A fish from New Zealand

Georg Forstercirca 1777

Te Papa

Te Papa

The Resolution reached Dusky Sound on 26 March 1773 following three gruelling months in the Southern Ocean. One objective of Captain James Cook’s second voyage was to confirm the existence or otherwise of the great southern continent. For Cook the relief upon reaching a safe harbour was palpable: ‘[T]here is no Port in New Zealand I have been in that affords the necessary refreshments in such plenty as Dusky Bay’.(1)

The seven weeks in Dusky Sound included an encounter with a party of Ngäti Mämoe, which was immortalised in paintings by William Hodges, the voyage’s official artist. For the naturalists on board, Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg, it was an opportunity to gather specimens and make observations. In his journal for 3 May 1773, Johann recorded the catching of ‘a new kind of Blenny about 5½ inch long, with small tentacula over the Eyes & before the nostrils: all the fins were opaque & greenishbrown as the fish, & had transparent spots on the opaque parts, so as the fenestræ of some of the Insects: the lateral line crooked.’(2)

Johann Reinhold Forster had joined the voyage at the last moment following the withdrawal of Joseph Banks, and insisted that his precociously talented son Georg should be brought on as natural history draughtsman. This copy of Georg’s drawing of Notoclinus fenestratus, the hetarua or New Zealand topknot, is from a set of thirty-two works commissioned by the Forsters for presentation to George III. An acrimonious dispute with the Admiralty meant that the Forsters’ images never reached their intended audience.

Johann had assumed that the role of writing the history of the voyage would fall to him. Highly lucrative, such narratives were as important to the success of a voyage as any actual sailing. The Admiralty had different ideas and backed Cook as the author of the official account. Georg, a minor at the time of the voyage and so not bound by contract, published A voyage around the world in 1777, and it appeared six weeks prior to Cook’s. Johann Reinhold Forster did eventually publish his work in 1778, not as a narrative but in the form of a wideranging philosophical account, Observations made during a voyage round the world.

William McAloon

This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Cited in JC Beaglehole (ed.), The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery, vol. II: The voyage of the Resolution and Adventure, 1772–1775, Hakluyt Society, London, 1961, p. 131.

2. Cited in Michael E Hoare (ed.), The Resolution journal of Johann Reinhold Forster, 1772–1775, vol. II, Hakluyt Society, London, 1982, p. 269.

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  • Title: A fish from New Zealand
  • Date Created: circa 1777
  • Physical Dimensions: w312 x h268 mm
  • Type: watercolours
  • Rights: Purchased 2003
  • External Link: Te Papa
  • Medium: gouache on vellum
  • artist: Georg Forster
  • Subjects: Fish; Discovery & exploration
  • Object classification: watercolours
  • Material terms: gouache; vellum