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Discovering Cook: Georg Forster and the image of Captain Cook

Paper presented by Nigel Erskine, Australian National Maritime Museum
Cook’s Pacific Encounters symposium, National Museum of Australia, 28 July 2006

NIGEL ERSKINE: Captain Cook was advanced a few paces before the Marines when they fired, the stones flew as thick as hail which knocked the lieutenant down and as he was rising a fellow struck him in the back with a spear, however he recovered himself, shot the Indian dead and escaped into the water. Captain Cook was now the only man on the rock, he was seen walking down towards the pinnace, holding his left hand against the back of his head to guard it from stones and carrying his musket under the other arm. An Indian came running behind him, stopping once or twice as he advanced, as if he was afraid that he should turn around and then, taking him unaware, he sprung at him, knocked him on the back of the head with a large club and instantly fled with the greatest precipitation. The blow made Captain Cook stagger two or three paces. He then fell on his hand and one knee and dropped his musket. As he was rising, another Indian came running to him and before he could recover himself from the fall drew out an iron dagger he concealed under his feathered cloak and stuck it with all his force into the back of his neck, which made Captain Cook tumble into the water. It was February 14, 1779, and a few moments later Captain Cook was dead. [description of Captain Cook’s death in the Sandwich Islands on 14 February 1779 by surgeon David Samwell]

Just as that description of Captain Cook is a very dramatic ending, I think it posed a problem for Europe in the sense that this man who had been so instrumental in exploring the Pacific over the past 11 years was suddenly no more. Some of the idea of the shock and horror which occurred in Kealakekua Bay is that the people who survived the skirmish left Captain Cook’s body and the bodies of the other four marines who were also killed on the beach. It was simply a moment of total blankness, if you like, a great shock.

In the next few days we had the two vessels, the Resolution and the Discovery, still at anchor in Kealakekua Bay. Gradually there was a return to some sort of normality, if that is possible. The remains of Captain Cook - some flesh and a few bones - were returned to the Resolution. Gradually the work to the foremast on the Resolution completed so that the vessel could finally leave the bay, which it did about a week later. On 21 February, seven days after the massacre, Cook’s remains were interred in Kealakekua Bay and given all due respect.

The problem for people back in Europe was that without a body it was very hard to mourn Cook. That was also a problem which confronted historians trying to commemorate his name and his memory in some appropriate fashion. This wonderful little ditty box in the State Library of New South Wales is an example of how the crew of the Resolution went about trying to express their feelings. The box was carved out of timber from the Resolution and you see it has a lock of Cook’s hair on it. It also has a painting of Kealakekua Bay, the rocky point where Cook was killed. Various plaques refer to places where Cook was most reknowned in this work including his work in Quebec when he was a very young officer doing soundings in the St Laurence River, which allowed the British to take Quebec. His work in Newfoundland when he really honed his skills as a surveyor. And then some of the other places he went to. The little ditty box here is an example of the crew providing something for Mrs Cook. On the side of the box there is an inscription that says: ‘made of Resolution oak for Mrs Cook from the crew’.

After leaving Kealakekua Bay the vessels continued on north through the Hawaiian group under the command of Charles Clarke. News of Cook’s death came across overland from Russia and finally arrived in London in January 1780, and of course it caused great consternation. This is an example of the effect that the news had on the public; it’s a short elegy written by Miss Seward at the time. You will get some idea of the raised feelings at that time. This is the last verse of that elegy:

Oh raise thy thoughts to yonder starry plain,
And own thy sorrow - selfish, weak, and vain.
Since, while Britannia, in his virtues just,
Twines the bright wreath and rears the immortal bust;
While on each wind of heaven his fame shall rise,
In endless incense to the smiling skies.
The attendant power, that bade his sails expand,
And waft her blessings to each barren land,
Now raptured bears him to the immortal plains,
Where mercy hails him with congenial strains.
Where soars, on joy’s white plume, his spirit free,
And angels choir him, while he waits for thee.

While this might have been a very nice way to remember Cook, I hardly think it gives us any real information and I don’t think it is not an entirely appropriate commemoration of Cook. Just as the crew members in Hawaii were shocked after the death of Cook, it took some time back in England for people to come to terms with this death. In 1784 the Royal Society attempted to commemorate the death of Cook by producing commemorative medals in bronze, silver and gold. One of these medals was presented to Mrs Cook, along with an amount of 200 pounds, an annuity which was settled on Elizabeth Cook by King George III.

In the absence of Cook there was a great attempt to support Mrs Cook, the survivor of this great man. People like Sir Hugh Pallister, who had been so instrumental in Cook’s career, erected a monument to Cook in his own estate in Buckinghamshire on which had an inscription: ‘To the memory of James Cook, the ablest navigator this or any other country hath produced’. In 1785 King George III also allowed a memorial coat of arms to the Cook family. There were these various attempts by people to find an appropriate way of commemorating Cook. Also at this time various people were coming out with lives of Cook, trying to piece together enough information, and of course there was a very ready market. People not only wanted to know how Cook had died which was very gory and spectacular - it had all the good requirements of a great story - but also wanted to know more about this man’s early life.

One of the earliest examples we have of somebody trying to knit together a biography is the work put together by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in 1780. Lichtenberg, a German intellectual and philosopher, used sources from a number of places. Apart from Johann Reinhold Forster, he used information from newspapers and also information from Lieutenant John Rickman, a German speaking officer on that Resolution voyage. The standard process when people came back from such voyages was that any journals were confiscated by the commander, because these were all the property of the Admiralty and they didn’t want any unofficial accounts coming out. However, in Rickman’s case, he was able to keep his notes in German so they escaped the Admiralty’s net.

In 1781 there was also an account entitled Reise um de Welt mit Captaine Cook produced by Heinrich Zimmerman, able seaman on the Discovery. In that case the British Admiralty successfully suppressed its publication and there was no English version of that publication until 1926. We have another account produced in 1783 by an American, John Ledyard, who was one of the marine corporals on the Resolution.

But there was no official account commemorating Cook’s life until the official account of the third voyage was finally published in 1784. That was the account edited by Reverend John Douglas, the Canon of Windsor, where he brought together the account of Cook’s journal up to the time of his death in 1779 and then added to it the account of Captain James King who had brought the Discovery back to England. There had also been all sorts of problems with the engravings. All the various accounts of Cook - Hawkesworth’s version, Douglas’s second account and finally the third account were always very rich in engravings. One of the problems with Cook’s death was that there was a lot of information out there but there was a need to consolidate charts, the work of the various artists, along with the appropriate journals to create the official account of the third voyage and this all took time. So it was 1784, four and a bit years after Cook’s death that this account finally comes out. It is that account which sparked Georg Forster to describe the introduction to that third voyage written by John Douglas as ‘being intolerable’.

I want to examine some of the reasons why Georg Forster might have regarded that introduction as being intolerable. This portrait of Captain Cook by Nathaniel Dance was done after the second voyage [shows image], and the second voyage is the one on which both Reinhold Forster and Georg Forster sailed with Cook. In many ways I believe the second voyage was the most arduous voyage. It took the Resolution and the Adventure down into Antarctic waters, and the Resolution in particular down into areas as far as 71 degrees south, dodging icebergs and enduring incredibly cold conditions during which the only protection the crew had were fearnought jackets, very heavy felt jackets. If anyone was going to see Cook in his true light, this was the time when Cook was at the height of his powers in what was the most arduous of all his voyages. It is interesting that Georg Forster should at a later time decide to write about this voyage.

At the end of the Endeavour voyage in 1771 when Cook returned to England, it had been very much a triumph for Sir Joseph Banks. It was Sir Joseph Banks who was lionised in the press. Although Cook was promoted to commander and he very quickly went about being involved in the planning for the second voyage, it was very much Banks’ show. When planning for the second voyage had progressed to a certain point, Lord Sandwich, who at that time was the First Sea Lord in charge of the Admiralty, invited Banks to come back and go on the second voyage with Cook. Banks, of course, could hardly say no. He would be expected by the public with the anticipation of yet another great adventure that he should be involved in. Banks took to the planning with great gusto to a point where he took over, to a large extent, control of changes to the accommodation on the Resolution. The Resolution had been chosen by Cook. Again, it was a collier, a larger collier than the Endeavour. Banks had been unhappy throughout the first voyage. He had felt that the accommodation in the great cabin was very small, very tight. If he was going to go on to another voyage, particularly into such difficult conditions down in the Antarctic, he wanted to have far better arrangements, particularly as he planned to have a group of 17 supernumeraries with him. Not only he and David Solander but also Dr James Lind who was to act as naturalist as well as various draughtsmen and even a horn player just to keep them entertained.

We have this period in 1772 from about November through to April 1773 where the Resolution is in Deptford in the dockyard undergoing very large renovations. The plans, which are now in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, show the vessel with these changes. What you see is that the vessel is simply getting taller and taller. The superstructure is being built up higher and higher. Where you might expect initially to have had a quarterdeck, now there is another layer, a roundhouse, which for all that name is actually a square cabin stuck on top of the quarterdeck. What this does is that, from an engineering point of view, it actually raises the centre of balance. So when the vessel was finally ready to go down the Thames to undergo sea trials, it was found to be entirely top heavy. It was ‘crank’, as they say. It wouldn’t sail worth a farthing.

Throughout this process Cook had been very much aware of what was going on. The navy board, which was in charge of these changes, had kept up a dialogue with the Admiralty saying these are dangerous things to be doing to this vessel. But it wasn’t until the proof was in the pudding when the vessel tried to sail down the Thames and down to the Downs that the vessel was shown to be so top heavy that it was totally dangerous. It was not going to be able to go anywhere very far and certainly not down into the Southern Ocean.

In May things came to a head. The vessel at that stage was back in harbour and an ultimatum was put. Cook said, ‘This vessel is unseaworthy.’ Banks said, ‘Well, this is the way I want it.’ And at that time both the Admiralty and the navy board supported Cook. Banks pulls out and says, ‘Well, if it’s not going to be that way, I’m simply not going on this expedition.’ At that point there was an opportunity for Johann Reinhold Forster and his son to enter the fray.

Descended from a Yorkshireman who had immigrated to Danzig in the middle of the seventeenth century, Johann Reinhold Forster was born just outside that city in 1729. He showed an early gift for languages which he studied formally, along with classical and biblical studies at school in Berlin, before he attended the Fredrichs University of Halle where he enrolled in theological studies but showed a greater interest in natural history. In 1753 he was ordained and sent to the parish of Nassenhuben where he remained as pastor and developed scholarly interests in geography and ancient civilisations over the following 12 years. He married in 1754 and his son Georg, the first of eight children, was born later the same year.

Forster corresponded widely and his skill for languages brought him to the attention of influential people at the court of Catherine the Great in 1765. In that year he travelled with Georg to St Petersburg where he received a commission to investigate and report on the fledging settlements of German immigrants that Catherine was attempting to establish along the Volga. The commission went badly. Forster was thorough in his work and instead of producing a report which would encourage more Germans to migrate, as expected by the Russian authorities, his report was a startlingly honest appraisal which alienated his Russian employer. When his demands for payment were refused, he and his son left for England where they arrived in October 1766 with little money but great resolve to succeed in a nation which had been ruled by Hanoverian monarchs since 1714.

In London, Johann Reinhold drew on German connections in an attempt to gain a scholarly appointment and became a regular attendant at the Society of Antiquaries, where he was made an elected fellow in early 1767. Shortly after he was appointed tutor of modern languages and natural history at Warrington Academy where, despite the rigorous demands of his teaching duties, he found time to further develop his interest in natural history. Forster remained at Warrington for three years but became increasingly involved in translating European scientific writers, stimulating the use of his linguistic skills which brought him growing prominence in intellectual circles.

In 1770 he moved to London and over the next two years a number of his translations, including Bougainville’s Voyage Around the World appeared in print. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in early 1772. Thus, Johann Reinhold Forster’s erudite interests and reputation as a naturalist were prominent just when, with Banks and Solander no longer prepared to sail on the Resolution, the Admiralty required a suitable replacement. Forster’s name was put forward, and Sandwich accepted. Johann Reinhold Forster accompanied by his 18-year-old son Georg were to join Cook’s second voyage.

The chart which was produced after the second voyage makes a lot more sense when you look at charts that existed before that time where people postulated the existence of a great south land, the terra australis incognita. With this chart you can see that great speculative continent in the south has disappeared. What we see is the true shape of southern Australia, southern America and South Africa. In joining the voyage, Reinhold Forster was given 4,000 pounds to act as naturalist. This money had been earmarked for James Lind, the naturalist, and had been voted by parliament. It was quite a large amount of money and was to create some jealousies amongst other people such as William Wales who was the astronomer on board the vessel.

The voyage was a voyage in difficult conditions. One of the great things that Georg Forster did afterwards was to produce an essay which he called ‘Cook the discoverer’. This is an excerpt from that essay where he gives you some idea of the conditions. This is all proving that he was a person who did have the qualifications. Not only had he sailed with Cook but he had observed Cook in these very difficult conditions and he was a good writer. This is Forster writing about the icebergs:

Often a storm would rage even during dark fogs. Often we did not see the sun for a fortnight or three weeks. Encircled by vast masses of ice which emerged from the sea like floating islands and were even more dangerous because their positions could change, we often sighted them when it was almost too late to steer the ships past. How many times may we have, without even knowing it, barely escaped destruction in the dark. How often did we hear with terror the waves breaking over the ice, without being able to lay our eyes on the object of our fear. We spent summer in this icy part of the world, but it was a summer when it was unusual to record the thermometer registering one degree above freezing.

So I think that in the case of the Forsters they had proven, through going on this voyage and observing Cook, that they were very capable of writing with authority about Cook. The opportunity for Forster to write a commemorative piece came in 1786 when there was the opportunity to translate the official English account of Cook’s third voyage into German. Forster by this stage had come back from the Resolution voyage to a very unhappy welcome. Whereas John Hawkesworth had made a great deal of money out of editing and publishing the first voyage account, when the Resolution and the Adventure came back in 1775, the understanding as far as Johann Reinhold Forster was concerned was that he would be given the same privilege and that it would be his job to produce the voyage account.

Well, things had changed in the interim. Cook had got his eyes on the Hawkesworth account for the first time at the Cape of Good Hope, and he was horrified quite frankly by what he read. Hawkesworth had attributed many things to Cook which Cook didn’t agree with. We get the feeling that, as the second voyage had progressed, Cook had begun to think more about how he wanted to be perceived: did he really want his words to be put out by somebody else or did he want to have a much greater say in it? So when the vessels came back, we find there is a bit of tension occurring and Cook basically wants to have a much greater say in that second voyage account.

Initially, Reinhold Forster is happy to go along with this, but gradually things start falling apart. It gets to a point by 1776 when Lord Sandwich calls the parties together. He brings them to an official meeting where he tries to iron out the problems. At that meeting there is a signed legal agreement made whereby it is agreed that Cook will create a journal which looks at the voyage account and some of the ethnographic issues of the voyage. Reinhold Forster will produce a quite separate account which will look at the scientific observations of the account. There seems to be a line in the sand. Everybody understands where they stand at this point. The only problem occurs when Reinhold Forster submits his first draft to Sandwich to read. Sandwich throws it back at him and says, ‘Well, you’ve written an enormous amount about Madeira here. This is something that everybody else and his dog has written about. This is simply not good enough. We’re going to put this to an editor.’ And Reinhold Forster, a person of huge intellectual ability in his own right, took great affront at this and refused. So we have this falling apart.

It gets worse. The following year, in an attempt to recover something from this, Reinhold Forster has signed a legal agreement that he can’t create a voyage account but there is nothing to say that Georg Forster can’t. So Georg Forster spends nine months writing what ultimately becomes A Voyage Round the World in His Britannic Majesty’s vessel Resolution in the years 1770, 1771, 1772, 1773, 1774 and 1775, an account which draws heavily on Reinhold Forster’s own journal. The idea is that this will be produced and come on to the market before Cook’s own account so that the Forsters will be able to recover some of their finances and their part in all of this wonderful voyage will be fully acknowledged. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way.

When Reinhold Forster’s account comes out it has only two engravings in it, whereas Cook’s account when it comes out six weeks later has 46 engravings. The Admiralty makes sure that they price the Cook account so that it can compete absolutely, and it does. Both accounts come out at two guineas, and the Cook account is a best seller. It sells out in a very short time to the point where the book seller who is marketing this writes that it is a great pity that it wasn’t sold for its proper price, because of course he would have made a great deal of money out of it.

There is a great deal of acrimony which follows this, and Georg Forster ultimately gets into a battle with William Wales. William Wales accuses his father of being the real voice behind the voyage, which I think to some extent is true, and accuses Forster of intellectual piracy and all sorts of things. There are various public debates and public printed papers that go back to William Wales’ remarks on Forster’s account. Then we have a reply to William Wales’ remarks by Forster. Finally, we have an open letter where Georg Forster writes to Lord Sandwich openly, pointing out all of the ways in which he and his father’s work has been undermined by the way this second voyage account has been produced.

So you can see there is a fair bit of ammunition here why Forster should not particularly like Sandwich, why he might have a grudge against Douglas, who ultimately became the editor of Cook’s second voyage account, and why he certainly had a problem with Sandwich. In 1776, Forster has the opportunity to translate the third voyage account into German. He takes that opportunity in his introduction to try to right some of these wrongs. That is when he writes that he found John Douglas’s introduction ‘intolerable’.

Some of the things he found intolerable in that account were that John Douglas draws very heavily on people like William Wales. There are great slabs of Wales’ comments reproduced, whereas there is only one reference in a footnote to the work of the Forsters. Douglas in his account is careful to provide a proper tenor, so he talks about the various voyages that had preceded Cook’s - the voyages by Byron, Wallis and Carteret - and also talks about the great stimulation of George III to all of these voyages of discovery. It is a very corporate view, if you like, which comes out in this introduction. Although Cook is held up as being a person who removed any speculation about what continents might exist in the Southern Ocean, it is a fairly ordinary commemorative piece to Cook.

Georg Forster in his introduction goes about it in a very different way. Forster is trying to create a commemorative piece for Captain Cook that has very little to do with George III. We have this wonderful essay ‘Cook, der Entdecker’. One of the wonderful things about the ‘Cook, der Entdecker’ piece is that the official biography of Cook came out in 1788 and this essay on Cook precedes it by 12 months. The official account produced by Andrew Kippis was again a very corporate affair. It draws on huge slabs from other sources including large pieces of Hawkesworth and large pieces of the second voyage account, and ultimately is a very unsatisfying affair. But it ultimately became the stereotype that existed right through until JC Beaglehole’s The Life of Captain James Cook appeared in the 1970s. Unfortunately, for many years ‘Cook, der Entdecker’ has remained in German. Michael Hoare wrote an essay on it in 1969. One of the projects that I’ve been involved in recently with Hordern House is to do a translation of this essay. [This was published as the sixth in the Australian Maritime Series entitled George Forster’s Cook, the Discoverer in 2006.]

What gives Forster’s image of Cook great validity is his lyrical writing that shows an off-duty Cook, a Cook with some of the warts. Here is an example of some of this writing:

The anchor was cast at the predetermined spot, the sails were furled and the boats once again manned to try and find out what the land would yield. The first object of enquiry from the natives was a convenient spot where the empty water casks could be filled with fresh drinking water. A pantomime was necessary at such times until one had learnt the most important words of the vernacular.

On the beach itself, where the natives would gather in great numbers, one was often occupied for days learning the language, observing people who are so different from ourselves, and with bartering for their clothing, weapons, ornaments and other artefacts. We studied their way of life by repeated visits to their huts. And with gifts and small signs of affection we gradually gained the rights of friendship to an ever greater degree, and could study the interior of the houses, their implements and their food and its preparation. Sometimes we learned very little, but every day we learned something new. We began to observe how work was assigned, clothes were made, fields were tilled, and huts or canoes built. At other moments we had the opportunity to witness some remarkable custom or interesting custom. At other times one unexpectedly found a fellow who was able to talk about the genesis of his gods and about creation. In each country minerals had to be collected, and the native birds, insects and reptiles had to be patiently stalked. The flowers of trees and plants would not keep, and so the botanist was forced to hurry back on board to complete their descriptions and illustrations before returning ashore for a fresh harvest.

In terms of the collection we have out on display today, what Georg Forster and ‘Cook to Entdecker’ adds to that are these wonderful cameo images of what was going on at the time these artefacts are being collected. In terms of the total image that we have of Cook, I think that JC Beaglehole did as much as he could, but of course Beaglehole always rued the fact that one of the great sources who would have had information, Elizabeth Cook, who outlived Captain Cook by 57 years, in the later years of her life very carefully destroyed any of the personal papers, the letters which had gone between her husband and herself. While Beaglehole did all the leg work and created huge documentary inventories of where the material was, we are left still to some extent with a two-dimensional Cook. However, I think Georg Forster’s account helps us to soften that a little.

I will just show you these images to end off. This is one from the second voyage, Possession Bay down in South Georgia. The wonderful image of Cook by Hodges, and of course Hodges was one who had sailed with Cook on that second voyage again. I think that personal knowledge of Cook really comes out in that image. We have had a need to remember Cook ever after, and this is a typical mid-nineteenth century Staffordshire figure of Cook frozen in time. We also have this continuing image of Cook going to live with the gods, something that the people felt comfortable with rather than the reality of his real death in Hawaii. And of course in Hawaii they take a far and more liberal view of Cook these days. Thank you.

Date published: 2 September 2008