Forbes, Henry Ogg

At a Glance:

Explorer, naturalist



Species names: 2

Area of study:

Indonesia, New Guinea, Socotra

Henry Ogg Forbes, date unknown. University of Rostock Socotra archive.

Content Note: This profile contains discussion of grave desecration, trade in human remains, and phrenology and scientific racism.

The Birds:

Forbes’ Mannikin (Lonchura forbesi)

Forbes’ Forest Rail (Rallicula forbesi)

Forbes’s Mannikin, Joseph Smit. [link]
Forbes’s Forest Rail, John Gould. [link]

The Name:

Henry Ogg Forbes (1851 – 1932) was a Scottish-born explorer, who traveled and collected extensively in Indonesia and New Guinea. He started out studying medicine in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, but not long before completing his course of study, he lost the use of an eye in an accident. This led to a career change, since apparently in the 1870s this was considered disqualifying for a doctor, and he switched tracks to zoology, botany, and geology. His first expedition, in 1875, involved studying the biology and geology of Portugal, but he soon was drawn further afield.

In 1878 Forbes ended up in Indonesia, then still under Dutch colonial control. His travels throughout the region involved the sort of wide-ranging inquiries of all topics typical of explorers of his day– including detailed notes on phrenology, the cranial capacity of the human beings whose skulls ended up in his hands, and a Victorian preoccupation with scientifically proving that some people were destined to be ruled over by others.

Forbes’ most well-known work, A Naturalist’s Wanderings in the Eastern Archipelago: A Narrative of Travel and Exploration from 1878 to 1883, sounds like it may, in many passages, be an intriguing account of a biologically rich part of the world, recorded in great detail by a renowned botanist, ornithologist, and herpetologist. But it is so steeped in the brand of colonial scientific racism that it frequently makes for a stomach-churning read. Forbes brought back many human remains, and his book includes guest essays from “experts” in phrenology that describe the measurement of multiple skulls, including children’s skulls. How he acquired all of the skulls is unclear, since he only details a few instances in which he barters for what is clearly the result of someone else’s grave robbing. As he details burial customs and graves in great detail throughout the book, it seems plausible that he did most of the grave robbing himself.

There is less information available about his later travels. Forbes took a temporary job as a government agent in British-occupied New Guinea, where he undertook survey work that was later criticized as inaccurate. As his sub-par work resulted in his not getting paid for it, he ran off to New Zealand, as you do, and worked as curator at the Canterbury Museum for three years. After this stint, he returned to the UK, and worked as a museum administrator for the rest of his career. He undertook smaller expeditions to Peru, where he surveyed guano islands for the Peruvian government, and Socotra. He died in 1932.

J. F. McLaughlin


FORBES, Dr. Henry Ogg. Who’s Who. Vol. 59. 1907. p. 618.

Obituary: Dr. H. O. Forbes. Nature. 131 (3309): 460–461. 1 April 1933.

Forbes, Henry O. (1885). A Naturalist’s Wanderings in the Eastern Archipelago: A Narrative of Travel and Exploration from 1878 to 1883. NY: Harpers & Brothers.

Forbes, Henry O. 1884. On some of the tribes of the island of Timor. The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 13, pp.402-430.