Proto-internet trolls’: Johann Friedrich Struensee and freedom of expression in 18th century Denmark


Ever-present in the cultural imagination of Danish history, the story of Johann Friedrich Struensee — beyond the soap-opera of his rise to power — was a turning point in the history of publishing. The legacy of this Danish episode has been invigorated by the likes of Per Olov Enquist, in his 1999 novel Livläkarens Besök (The Visit of the Royal Physician), and Mads Mikkelsen, who portrayed the once de facto ruler in Nikolaj Arcel’s 2012 film En kongelig affære (A Royal Affair).

Engraving - before and in jailEngravings showing Struensee in charge and then in prison, from a collection of broadsides on Struensee and his downfall. (1881.b.46)

Struensee had accompanied King Christian VII as royal physician on a foreign tour in 1768 and had gained the trust of a regent prone to serious psychiatric episodes. Soon, not only had the doctor risen to become the King’s most trusted advisor in the Danish court, he had also become Queen Caroline Matilda’s lover – which fast became common knowledge. With the ear of the King, Struensee first appointed himself to the Privy Council before dismantling it in favour of a Cabinet in his control, supported by his ally Enevold Brandt. The increasing incapacity of the King gave Struensee the authority to pursue an Enlightenment agenda, which he did by issuing nearly 2000 decrees in his 16 months in power. This ground-breaking transformation in politics ruptured the link between King and people, and in its place offered the liberalizing but authoritarian rule of a non-Danish-speaking upstart. No matter how forward-thinking the legislation, Struensee would always be a German usurper, who had corrupted the royal court.

The very first of Struensee’s reforms was to declare the freedom of the press on 14 September 1770. Immediately, this freedom led to the creation of many new periodicals and newspapers, while also encouraging provincial printing beyond Copenhagen. 1771 saw pamphlets shift ‘in character from a debate on socio-political issues to direct criticism of those in power’ and often ‘the criticisms took the form of lampoons on the themes of sex and power’ (Horstbøll). Struensee took the brunt and so his introduction of the freedom of the press resulted in the use of the press against him.

Struensee's grave

A defaced memorial for Struensee but a memorial all the same, which might go some way to depicting his divided legacy.

As Jesper Mølby puts it in Robert Ferguson’s Scandinavians:

In some ways the most depressing part of it all is that Struensee gave people freedom of expression, and for the most part all anyone did with it was compose endless vulgar and offensive verses directed at Struensee himself and his affair with Caroline. In his bright and visionary Denmark people had been set free to express exactly what they felt and thought, to educate one another, criticize one another constructively, to fearlessly challenge the high and mighty. What he got instead was a society of proto-internet trolls. Shit. Piss. Fart. Willy. The king’s a nutcase. (Ferguson, pp. 153-154)

On 17 January 1772, Struensee and Brandt were arrested for usurping royal authority – the birth of Struensee’s and Caroline Matilda’s daughter, Louise Augusta, couldn’t have helped his case. In the three months during his imprisonment, illustrated broadsheets quickly distributed the popular criticism and hatred of the Counts Struensee and Brandt. The British Library has a collection of these broadsides, along with some leaflets and smaller single-sheet engravings.

Struensee's power grabThe Almighty steps in to reclaim Denmark from the power-grabbing Struensee and Brandt.

Eventually charged and sentenced to execution on 28 April 1772, Struensee and Brandt had their right hands cut off, then their heads and even genitals, before being drawn and quartered, each body part displayed for the audience, as is shown in the broadsheet below. Horstbøll confirms that the ‘theatrical execution of the count and the exhibition of his corpse’ was ‘the greatest sales success of all’ for its printer, Johan Rudolph Thiele, whose woodblocks were copied by many others.

Struensee's execution‘An accurate view of the execution of the Counts Struensee and Brandt’. The fourth quarter of Struensee’s body is being carried up to its display wheel.

Many of Struensee’s decrees were reversed following his execution and post-publication censorship returned on 20 October 1773. However, the floods of empowered publishers and voices could not be held back. A new publishing energy had been unleashed and the landscape was unalterably changed. As Henrik Horstbøll writes, ‘The period of the unlimited freedom of the press broke the bonds linking printed media to the institutions of the state and a new print culture arose in relation to the traditional literary market, which could not be reversed once freedom of the press became limited again.’

Struensee’s legacy remains therefore divided, as Michael Brengsbo suggests, between those who view him as ‘a cynic usurper, seducer, and fortune hunter’ those who remember ‘a tragic hero who really tried to enlighten the people and improve their lot […]’.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

Per Olov Enquist, Livläkarens besök  (Stockholm, 1999) YA.2001.a.7907 (English translation by Tiina Nunally, The Visit of the Royal Physician (London, 2002) Nov.2002/1089)

Michael Brengsbo, ‘Struensee and the Political Culture of Absolutism’ and Henrik Horstbøll, ‘The Politics of Publishing: Freedom of the Press in Denmark, 1770-1773, in Scandinavia in the Age of Revolution: Nordic Political Cultures, 1740-1820 (Farnham; Burlington, 2011) YC.2011.a.12626

Robert Ferguson, Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (London, 2016) YC.2017.a.13228


Page 2

When the naturalist Joseph Banks withdrew at short notice from James Cook’s second expedition to the South Seas in 1772 on HMS Resolution, the expedition’s sponsors needed to find a replacement quickly. The post was offered to the linguist, scientist and philosopher Johann Reinhold Forster, who accepted on condition that he could take his 17-year-old son Georg with him as an assistant.

Forsters portrait Allgemeine geographische Ephemeriden
Double portrait of Johann Reinhold and Georg Forster, from Allgemeine geographische Ephemeriden Bd. 12 (Weimar, 1803) PP.3950.

Despite his comparative youth, Georg Forster was already an experienced traveller. Born into a German-speaking family in what is now Poland, he had first accompanied his father on an expedition at the age of ten when Johann Reinhold accepted an invitation from the Russian government to visit and report on new settlements in the Volga region. The trip did not have its desired effect of boosting the Forster family’s fortunes – instead, in a pattern to be repeated, Johann Reinhold fell out with his sponsors – but it did teach Georg how to conduct scientific research and left him fluent enough in Russian to publish a translation of Mikhail Lomonosov’s history of Russia in 1767 when he was just 13.

More impressive still, the translation was not into the boy’s native German but into English. By this time the family was living in England, Forster senior having taken a teaching post at the Dissenting Academy in Warrington. When, once again, his short temper led to his dismissal he moved to London where he and Georg made a living teaching and translating until offered their place on the Resolution. Georg’s primary role on the expedition was as an artist, and the British Libray’s current exhibition, James Cook: The Voyages, displays four of his pictures: one (on loan from the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales) shows the phenomenon of the ‘ice blink’, and the others (on loan from the British Museum) are of seabirds.

Forster Ice Blink
Forster’s painting of the ‘ice blink’ effect (Image © Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

As well as making drawings, Georg soon began to assist with his father’s scientific studies, and to study in his own right the cultures, arts and languages of the peoples they encountered. His observations show a nuanced understanding for a man of his times of cultural differences and similarities, and he would later argue against the philosopher Kant that ‘race’ could not be defined merely by skin colour but had to take into account linguistic and cultural aspects of different peoples.

Forster Plants IOL.1947.c.103
One of Georg Forster’s botanical drawings, from Characteres generum plantarum, quas in itinere ad insulas maris Australis, collegerunt, descripserunt, delinearunt … Joannes Reinoldus Forster ... et Georgius Forster (London, 1776) IOL.1947.c.103

When the Resolution return to London, the plan for Johann Reinhold (who had, inevitably, fallen out with Cook) to publish the official account of the voyage became mired in argument when he refused to have his text edited, and in the end it was Cook’s own account that was published. However, Georg felt unobliged by any formal agreements made between his father and the Admiralty, and published his own description of the voyage, based on the journals kept by both Forsters.

Forster artefacts 981.e.1-2.
Māori artefacts from Georg Forster, Dr. Johann Reinhold Forster’s und seines Sohnes Georg Forster’s Reise um die Welt ... während den Jahren 1772 bis 1775. in dem vom Capitain J. Cook commandirten Schiffe the Resolution ausgeführt. (Berlin, 1778) 981.e.1-2.

Georg’s work was a success, especially in Germany where it made his name in both popular and academic circles. He went on to hold teaching posts in Kassel and Vilnius, was made a member of several prestigious Academies, corresponded with the major intellectuals of the time, and continued to publish on exploration, including an account of Cook’s last voyage (on which, after his difficulties with Banks and the Forsters, Cook had refused to take a scientist).

In 1785 Georg married Therese Heyne, later one of Germany’s first professional female writers. The marriage was not a success and two years later, unhappy with both domestic and academic life in Vilnius, Georg agreed to join a planned Russian expedition to the Pacific. When the expediton was abandoned he accepted the position of Librarian at the University of Mainz. Therese joined him there, and began an affair with Ludwig Ferdinand Huber, a mutual friend of the couple whom she would marry after Georg’s death. Georg seems to have accepted this relationship and continued his friendship with Huber.

Forster portrait 10705.c.12.
Portrait of Georg Forster from Jacob Moleschott, Georg Forster der Naturforscher des Volks (Frankfurt a. M., 1854) 10705.c.12.

A journey through parts of Germany, the Low Countries, England and France gave rise to Georg’s most famous book after the account of Cook’s voyage. Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich... describes the culture and history and policitcal and socuial conditions of the countries and regions in question. In the aftermath of the Storming of the Bastille, these were matters of great concern.

Forster Ansichten
Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich, im April, Mai und Junius 1790 (Berlin, 1791) 1049.e.9.

Like many German intellectuals, Georg welcomed the French Revolution. When French troops occupied Mainz in 1792 he joined the newly-founded Jacobin Club along with Huber, and was among the founders of the short-lived Mainz Republic and an editor of the revolutionary newspaper Die neue Mainzer Zeitung.


Forster Neue Mainzer Zeitung
First issue of Die neue Mainzer Zeitung, 1 January 1793. (Facsimile edition; Nendeln, 1976) P.901/1551

By the time the Mainz Republic fell in July 1793, Forster was in Paris where he witnessed the early months of the Terror but, unlike many early supporters of the Revolution, refused to denounce the violent turn that it had taken. He remained in Paris until his death in January 1794, a victim not of the Terror but of a sudden illness.

Forster’s unwavering support for the Revolution affected his posthumous reputation. Later commentators tended to be more interested in his political views – whether to praise or condemn them – than his scientific work. Nonetheless, his account of Cook’s voyage remained popular, and today he is recognised for the whole spectrum of his scientific, literary and political activities as a significant figure in late 18th-century scholarship.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

On Monday 2 July author and biographer A. N. Wilson will be discussing his 2016 novel Resolution, based on Forster’s life and his travels with Cook, at an event in the British Library Knowledge Centre. For further information and how to book, see https://www.bl.uk/events/a-n-wilson-resolution