Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World

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Title page, 1778

Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World is Johann Reinhold Forster's systematic account of the scientific and ethnological results of the second voyage of James Cook, which Forster had accompanied as the naturalist. Originally, it had been planned that Forster's account should appear together with James Cook's "narrative" of the voyage, but after lengthy arguments between Forster and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Forster's son Georg published a narrative instead in 1777, A Voyage Round the World. Observations then appeared in 1778, financed by subscriptions.


Johann Reinhold Forster, engraving

Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg Forster accompanied James Cook as the naturalists on his second voyage, 1772–1775. On this voyage, they circumnavigated the world, crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time in history, and discovered and visited many islands, especially in the South Pacific. The Forsters and their assistant Anders Sparrman collected many species of plants and described and named both plants and animals. [1] Forster also kept an extensive diary. After their return to England, Forster planned to publish his findings, with the first publication the botanical Characteres generum plantarum, which appeared in 1775/76. He also expected, based on pre-voyage promises made by Daines Barrington, to write the official account of the voyage, which was likely to sell well and bring a large financial reward. Cook, on the other hand, wished to produce his own account. [2] [3] Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, brokered a compromise that both sides agreed to in April 1776, according to which Cook would write a first volume containing a narrative of the journey and the nautical observations, while Forster would contribute a second volume on natural history and the ethnology and languages of the peoples encountered. The British Admiralty would pay for engravings that should be distributed between the two books. [4] However, Forster's sample chapters did not satisfy Sandwich, and after further arguments, Cook worked on his own narrative, while Forster's diaries were used by his son Georg to write A Voyage Round the World, which appeared in March 1777, six weeks before Cook's account. [5] [6]


After the efforts to write a narrative had fallen through, Forster started working on Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World, now as a separate publication. He likely worked on it from late 1776 to May 1778. While the book was no longer tied to Cook's narrative, Forster's writing was in line with the previous agreement. [7] Advertisements calling for subscriptions of the book were circulated in February 1778, likely with copies of Georg Forster's Voyage. [8] The subscribers, who were listed in the book, included Joseph Banks, Alexander Dalrymple and Thomas Hornsby. [9] In total, there were about 90 subscribers, with about 30 from the University of Oxford. [10] The preface was completed on 30 May 1778 and the book was printed soon after, with the first copies sent out in July 1778 to recipients including Gustav III, King of Sweden. [10] The printer was G. Robinson. [11]

Forster's son Georg translated the book into German between 1778 and 1782, [12] expanding and revising the content, [13] especially of Chapter V, which was partially based on his own writing. In his letters, he complained about the style of the original. [12] The translation appeared in 1783. [13]


A Comparative Table of the Various Languages in the Isles of the South-Sea

The book starts with a chronological "Journal" collecting the most important days and events in short one-sentence entries. Then a systematic main body follows, organised as follows:

  • Chapter I. Remarks on the Earth and Lands, their Inequalities, Strata, and Constituent Parts.
  • Chapter II. Remarks on Water and the Ocean.
  • Chapter III. Remarks on the Atmosphere and its Changes, Meteors, and Phœnomena.
  • Chapter IV. Remarks on the Changes of the Globe.
  • Chapter V. Remarks on the Organic Bodies
  • Chapter VI. Remarks on the Human Species

The book contains "A Comparative Table of the Various Languages in the Isles of the South-Sea" [14] and a chart of the region, "chiefly collected from the accounts of Tupaya". [15]

Reception and legacy

The German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder was influenced by Forster's anthropology and his approach to the study of the history of man in general. About Forster and his Observations regarding the South Pacific, he wrote in his Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man [ de]: [16]

The Ulysses of these regions, Reinhold Forster, has given us such a learned and intelligent account of the species and varieties of the human race in them, that we cannot but wish we had similar materials for a philosophico-physical geography of other parts of the world, as foundations for a history of man. [17]

The Cook scholar John Beaglehole, who was dismissive of Forster to the point of stating "there is nothing that can make him other than one of the Admiralty's vast mistakes", [18] called the book "solid not only with observations but with the characteristics of its author" [19] and states "it would have been a curious mate for Cook's volumes." [20]

In his review of the 1996 edition, the geographer David Stoddart notes that the book "marked the beginning of modern geography, in that it deployed the comparative sense of firsthand observations across perhaps one-quarter of the earth", distinguishing Forster from his contemporaries who studied geography from home. [21]


  1. ^ Williams 2013, pp. 98–101.
  2. ^ Thomas & Berghof 2000, p. xvi.
  3. ^ Williams 2013, p. 113.
  4. ^ Hoare 1976, p. 159.
  5. ^ Thomas & Berghof 2000, pp. xxvii–xxviii.
  6. ^ Hoare 1976, p. 169.
  7. ^ Thomas 1996, p. xix.
  8. ^ Forster 1996, pp. lxxvii, 409.
  9. ^ Forster 1996, p. 377.
  10. ^ a b Hoare 1976, p. 183.
  11. ^ Forster 1996, p. lxxv.
  12. ^ a b Uhlig 2004, p. 135.
  13. ^ a b Steiner 1977, p. 28.
  14. ^ Forster 1996, p. 188.
  15. ^ Forster 1996, pp. 304–305.
  16. ^ Smith 1985, pp. 86–87.
  17. ^ Herder 1800, p. 153.
  18. ^ Beaglehole 1969, p. xlii.
  19. ^ Beaglehole 1969, p. clii.
  20. ^ Beaglehole 1969, p. cliii.
  21. ^ Stoddart 1996, p. 605.


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