The story takes place on Captain Cook’s second expedition, but is less about travel and exploration and more about the impact such a journey has on the mind of a teenager. George Forster was a historical person and he got to travel to Antarctica, Polynesia and New Zealand – uncharted and unknown parts of the Globe to Europeans. And it determined the course of the rest of his life, for better and for worse.
George Forster’s family is of English descent, but he grows up in Germany with his extremely intellectual father who us a parson and unrecognised scholar and botanist. His father is rather isolated in the country side (apparently farmers are not always super keen to discuss Coptic dialects when the harvest is impending) so from his son is a toddler he trains the child to be his scientific colleague. The boy is not allowed to play with other children, not even his siblings, and must spend all his time with his father. By the time George is a teenager, he speaks several languages fluently, is a gifted artist, scholar, botanist and linguist. It might be a successful parenting method for giving your child an intellectual advantage, but it does give George a very solitary childhood and gives him some serious daddy-issues. By sheer luck the Forsters get a place onboard Captain Cook’s second expedition. George is only seventeen years old when he goes on this trip! What he sees and learns on this journey will make him a member of the Royal Society at the age of 23 and the founder of modern ethnography. He also made some lovely drawings from his journey. Just look at them!:
The book switches between following the Resolution and George as an adult. Later in life, George is a famous author, scholar and family man. He loves his children but his marriage is a massive failure. It crashes and burns quicker than the Hindenburg! From the very beginning he and his wife Therese hate being together. He does not acknowledge her formidable intellect and early on, tries to rape her. She cannot forgive him for not giving her the life of exploration that she really craves and his emotional distance. Wilson seems to think much of George’s failed private life can be traced to his teenage adventures; for months, he never saw a woman and when the crew went a shore, in Tahiti or New Zealand, boy was not allowed, by his father, to have the most basic interaction with the opposite sex. Therese and George are both aware of marrying in order to escape their controlling fathers, but it seems that they bring with them every psychological scar from their childhood into their relationship. They are like a worse version of their parents’ marriages. George does not really encounter what love truly is until towards the end of his life; he was never loved by Therese, never really loved by his father and his relationship to his other father figure, Cook, was rather complicated. There was one person that loved him early on, but George did not see it.
It is a very short book and can be read in only a couple of hours. It is a bit difficult to place genre wise; it is a narrative story with dialogue, but sometimes it sidesteps away from being a novel into a non-fiction biography. It is as if we detach from George, his father and Therese’s view of events and sort float above them to consider their lives from our modern perspective. It is an interesting way to read about a life.
George seems to me the embodiment of the Enlightenment. Science, philosophy and the idealistic politics – he grappled with them all. Not only did he live for science and philosophy, he also corresponded with some of the most important thinkers of his time (Kant, Humboldt, Goethe) and he participated in the French Revolution. What seems to be emphasised about him on the internet, is how he is largely forgotten today. But his life certainly makes for a good read.