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The Roots of Disorder

Botany became an unlikely battlefield in the Age of Revolutions.

Johann and Georg Forster in Tahiti (detail), by John Francis Rigaud, c.1780 © akg-images.

The Resolution first caught sight of the Pacific island of Tahiti on the evening of 15 August 1773. Among those onboard were the German naturalists Johann Reinhold Forster and his 19-year-old son, Georg, whose main task was to produce illustrations of the plants and animals they encountered and deemed to be new to European natural history. Nearly two decades later, in 1790, Georg Forster, accompanied by the young naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, travelled across Europe to London, where he visited a range of natural history collections. One of these was held at 32 Soho Square, the home of the botanist and president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, who had previously travelled on James Cook’s first voyage of discovery between 1768 and 1771. Forster was disappointed: ‘Everything is in bad shape except for botany’, he said, adding that there was ‘absolutely no understanding’ of natural history on display. Banks’ and Forster’s divergent views on natural history, as well as politics, came to the fore in the production and distribution of a single publication – Icones Plantarum (c.1800) – a book compiled from 129 botanical illustrations Forster had produced in the Pacific. Banks had purchased these images in 1776 and his ownership of them led to repeated conflicts with Forster, which grew in intensity as their political views diverged with the onset of the French Revolution in 1789. 

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