South Seas, but continual financial pressure obliged him to dissipate his energies on smaller works and translations.

Forster published a comprehensive account of Cook's life, personality and scientific achievements as a preface to his translation of the third voyage, Des Capitain Jacob Cook's dritte Entdeckungs-Reise (Berlin, 1787). His essay 'Neuholland und die brittische Kolonie in Botany-Bay', November 1786, is probably the earliest piece of competent information given to the German public about Australia. Forster describes its geography, inhabitants and natural resources, and presents very optimistic views about the future of the penal settlement in Botany Bay. He reviewed books on Australia by Watkin Tench (1789), Governor Arthur Phillip (1790) and John White (1791). In 1793 his wife wrote an epistolary novel (Abentheuer auf einer Reise nach Neu-Holland) about life in New South Wales and on Norfolk Island; this was first published under the name of her second husband, L. F. Huber, in 1801.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Bodi, ‘Georg Forster: The “Pacific Expert” of Eighteenth Century Germany’, Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, vol 8, no 32, May 1959, pp 345-63.

Citation details

Leslie Bodi, 'Forster, Johann Georg Adam (1754–1794)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [right, with his father Johann Reinhold Forster] , 1781?

Johann Georg Adam Forster (1754-1794), by Daniel Beyel (after John Francis Rigaud) [right, with his father Johann Reinhold Forster] , 1781?

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an9455835

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Forster, Johann George Adam

26 November, 1754


10 January, 1794 (aged 39)
Paris, France

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.