Georg Forster, Captain James Cook’s Third Voyage of Discovery

Published by Haude and Spener, Berlin 1787

Commander James Cook: A prodigy as an explorer, a flop as a writer: There is not much to be found of South Seas romanticism in his reports.

On July 13, 1772, Commander James Cook sailed on behalf of the British government to circumnavigate the earth along a southern route. On this voyage, Cook received support from Germany. Since his own travelogues were so dry that nobody wanted to read them, he was joined by the German scientist Reinhold Forster, who was to write a comprehensive report for the Geographic Society.

They were particularly interested in the South Seas. Especially in polite society, the South Seas were en vogue. Only one year earlier, the French globetrotter Louis Antoine de Bougainville had published his own travelogue in Paris. In this report, he recognized the “Noble Savage” in the (of course strongly idealized) South Seas inhabitant, as described in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novels. To this day, the concept is familiar to us thanks to Hollywood: The outsider, unspoilt by the temptations of civilization, demonstrates his moral superiority over a corrupt Western society. Whether Tarzan, Winnetou or Crocodile-Dundee –the content is simply too good to not produce exciting stories!

Not to mention, of course, that the people of the 18th century also dreamed of this adventure. Especially the weary rich, who had too much money and no meaningful tasks, while at the same time had a tight set of rules that restricted their everyday lives, would dream of a return to nature, to a simple, self-determined life in the South Seas…

When Georg Forster published his travel description of James Cook’s second voyage, which was intended for the general public, in London in 1777, it struck like lightning. It was immediately translated into German and published in Berlin in 1778/80. This one piece of work made the young man, who was a mere 23 years old when the English edition appeared, famous!

The cover page of the first volume of the four-volume travelogue of Cook’s third journey, from which he would not return.

The book at hand was published some time later, in 1887/8. South Sea romanticism was an excellent business. Hence, the Berlin publishing house Haude & Spener decided to start a series with the title “Geschichte der See-Reisen und Entdeckungen im Süd-Meer” (“History of Sea Voyages and Discoveries in the South Sea”). Volumes 6 and 7 of this series – our example – became the translation of a London-published compilation of Cook’s incomprehensible travelogues. To make them more reader-friendly, they were shortened, supplemented, annotated and provided with a comprehensive introduction by the best-selling author Georg Forster, whose name appeared as prominent and large on the title page as Cook’s name.

This book certainly describes anything but South Sea romanticism. However, even back then the readers mostly preferred to look at the images. The book contained plenty of images of good-looking, exotic people. They all bore those strange marks that would become known under the name “tattoo”. What had previously been part of the infamous world of sailors and criminals was suddenly associated with the “Noble Savage”. One of them, the Polynesian O’Mai, visited London in 1773. He enchanted the polite society, and even received an audience with the king. O’Mai became a media event, and so did his tattoos.

And so the process of tattooing became associated with freedom from social norms and restrictions. When the noble ladies and gentlemen were getting tattooed, they wanted to claim this great freedom at least on a small part of their bodies. The archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was murdered near Sarajevo, was just as tattooed as Crown Prince Rudolph, whose autopsy after his suicide revealed that the bullet had penetrated the head of a tattooed snake. Almost all of the male members of the English royal family, Prince Henry of Prussia, the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and, last but not least, the scandalous Habsburg woman “Sisi”, wore their tattoos as a secret protest against the court’s rigid rules of conduct.

However, this longing was fuelled by texts and illustrations such as those published in Georg Forster’s book on James Cook’s third journey to the South Seas.

You can browse through all four volumes of this book in the digital library of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

In 1806, most of the items acquired by Cook during his voyages around the world were auctioned in London, so that they were scattered across ethnological collections around the world. Here you can see two examples from the World Museum Vienna.

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