George Forster Travels Overland From Bengal To England

Little is known of the early life of British explorer George Forster.  His travel memoirs, published in 1808 after his death, were edited by persons who apparently never considered that such information would be of interest to readers.  We can thus only rely on what we find in scattered letters and journals.  He was probably born around 1750 and at some point joined the East India Company as a young man; he would eventually be posted to Madras to work as a writer.  Around 1782 he was granted leave to return to England; and for some reason–perhaps it was just a taste for adventure–he decided to make the return trip by land through Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Russia.

We know that at some point he acquired a knowledge of the Persian language and Islamic customs.  He probably also had a functional command of Hindostani and Arabic.  Then, as now, Persian could be used as something of a lingua franca in Afghanistan and some parts of central Asia.  Forster set out on his journey from Calcutta on May 23, 1782.  By the end of June he was on a boat in the Ganges, headed towards Rajmahal.  From there he proceeded to Monghee and Patna, which he reached by July 5.  By the end of July he was in Benares.  Here Forster lingered for a time, and absorbed himself in the study of Hindu antiquities, which in that region were very plentiful.  Satisfied with his inquiries, he set out for Allahabad in early December.  By this time he had adopted the dress of a native Georgian; like most European travelers in these regions, he knew it was ill-advised to appear too distantly foreign.  At Rampoor he was able to see the Himalayan Mountains near the Tibetan border in their full glory.

At Najebabad he joined a caravan (kafilah) that left that city on February 14, 1783; and as an additional precaution he hired a Kashmiri servant who knew the region and its people.  A moment of panic occurred as the caravan was passing through mountainous country near Lolldong; he sat down under a tree to smoke a pipe, drifted into sleep, and awoke to find that the caravan had left without him.  After several hours of panic, he found some villagers who were able to help him rejoin his companions.  He reached the frontiers of the Punjab (a city named Bellaspoor) in March; moving through the region, he was nearly killed during a chance encounter with a body of Sikh cavalrymen.  He reached Jummoo in April, and replenished his funds at a bank with a letter of credit he had with him.  Setting out again into the mountains with his Kashmiri servant, his shoes were soon reduced to tatters by the sharp rocks he was forced to scale; soon he could do little more than wrap his feet and shins with bindings soaked in oil.  But arriving in Kashmir in May was worth the suffering, for in the spring and summer months it is said to be a place of great beauty.

While he was in Kashmir he was nearly exposed by a prying Georgian he encountered.  This man, closely observing the mannerisms and personal habits of Forster, pronounced him a Christian, and not a professer of Islam.  Forster, realizing the danger that this knowledge would put him in, cornered the man and told him that should he reveal to anyone what he knew, he (Forster) would see to it that his family’s estate in Benares was confiscated by the British government (the Georgian lived in Benares).  Forster knew he could not enforce this threat, but the bluff worked, and the Georgian held his tongue thereafter.  He left Kashmir in early June accompanied by a Persian youth he had hired as an assistant.  He crossed the Indus on July 10, and then made for Peshawar.  For additional security he agreed to travel with a local man who had some knowledge of Pashtun dialects and ways.  Security in many of the areas he traversed was so bad that it was more advisable to travel by night than by day.  On August 2nd his party reached Kabul.

Until this point in his travels, Forster had avoided any encounter with sickness or bodily injury.  Yet like many travelers in forbidding regions we have previously discussed, he now found himself plunged into the miseries of affliction.  In Kabul he was seized with a fever, and trembled with nausea for several days; his body was covered with red sores, and he had difficulty holding down food.  Whatever the disease was (perhaps cholera or the plague), it seemed to dissipate after about several weeks.  This misfortune was followed soon after by another one equally dangerous, but in this case one of his own making:  he foolishly revealed himself to be a Christian, and so had to endure the mockery and scorn of nearly everyone who crossed his path.  In October he finally arrived in Kandahar, which at that time was a populous and thriving city.  By the end of January 1784, his caravan had nearly reached the shores of the Caspian Sea, having traveled through Khorasan.

At Baku he boarded a Russian frigate bound for Astrakhan, and arrived at that city at the end of April.  From there he traveled to Moscow, then St. Petersburg, and then finally England.  He reached his homeland at the end of July 1784, after an epic journey that had taken over two years.  After arriving in London he proceeded to collect his notes and observations on Hindu antiquities, and published them in 1786 under the title Sketches on the Mythology and Manners of the Hindoos.  His precise activities between 1786 and 1790 are difficult to trace; whatever record he may have left has either been destroyed or is not yet discovered.  We do know the was back in Calcutta in 1790, preparing for publication the first volume of his Journey from Bengal to England.  Tragedy then intervened.  His superiors sent him to the city of Nagpoor in Gundwarra, where he died in February 1791.  It is not clear what the exact circumstances of his death were.  His memoirs would eventually be published six years later by his literary executors in the form of travel letters, but they were either unwilling or unable to include any specific details on how the author met his end.

The merit of the work is beyond doubt; Forster’s feat was an incredible one, hardly duplicated in the annals of travel and exploration.  His observations are clear-headed, free of hearsay and nonsense, and sympathetic.  Little was known in the West of Hindu customs and religious practices before Forster published his first-hand observations after returning from his travels.  What is even more remarkable is the fact that he undertook his journey without any official sponsorship; he simply planned them and carried them out, using his own ingenuity, linguistic ability, and resources.  We will close our account of George Forster and his travels using the unique and poignant valediction with which he ends his Journey from Bengal to England:

Having now brought you to the close of a long journey, the performance of which was chiefly derived from a vigorous health, and a certain portion of perseverance, I bid you an affectionate farewell; and I trust, that you will never have cause to impute to any of the various facts which have been brought forward in the body of the letters, the colour of passion, or the views of interest.  Amicus Plato, &c.  The opinions deduced from them, given by a man slenderly conversant in the higher classes of science, and who has yet much to seek in the abstruser page of human life, I freely commit to your censure, as also the manner of writing, which, I fear, will be judged offensive to the chasteness distinguishing the language of the present day.

 

 

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